Music and Cinema in Italian Fascism

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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.

Schönberg’s Early Symphonic Poems

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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).

The Talkies

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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.

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.

FMJ Archive presented at IAML 2019

At the IAML 2019 Conference, Francesco Finocchiaro presented the FMJ Archive. The paper outlined the database’s concept, design, and scope, with a particular focus on research methods, technical concerns, and theoretical issues.
Francesco Finocchiaro, FMJ Archive: a Digital Database for German-Language Film Music Journalism, IAML 2019 Conference, Jagiellonian University Kraków, 14-19 July 2019.

FMJ @ NYU

What is film music? What should a piece of film music look like formally? Which musical language is better suited to the cinematic one? What dramaturgical problems arise from the use of traditional typologies or pre-existing music pieces?
Francesco Finocchiaro’s lecture at MaMI 2019 (New York University, Steinhardt) looked at this knot of issues in the mirror of German-language film journalism during the silent era.

Francesco Finocchiaro, Film Music as a Problem in the Mirror of Criticism, Music and the Moving Image 2019, New York University, Steinhardt, May 30 – June 2, 2019