Film Music: a Problem?

Throughout the 1920s, German-language print journalism addressed fundamental questions about the encounter between music and cinema. Prominent composers, musicologists, film theorists, intellectuals, and philosophers contributed to this broad discussion on the proper role and design of 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 Film, Der Kinematograph, Film-Kurier, Filmtechnik, Film Ton Kunst, Lichtbild-Bühne, and Reichsfilmblatt) as well as musicological journals (e.g. Musikblätter des Anbruch, Melos, Der Auftakt, Die Musik). Titles such as “On the Problem of Film Music” (Der Kinematograph, 1923), “The Film Music Problems” (Der Auftakt, 1929), or “The Solution of the Problem of Music” (Reichsfilmblatt, 1929) became common.

Film periodicals like Der Kinematograph, Reichsfilmblatt, Film-Kurier, and many others 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 and composers. Film-music theoreticians like Hans Erdmann or Kurt London reached well beyond the horizon of a film-music criticism, even theorizing new compositional approaches to film music.

In addition to being discussed in specialized journals, the debate over film music made an appearance in newspapers and general publications as well. A plate with the Motive aus der Musik zu dem Ufa-Film ‘Metropolis’ was published in the supplement Jede Woche Musik. Illustrierte Wochenschrift des Berliner Tageblatts on January 15, 1927, shortly after the film’s premiere at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo. Edmund Meisel published the Suite aus der Originalmusik zu dem Tonfilm ‘Panzerkreuzer Potemkin’ in Jede Woche Musik on August 2, 1930, just before the sound film’s premiere, which took place at the Marmorhaus on August 12, 1930.

Thanks to the contributions of film-music specialists, such as Giuseppe Becce, Edmund Meisel, Paul Dessau, and Walter Gronostay, music journals and film periodicals also dealt with a large number of questions related to the execution of film music. The techniques of conducting film music were outlined; the basic configuration of a salon orchestra and the peculiarities of certain instruments were critically evaluated; several questions concerning performance practice in film venues or “im Atelier” were also discussed. The uncertain status of salon-orchestra conductors was debated and compared with the art-music sphere.

Film-music journalism drew particular attention to original film scores and exceptional contributions of first-rate composers, such as the collaboration between Richard Strauss and the Caligari director Robert Wiene for Der Rosenkavalier (1926): a silent film derived from the three-act musical comedy of 1911. As many other composers engaged in journalistic debate, such as Meisel, Hindemith, and Dessau, Richard Strauss also found in contemporary film journalism the means to express his personal view of film music, not without a self-justifying and self-referential intent.

The journalistic debate confronted the question of a mechanization of film-music performance from the beginning of the twentieth century – from Oskar Messter’s Tonbilder (1903) up to Carl Robert Blum’s Musik-Chronometer (1926) – against the backdrop of a broader discussion on the relationship between music and technology.

Dating from 1927, a large number of articles discussed the revolution provoked by the discovery of recorded sound on both theoretical and practical levels. The institutionalization of recorded-sound technology caused the problem of film music to slowly fade and disappear from the cinematic discourse.

Francesco Finocchiaro