Music 468 Short Essays Essay Sample
Joseph Carl Breil, the composer for 1915 silent film epic The Birth of a Nation, created a landmark film score for the landmark albeit controversial film set in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The film’s poignancy was created in large part by its creative film score, with the music acting as a function of the film’s content, not merely as a background. This lengthy score written for orchestra was comprised of three types of music: adaptations of classical works, new arrangements of melodies that were well-known to audiences at the time, and original music composed for the film. The music tells the story just as clearly as the scenes.
Breil adapted numerous classical works to elicit specific moods in the film’s audience. Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven, the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky and Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner are examples. Much of the classical music is dark and serious or deeply stirring, to accompany tense and violent scenes of the civil war. Breil created new arrangements of melodies such as Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Auld Lang Syne. The popular songs ensured audiences connected to the score (and therefore the film content) and were either uplifted or motivated, depending on the emotion of the piece and the scene. Breil also wrote numerous original pieces, some of which were used to accompany each major character each time they appeared on screen – years ahead of Max Steiner’s similar technique in Gone With the Wind. Breil was also ahead of his time in Hollywood by creating the very first theme song, The Perfect Song, used to celebrate the romance between lead characters Elsie and Ben.
Source music is used very effectively in several instances in the classic film Casablanca. Set in WWII in Casablanca, the film layers a complicated love story between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) over the war-torn European war prior to America’s entry. Source music helps evoke feelings of melancholy and lost love as well as blood-stirring patriotism. The film’s still-famous theme, As Time Goes By, is played by Sam, the piano player in Rick’s Grill, a popular nightclub in Casablanca. As Time Goes By recalls a time when Ilsa and Rick were in love together in Paris just before the German invasion. It evokes place and time with every rendition. Tender, sweet, and hauntingly beautiful it evokes very strong emotions even today. In 1942 when the film was released, the feelings would have resonated much more strongly with the audiences of the day. Not only would they relate well to the concept of lovers separated by war, but also to the concept of sacrifice for the greater good – that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
In another instance, the source music in Casablanca was used to advance the plot. In this case, the Germans broke out into a rousing rendition of Die Wacht Am Rein in patriotic fervor, answered by underground war hero Victor Laszlo leading the nightclub band to an equally stirring rendition of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Die Wacht Am Rein was a traditional German song of war against France and in WWII it had been further elevated to a national anthem. This war of music was won by the French so the Germans realized they could not allow Laszlo to remain in Casablanca and they had already told him he could not leave. Since this means he will be killed, Ilsa was galvanized into action to take the exit papers from Rick by whatever means necessary.
Gone With the Wind, released in 1939, is a perfect example of the classic Hollywood film score, which employed a set of conventions to help tell the story and to connect the audience to that story. Max Steiner used music effectively in a subordinate role and as a backdrop. Use of symphonic music such as the soaring Tara’s Theme evokes both place and time, the heart-wrenching ties to the land, and Scarlett’s raison d’etre, as well as being the film’s leitmotif.
Traditional folk and patriotic music such as Dixie and Marching Through Georgia is also used extensively through the film to establish the time and place of the north-south values clash of the Civil War and in battle scenes where music is used to significantly enhance mood and atmosphere. Music is also used skilfully to evoke emotion in unique love songs for Ashley and Melanie and for Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley. Music is a dominant force in Gone With the Wind where it is used extensively to maintain the narrative unity, especially during transitions between scenes and montages such as the battle montages.
In sharp contrast to the classical use of music in Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and many others from that period, director Orson Welles’ use of music in his masterpiece Citizen Kane just two years later (1941) breaks many of the then-known rules – just as he did for the film overall. Instead of using continuous music throughout the film, Bernard Herrmann utilized his radio background to devise very short musical cues to connect actions or introduce a new emotional response as illustrated in the montage of breakfasts over time in which Kane and his first wife talk across the ever-expanding breakfast table. The score was also employed as one of many sound effects used by Welles. For example, it was used to create the sounds of a clock ticking away the boring life being led by Kane and Susan at Xanadu. Music played a large role in the cringe factor achieved during the scene in which Susan undertakes the operatic solo so very much out of her league. The aria was written specifically to ensure Susan would strain at every note, emphasizing the gap between Kane’s expectations and reality. Primarily avoiding the almost trite leitmotifs of the time, Herrmann did in fact create a dark leitmotif to symbolize the power of Kane and another lighter happier one to symbolize rosebud and the loss of innocence and childhood.