Between the 1910s and 20s, countless film adaptations of operas originated as a consequence of the medial competition between cinema and the bourgeois cultural institution par excellence: opera. Film adaptations aspired to lend artistic and cultural dignity to the new medium of cinema and, at the same time, actualized operatic subjects, adapting them to the cinema’s sense of naturalism and immediacy.
The processes of adaptation carried out by filmmakers could take on a variety of characteristics, as a result not only of the varying practical needs of a particular adaptation, but also of different aesthetic paradigms of cinema, that is, the different ways of conceiving its semiotic modes of discourse and the hierarchical configuration of the artistic languages embedded in it.
This article compares the adaptational strategies in four films––Cecil DeMille’s Carmen (1915), Albert Capellani’s La vie de Bohème (1916), Jacques Feyder’s Carmen (1926), and Richard Strauss & Robert Wiene’s Rosenkavalier (1926)––that represent just as many different modes of engagement with their operatic originals. These instances are interpreted as different solutions to the very same aesthetic problem: i.e., how to translate operatic dramaturgy into a cinematic means of expression.
Francesco Finocchiaro, Operatic Works in Silent Cinema: Toward a Translational Theory of Film Adaptations, «Music and the Moving Image», XIII/3, 2020, pp. 49-71
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
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).
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).
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).
Music-related articles from 1923 to 1930 in film trade magazine Reichsfilmblatt have been fully inventoried and digitally disclosed. Journalistic sources are available online, in the form of a full-text transcription, in the open-access database FMJ Archive.
Another milestone for the FMJ Project and its remaining research team. Italian people say: “Meglio soli che mal’accompagnati!”.
The Poliziano Ensemble
Francesco FInocchiaro and Julie Brown
Francesco Finocchiaro and Elisabeth Trautwein-Heymann
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.
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.
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
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, encompassing a wide range of arguments and perspectives. To a large extent, this debate took place in cinematic trade journals (such as Der Kinematograph, Film-Kurier, Reichsfilmblatt) as well as musicological journals (e.g. Musikblätter des Anbruch, Melos, Der Auftakt).
The paper outlines the development of the film-music debate on the film journal Reichsfilmblatt from 1924 to 1930, with a particular focus on the dialectical interplay between theoretical-aesthetical concerns and compositional issues.
Starting from the mid-1920s, Reichsfilmblatt encouraged composers and music directors to contribute their opinions concerning the art of film-music composition at large, ranging from compilation 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 music critics. Film-music theoreticians like Hans Erdmann or Ludwig Brav reached well beyond the horizon of a film-music criticism, even theorizing new compositional approaches to film composition.
Thanks to the contributions of film-music specialists, such as Giuseppe Becce, Paul Dessau, Friedrich Holländer, etc., Reichsfilmblatt also dealt with a large number of questions related to the execution of musical accompaniments. The techniques of conducting film music were outlined; the basic configuration of a salon orchestra and the peculiarities of certain instruments were critically evaluated. The uncertain status of salon-orchestra conductors was debated and compared with the art-music sphere.
From 1927, Reichsfilmblatt finally confronted the question of the mechanization 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, “Im Spiegel der Kritik”: The film-music debate on Reichsfilmblatt from 1924 to 1930, II NEMI Meeting “Periodical press as a source in musicology”, CFSH-NOVA Lisbon, 16–18 May 2019.
Gottfried Huppertz’s score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is distinguished from other contemporary film music accompaniments in its use of sophisticated compositional techniques of a Wagnerian origin. Huppertz makes use of complex harmonies, chromatism, enharmony, and employs whole tone chords and scales. He also has the gift of a cantabile quality and uses it to elaborate a dense network of leitmotifs, which constitute the connective tissue of the score. In the musical vocabulary employed by the composer, however, there are also, and not without surprise, dance music pieces, which tend to constitute separate stage-music numbers. In two of these scenes –– both set in the Yoshiwara, the nightclub of Metropolis –– jazz takes on a peculiar significance. Towards the end of Act I, jazz music accompanies the astonishing vision that, during a trip by car, the worker Georgy has of the Yoshiwara hall. In Act ii, a foxtrot rhythm accompanies the seductive dance of the android with the features of Maria. In these scenes, which we can fully appreciate thanks to the complete reconstruction of the film carried out in 2010, Huppertz alludes to contemporary dance music through syncopated rhythms, jazz harmonies, the sound of the saxophone, etc. In the pseudo-Wagnerian style of Metropolis, the jazz of Yoshiwara represents a true and proper discovery. The two scenes above give us an entirely new idea of Huppertz’s music, which now appears to be richer and more complex. Beyond the stylistic and compositional aspects, however, there is something else. The use of jazz, indeed, proves fully consistent with the intentions of the narration. In Metropolis, jazz is associated with irrationality: an expressive means suitable for evoking a condition of sexual ambiguity, racial promiscuity, and corruption of moral values. The jazz music, thus, acquires an intentionally symbolic value with countless resonances in the cultural universe of the 1920s-Europe.
Francesco Finocchiaro and Leo Izzo: The Sound of the Nightmares: On the Jazz Music in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. In Cinema Changes: Incorporations of Jazz in the Film Soundtrack, edited by Emile Wennekes and Emilio Audissino. Turnhout: Brepols, 2019, pp. 203–218.