Poli-femo, 2019/17-18


Cos’è la musica per film? Qual è il suo statuto estetico? È possibile delinearne i confini e qualificarla come uno specifico genere musicale? Quali sono le sue funzioni drammaturgiche e quali le tipologie formali?

Domande di questo genere hanno accompagnato il cinema sin dai suoi albori, in modo particolare dalla metà degli anni Dieci del Novecento, allorché il nuovo medium cinematografico elaborò un linguaggio espressivo complesso, con leggi e convenzioni estetiche proprie. In quel contesto, l’esigenza di affrancare l’accompagnamento musicale dalle condizioni di casualità e precarietà dei primordi si fece sentire con sempre maggiore insistenza: il cosiddetto “film d’arte”, con i suoi adattamenti di capolavori della letteratura e del teatro e le ricostruzioni di importanti eventi storici, richiedeva una musica che fosse all’altezza del proprio ruolo.

Francesco Finocchiaro, Hans Erdmann e il dibattito sulla musica per il cinema muto nel giornalismo cinematografico di lingua tedesca“Poli-femo”, 2019, nn. 17-18, Special Issue Ton sur ton, Lo stile della saggistica critica sulle arti I, pp. 111–128

Fontes Artis Musicae 2020

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Throughout the 1920s, German-language film journalism addressed fundamental questions about the encounter between music and cinema. Prominent composers, musicologists, and film theorists contributed to this broad discussion on the proper role and design of silent film music, encompass- ing a wide range of arguments and perspectives. This article outlines the development of the film music debate on the film journal Reichsfilmblatt from 1924 to 1929, with special focus on the di- alectical interplay between theoretical concerns and compositional issues.

Starting from the mid-1920s, Reichsfilmblatt encouraged composers and music directors to con- tribute their opinions concerning the art of film music composition at large, ranging from compila- tion guides to accompaniment practices, and from illustrative techniques to dramaturgic strategies. Particular attention to compositional issues is evident from the presence of regular columns by mu- sic critics. Film music theoreticians like Hans Erdmann or Ludwig Brav, however, reached well be- yond the horizon of a film music criticism, even theorising new compositional approaches to film composition.

Thanks to the contributions of film music specialists, such as Giuseppe Becce, Paul Dessau, and Friedrich Holländer, among others, Reichsfilmblatt also dealt with a large number of questions re- lated to the execution of musical accompaniments. Journalistic criticism debated the techniques of conducting film music and evaluated the basic configuration of a salon orchestra, as well as the pe- culiarities of certain instruments. From 1927, Reichsfilmblatt finally confronted the question of the mechanisation of music performance: a large number of articles discussed the revolution provoked by the discovery of recorded sound on both theoretical and practical levels.

Francesco Finocchiaro, “In the Mirror of Criticism”: The Film-Music Debate on ‘Reichsfilmblatt’ from 1924 to 1929 (with a Source Catalogue), «Fontes Artis Musicae», LXVII n. 1, January-March 2020, pp. 34–6 (read it on Academia.edu).

Quaderni del CSCI 2019

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In Italy, the rise of fascism in 1922 marked the beginning of a massive operation aimed at standardizing, under the banner of ideology, every aspect of political and social life, including artistic and cultural events. The program of indoctrination of the masses and construction of consensus put in place by the fascist regime relied mainly on the widespread use of a mass-culture industry. First between the 20s and 30s, then more heavily in the late-30s and 40s, fascist ideology tried to infiltrate the whole spectrum of cultural production, starting with its (only apparently) more harmless mass-media manifestations, especially radio and cinema.

The intellectuals of the fascist regime fully understood the persuasive and manipulative power inherent to the new media: they recognized above all the political-cultural function of cinema, which gradually became the medium par excellence for influencing collective behavior. The prevailing, in the fascist cultural policy, of Giuseppe Bottai’s position, who favored a non-invasive use of propaganda, determined the preference for films in a light comic style that were able to deal with international models, primarily Hollywood. Italian fiction movies of the 20s and 30s––particularly the comic-sentimental genre known as “white telephones”––were essentially products of escapism, intended to be passively received. Not requiring any particular cultural or intellectual background, they reached people of all social classes. Such routine cinematic products were accepted as a given: as entertainment products rated for consumption, they favored abandonment, passive vision, uncritical reception. The words “Do not speak about politics, here” (Qui non si parla di politica), affixed to the walls of public venues, were a fake truce offer aimed at circumventing the spectator’s critical defenses.

Francesco Finocchiaro, Musica e cinema nel ventennio fascista, “Quaderni del CSCI”, 15, 2019,  Special Issue All’ascolto del cinema italiano: musiche, voci, rumori, edited by R. Calabretto, M. Cosci, and E. Mosconi, pp. 24–30 (read it here).

Schönberg’s Early Symphonic Poems


Arnold Schönberg’s early works have long been at the centre of renewed musicological interest. This growing interest is closely linked to a new historiographical trend within Schönbergforschung, which has worked to free itself from the cumbersome authority of the composer and to abandon earlier apologetic positions. In this process of emancipation, a decisive step has been the decision to question Schönberg’s authorial image, starting with a critical reconsideration of his artistic evolution. An important contribution to the definition of this new historiographical framework comes from an examination of the early works by the Viennese composer, particularly from the period prior to Verklärte Nacht op. 4 (1899).
The work of the young Schönberg is enveloped in what Max Reger called the “Brahmsian fog”, apparent in Schönberg’s preference for dances, Lieder with piano and other chamber music, as well as his obsessive application of developing variations, eg. in the Quartet in D major (1897). Once he had reached a saturation point in his commitment to Brahmsian techniques, he turned to a style of composing that Schönberg himself would have defined as “more progressive”. Two unfinished symphonic poems composed between the spring and summer of 1898, Frühlings Tod and Toter Winkel, with texts by Nikolaus Lenau and Gustav Falke, respectively, provide evidence of a new poetics: they represent the first attempt by Schönberg to establish, both on formal and thematic levels, a connection with the artistic and literary avant-gardes of his time.

Francesco Finocchiaro, Il poema sinfonico nell’opera giovanile di Arnold Schönberg, “Gli spazi della musica”, vol. 8 (2019), Glosse sull’Espressionismo, pp. 12–32 (Read the full article here).

Il cinema parlante

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Talking about the role of the voice in cinema means questioning what, despite appearances, can be said to be one of the cinematic text’s most complex and problematic components. Today’s consumer of the film industry’s products, addicted to the modern code of audiovisual texts, can hardly imagine the alienating effect of a type of show that, in its early form, was instead completely devoid of the voice and almost total renounced to the verbal medium, except for small intertitles.

As Rudolf Arnheim wrote in his Film as Art (1957), the silent cinema, with its exaggerated facial mimicry and gestures, had nonetheless coined a universal language, one that was immediately understandable in all parts of the world, regardless of linguistic barriers: a gestural language, impossible to replace with words.

The art of silent cinema had introduced a new existential paradigm: Der sichtbare Mensch (The visible man), as in the title of Balázs’s book of 1924. This man could be neither listened to nor read since he was forced to express himself through a visual language. Now, by putting verbal language and words at the center of the film medium, sound cinema determined the rise of a new medial language.

Francesco Finocchiaro, Il cinema parlante. Spunti per una drammaturgia della voce da Fritz Lang a Terrence Malick. In La voce mediatizzata, edited by Marida Rizzuti and Stefano Lombardi Vallauri. Milan: Mimesis, 2019, pp. 69–92 (read it here).

The Visible Man

Great uncertainty surrounds the status of film music in the silent era. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the musical accompaniments of film screenings were mainly made in the form of compilation, i.e. collages of pre-existing music, taken freely from the operatic and symphonic repertoire, also from operettas, dance, variety songs, and matched to the story in a crude and rather predictable way.
From the second decade of the twentieth century, the major European and American publishers began to publish and distribute ready-made pieces for music accompaniments. These pieces of music were not specific to a particular film, but were designed to accompany common film situations (e.g. Short Storm, Chase, Night Vision, Dangerous Situation) or to give a scene a generic emotional mood (e.g. Desperation, Mystery, Anguish, Dramatic Climax). Each piece of music was accompanied by a more or less detailed description, referring to the context in which it could be used in the film. Music was used to express the whole spectrum of human feelings, from “amorous passion” to “profound desperation,” from “lyrical expression” to “dramatic conflict”: the musical component was left to portray the inner emotions of that Visible Man – the title of a famous work by Béla Balázs (1924) – conditioned to express himself on-screen only through gestures.
A considerable number of these compilation repertoires was archived in the research project “Film Music as a Problem in German Print Journalism (1907-1930),” carried out at the University of Vienna. The collection comes from a bequest of composer Edgar Haase (1901–1967), a specialist in film music and director of various salon orchestras. The legacy was augmented by donations from heirs and further research in European libraries, including the Musiksammlung of the National Library of Austria and the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. The archive contains over 500 sets of orchestral parts, from the most important collections of German, English and American mood music (Kinothek, Preis-Kino-Bibliothek, Boheme Kino-Lexikon, Sam Fox Film-Gebrauchs-Musik, Bosworth’s Internationales Kino -Orchester, J.S. Zamecnik’s Photoplay-Edition, Universal-Film-Musik, Robbins Red Seal Concert Series, Filmharmonie). Such a vast compendium provides a reliable historical picture of the daily practice of musical accompaniment in cinemas and stands as an informative document with enormous potential for the reconstruction of the art and aesthetics of film composition in the silent era.

As director of the Viennese research project, Francesco Finocchiaro presented the musical background as part of a conference/concert, with the participation of Julie Brown (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Elisabeth Trautwein-Heymann. The Montfort Quartet, together with some Poliziano instrumentalists, performed a selection of pieces from the mood music collections.