Wagner And Film Music

Wagner And Film Music

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By Matthew Janszen

Music and Drama

Richard Wagner’s musical innovations and aesthetic decisions offered a new approach to opera while heralding the twentieth-century film score.  Wagner was not only a composer, but a dramatist with the goal of combining the arts into one balanced presentation.  He understood the need to connect with the audience on many artistic levels while effectively communicating a visual and aural performance.  He wanted to create a brand of stage realism that allowed the audience to share in his imaginative ideas and experience them as an imitation of real life (Carnegy 37).  Consequently, Wagner theorized and practiced new approaches in operatic form, musical language, and theatrical presentation that formed the fundamentals of music drama and the approach of the future film composer.

Operatic Form

Music was typically the dominant form of expression in opera pre-Wagner.  Wagner’s prose work Opera and Drama, speaks of music’s role in past opera: “The error into which opera as an art form has fallen is that music, the means of expression, has been made the end, while the true end, which is drama, has become the means” (qtd. in Skelton 1).  Before Wagner, operatic form was constructed from pre-existing compositional forms presented in a dramatic medium.  These song forms consisted of the aria, recitative and chorus.  Music played the central role in the aria and chorus sections of an opera, sometimes at the expense of the text.  Recitative was used to essentially move the plot or action of the drama from one aria/chorus to another.  Wagner wanted to discard this previous convention and create a more integrated work of art.    As Wagner states, “This opera form was never, of its very nature, a form embracing the whole drama, but rather an arbitrary conglomerate of separate smaller forms of song, whose fortuitous concatenation of arias, duos, trios and so on, with choruses and so-called ensemble pieces, made out of the actual edifice of opera” (67).

Wagner studied the approach of his predecessors including Gluck, Mozart, and Rossini and settled upon conclusions that would be the basis for his change in operatic form.  Particularly with Gluck, he mentions that the music was written with the need to display the virtuosity of the principal singers at the expense of the drama (Wagner 95).  Wagner had much respect for Mozart and believed he could have changed the form of opera for the better; however, Mozart was not sympathetic to the poet and still fell into the traditional operatic forms (Borchmeyer 95).  Rossini also used drama as a means of musical expression and Wagner deemed Mozart and Rossini as the death of opera’s potential (106).

As a reaction to his predecessors and his need to create opera as he saw it, Wagner eliminated the molded forms of song.  This drastic change in the operatic form consequently changed the roles of the singers.  The principals were no longer on stage to display virtuosity through arias, and the choristers were no longer a mere supporting accompaniment.  All characters were integrated carefully into the performance, each with motivation and individually participating in the drama (Skelton 57).  Since Wagner did not want to force particular song forms upon an opera, he instead composed based on the necessity of the scene and support the emotions projected in it.  As a result, his operas were through-composed with the music, text and visual effects all working equally together in a display of total art, or Gesamtkunstwerk.  It was this balance that would later be used in the process of film scoring.

From the conception of film, music has been used to create an emotional connection between an audience and the images on screen.  During the time of silent film, music was played live in the theater, typically by a pianist or organist.  The music was often presented in a variety of accompaniments that consisted of pre-arranged music and improvisations.  These pre-arranged musical extracts were typically pulled from classical literature and emotionally categorized into books.  When particular emotions were evident in the film, the pianist would play music that correctly corresponded.  The music and compositional form were entirely dictated by the emotive qualities of the characters and scenes, similar to Wagner’s approach in his own brand of drama.  As film composer Leonard Rosenman has stated, “The form is that of the film.  What we are dealing with, then, is basically a literary form, not a musical form. Certainly, the music can contribute a great deal in support of an overall shape, but this shape originates with the film itself, not the music” (qtd. in Burt 5).  As in a Wagnerian opera, the music does not play a dominant role, but instead is integrated with what is visually seen by the audience.

Since Wagner wrote his libretti, he was extremely sensitive to the text and story.   He was, in essence, a musical dramatist, which is synonymous to the role of the film composer.  As George Burt states in his book The Art of Film Music, “When writing for a film score, composers become musical dramatists; their thoughts are on the story and how it is told…the most distinguished composers possess a genuine theatrical talent and imagination as well as the ability to translate their thoughts into musical sound and gesture” (3).  This quote, which is intended to describe the current film composer, also retrospectively describes Wagner and his approach to opera.

Today, the film scoring process is more refined, where original music is composed specifically for the film and integrated seamlessly with the dialogue, visuals, and sound effects.  Technological advances have allowed a film composer to synchronize the music exactly to picture; however, the process of composing is still approached in the same way as Wagner approached his operas.  A film composer must be extremely sensitive to the picture and text creating music that is not based around compositional forms, but around a form that suits the story.

Musical Language

Musical forms supply composers with templates for developing and realizing ideas to fruition.  Since Wagner wanted to dispose of the traditional operatic forms, he still needed a device to develop ideas and support the drama.  As a result, Wagner used the concept of leitmotif to present and develop his music.   A leitmotif is a musical idea, typically melodic, that is motivated by a character, situation, or concept within the drama.  Wagner believed that music expressed the unspoken, and he used the leitmotif in countless ways to support the action and articulate unsaid emotions.  When presented, the leitmotif can be dissimilated into two general parts:  the melody and harmony.  The melody and harmony function similarly to the text and subtext of poetry respectively.  The melody, like the text, provides a surface or literal meaning, while the harmony, or subtext, provides an underlying emotional meaning (Smalley 4).  Wagner describes melody as “that horizontal extension being the surface of harmony” (209).  It is the combination of the harmony and melody that presents the complete emotional connection.

The leitmotif functions in a couple of paramount ways.  First it provides structure and coherence in the work of art.  The themes will be introduced and then reoccur at key moments connecting many of the important characters and concepts into one cohesive presentation.  Another, yet more practical, consideration for the leitmotif is its use in assisting the audience in following the story.  In Wagner’s words, “The human being, distracted by the interventions of time and space, may very well fail to understand his own life activities.  The dramatist places before him a picture of these activities, condensed for ease of understanding” (qtd. in Skelton 24).

Wagner used different harmonic textures when presenting the representational melody or shape to support different scenarios throughout the opera.  Given that an idea, or object, or any aspect of an opera can have multiple meanings, the leitmotif can help represent those meanings by juxtaposition of dramatic action, dialogue and music.  For instance, in The Ring Wagner composed a motif for the spear, which obviously represents the physical object carried by Woton, but also his contract with Fasolt and Fafner (Deathridge and Dahlhaus 112).  The leitmotif develops dramatic ideas while providing an emotional link between the audience and characters on stage.  It is Wagner’s use of the leitmotif that heralds the compositional approach to the twentieth-century film score.

Film is a medium that presents synthetic characters to a live audience (Smalley 3).  It is this synthetic nature that invokes the necessity for music.  As a result, the leitmotif is frequently used to continually connect the audience to the moving picture and ultimately suspend their disbelief.  As film composer Jeff Rona states, “Some composers will slave over a basic theme, because that theme (or themes) will often go a very long way to creating the score, reappearing as often as desired to function as a connecting element” (3).  This statement speaks directly of the leitmotif and how it is a compositional method used in film composing.  For example in the film Star Wars, John Williams creates themes for all the primary concepts and characters of this mythical space fantasy, such as “The Force” and “Darth Vader”, and interweaves them in different harmonic contexts to support the scene in question.  Max Steiner was another film composer who used the leitmotif extensively in the movie Gone with the Wind.  He created a theme for Tara, the plantation on which the O’Hara’s lived, which reoccurred throughout the movie as the story progressed through love and civil war.

As stated above, in Wagnerian opera the leitmotif is also used to ease the understanding of the story.  In film and particularly television, motives are created for this same purpose.  In a film a large amount of visual and aural information is presented to the audience.  The leitmotif reminds the audience of important connections within the story.  A television program is very similar, except that it is also consistently interrupted by advertising which essentially pulls the audience in and out of a story affecting the overall comprehension.  The leitmotif technique again can assist the audience in following the story thereby enhancing the overall experience.

Along with using the leitmotif, Wagner also began to discard some of the conventions of tonal music.  Wagner’s method of composing centered on the feelings of the characters and he sometimes found the expectations of tonality to be too restricting to express important emotive qualities within a story.  The largest of these expectations was the movement from the dominant chord to the tonic chord, which can immediately inform the listener of the key center.  In the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner extended the use of chromaticism and began to set the tone for non-tonal composition (Smalley 136).  Chromaticism was well around before Wagner’s time; however, it was used as a passing idea, a means to get from one tonal idea to another.  In Tristan und Isolde Wagner used chromaticism independently, as a motif, to express the “the infinite longing of romantic love and the yearning for its appeasement in death” (Burbidge and Stutton 237).  Wagner then took the main motive from the prelude and presented it throughout the story in many different keys as the opera deemed necessary.    Wagner considered key modulation as a tool that could be used when motivated by the text.   Tonal alterations, either modulated or chromatic, in a concert setting may be startling to an audience member who is familiar with the expectations of tonality; however, these alterations can be admissible because of the dramatic situation presented.  The music supports the opera by ultimately providing subtext to a visual presentation.  A subtext that is directly unnoticed, but indirectly effective.

Film music of the twentieth century is mostly tonal; however, just as in Wagnerian opera, the limits of tonality are being extended.  For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, the composer, Bernard Herrmann, ignored tonality in many instances, looking to surprise the audience and enhance the uncomfortable situations presented.  During the infamous shower scene in the movie Psycho, Herrmann used the most dissonant intervals or the minor second and tri-tone to produce a startling result.  Film composers can continually break the “rules” and audiences will accept them in a theatrical atmosphere as long as it is appropriately balanced by the story.  “Although it is sometimes difficult to move modern, non-tonal, music into the concert hall, the sky may be the limit when composing music for film” (Smalley 136).  Again, Wagner has set the stage for film scoring by realizing the need to compose outside of previous conventions, but instead compose music that is motivated by the scene.

Theatrical Presentation

While Wagner was continually improving upon his operatic form and musical language, he was also improving upon the theatricality of his operas or music dramas.  As he strived to create a total art form, he envisioned a particular way of presenting the music and libretto.  He believed in presenting an imitation of real life.  He wanted strong communication between the audience and performers that resulted in the spectator feeling as if he or she is part of the drama (Carnegy 37).  When Wagner was offered the opportunity to create a theatrical space in Bayreuth to suit his needs, he discovered certain practical considerations in presenting his “real life” opera.  These considerations consisted of creating visual effects, a double proscenium, and an orchestra pit.

As Wagner was developing his form of total art, he was very much influenced by the Parisian opera.  Wagner was impressed by the scenic magic that was created in grand opera and found its use to be very important in his own operas.  He wanted to present Wunder, or “magic,” in such a way that it would not be termed “magic” by the audience, but instead “reality.”  For example, in Wagner’s staging of The Ring at Bayreuth, numerous special effects were used, including the use of steam and lighting for Albrerich’s transformations into a snake and toad, and lantern projections of Valkyries flying through the air.  He wanted a strong correlation between what was heard in the music which what was seen visually.

In the world of film, visual effects are used extensively.  Film technology continues to grow tremendously with the advent of digital effects, allowing a director to literally show what is in his imagination, ultimately creating something that is magically “real.”  The film composer must then balance these visual spectacles with the music.  It is this creation of magic and spectacle that Wagner sought.  “He had both a childlike delight in the ingenuities of stage deception and an absolute belief, one wholly representative of his time, that what had been imagined should be represented literally” (Carnegy 85).  Wagner was composing music for a “film” that was in his head, a vast array of moving pictures in his imagination that captured the Wunder and the essence of what he considered total art.
The idea of placing the orchestra down and under the stage was an innovation that not only improved the acoustic balance between the orchestra and singers, but also enhanced the overall presentation of the music.  “The spectral music sounding from the ‘mystic gulf,’ like vapors rising from the holy womb of Gaia beneath the Pythia’s tripod, inspires him [the spectator] with that clairvoyance in which the scenic picture  melts into the truest effigy of life itself” (Wagner 366).  Wagner wanted the music to have a feeling of inevitability, where the music naturally existed in the space without a particular source.  When the orchestra is unseen, the physical performance of the music is less distracting and the music integrates more effectively with the other visual effects on stage.  Wagner states that the movements of the players and conductor “should be hidden from him [the spectator] with almost as much care as the ropes, pulley, struts and boards of the sets, the sight of which from the wings is well known to destroy all illusion” (qtd. in Carnegy 70).

This idea of utilizing an invisible orchestra is a precursor to the movie soundtrack.  When a movie is created, the orchestra is recorded and, as a result, the performance is unseen by the viewer.  The music exists in the space but the source is unknown.  The music envelops the audience and the physical performance is non-existent.  Similar to Wagner’s use of the orchestra pit, the movie soundtrack takes an abstract form of art and presents it in an abstract way.

A double proscenium was developed to enhance Wagner’s attempt to produce an illusion that was “real.”  At Bayreuth, a second arch was added, in front of the basic proscenium arch, flush with the curve of the orchestra pit.  These two arches would serve in creating a perspective where the audience’s field of vision would naturally merge with the stage.  Wagner wanted to control the spectator’s focus and center it completely on stage while keeping separation and distance between the audience and performers (Carnegy 73).  As Wagner states, “Between him [the audience] and the picture to be looked at there is nothing plainly visible, merely a floating atmosphere of distance, resulting from the architectural adjustment of the two proscenia” (Wagner 366).

The double proscenia and the orchestra pit created, what Wagner called, a “mystic gulf.”  This “gulf” was invisible distance between the audience and performer.  The audience could gaze into a “real” illusion or as Wagner states, “the unapproachable world of dreams” (Wager 366).  Wagner’s use of the “mystic gulf” to create distance and separation between two sets of live people shows a similarity to what film naturally produces.  As stated above, film presents two-dimensional synthetic characters to a three-dimensional live audience.  The characters on screen cannot be approached; nevertheless, the screen opens a picture window to world of dreams.  A world that is magical, yet real.  This is the world that Wagner envisioned in his live performances.  When Wagner describes his theatrical presentation in Opera and Drama he speaks of the spectators’ relation with a “scenic picture” (366).  It was these “scenic pictures” that Wagner was scoring, and ultimately “he was basically scoring movies” (Smalley 136).

Music of the Future

Wagner was exploring a new kind of art that would combine many current art forms into one balanced presentation.  He labeled his ideas and explorations in this area “the artwork of the future” (Wagner 177).  Wagner wanted to break with past conventions and push forward into the future and create a new brand of art.  He changed the face of opera and created music drama that exemplified his theories on operatic form, musical language, and theatrical presentation.  These theories and their application in opera heralded the development of another future art form: the film score.  Wagner was a well-rounded composer who understood the language of music and was sensitive to the text and other theatrical elements.  It is this type of composer that is the monument and reference for the basic film composer.  A composer who understands the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk and who strives to balance the musical art form with that of the text, visual and other sonic elements.  Wagner’s reactionary ideas to the opera of the past became the fundamental principles in the creation of the twentieth-century film score.



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