Pantomime and Modernism: Film Transforms the Partnership of Music and Pantomime

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 124: Film composer Giuseppe Becce as Richard Wagner conducting in the German film “Richard Wagner” (1913), directed by Carl Froelich (1875-1953).

Film Transforms the Partnership of Music and Pantomime

When Japanese theaters screened Crossroads in 1928, they may have used Japanese music played on Japanese instruments such as the shamisen, as was common in movie houses throughout the country during the silent film era. In recent years, some revivals of the film have used shamisen music as accompaniment, although when the Japan Society sponsored a showing in New York in 2014, the shamisen music of Yumiko Tanaka was “experimental” and was in the nature of an “improvised soundscape” rather than any reconstruction of eighteenth century Japanese music or of music contemporary with the film (Japan Society 2014). When the film premiered in Berlin in 1929, the Ufa Palast Theater assembled an orchestra to accompany the film and the ensemble performed Western music. Silent films were silent insofar as they had an unstable relation to the sound that accompanied their exhibition, and this instability also complicated the relation of pantomime to modernism. From the very beginning of motion picture history in the mid-1890s, exhibitors arranged for musical accompaniments to film showings, with the Skladanowsky brothers employing a salon orchestra for screenings of short documentary scenes at the Wintergarten nightclub in Berlin in 1895 (Rügner 1990: 76). Music accompanied films because producers and exhibitors assumed that spectators have great difficulty watching the performance of any human actions detached from sounds—music, noise, or speech—relevant to the performance. Ballets or dance without music or plays without speech are extremely rare, although not without precedent. The German dancer Hilde Strinz (1902-1927), for example, organized in 1925 a group of female dancers to perform entire dance concerts completely devoid of musical accompaniment, for she regarded the ecstasy of dance as a “sleep-like plunge into silence” (Toepfer 1997: 330; Böhme 1928). Overwhelmingly, however, in all the performing arts, silence functions as a very sparingly used dramatic device to amplify or render “suspenseful” a human action or the absence of action; otherwise, spectators who are not deaf pervasively regard silence in performance as unbearable, an unjustifiable suppression of information transmittable through the auditory channel. Pantomime is more comfortable without music than dance, because pantomime uses the logic of physical actions to build narratives and to engage the spectator; whereas dance focuses on movement as a thing worth watching in itself, detached from a larger narrative structure, which is why dancers and choreographers can use the same movement tropes for different narratives or dance pieces. Yet movement has “meaning,” an emotional value, only when supplemented by an equally abstract external source: music. In pantomime, music functions to “explain” performance as much as speech in a play or film. It most commonly provides cues to spectators for how they should respond emotionally to images or actions. But even though musicians and composers developed their own systems or conventions for choosing music to accompany film scenes, the film medium itself remained free of any governing system for connecting music to images. When (1907) some film producers began commissioning composers to write music specifically for their films, they could not expect all theaters showing the films to play the commissioned music. Musicians who had no responsibility for the production of a film nevertheless assumed considerable responsibility for audience responses to the film. Even when films had commissioned scores, the musical accompaniment sometimes achieved a complexity that previously was unimaginable in relation to live performance. For the Birth of a Nation (1915), Joseph Carl Breil (1870-1926) composed a symphonic orchestral score in a late nineteenth century style somewhat reminiscent of the music of Edvard Grieg. But Breil supplemented his score with pieces of music by many other classical composers (Weber, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Bellini, Wagner), as well as with popular songs, hymn tunes, military fanfares and marches, and folk songs (Marks 1997: 200-212). Yet the stylistic visual unity of the film only increased its power to engage the spectator when accompanied by music that lacked stylistic unity. In some theaters, musicians (chiefly pianists) improvised their musical accompaniments, and sometimes musicians performed accompaniments to films they saw for the first time with the spectators. Thus, when films played in different countries or within different cities of the same country or even within different theaters of the same city, the musical accompaniment differed, although film producers sometimes issued cue sheets and recommended musical selections. The search for formulaic relations between music and film image obsessed the motion picture industry from about 1906, when trade journals began discussing the theme with serious regularity in the hope of discovering formulas that would maximize the profitability of films. Indeed, the failure to identify profit-assuring formulas or even coherent theories of relations between film and music allowed a rather immense, international discourse to flourish on the subject, which continues into our own time (cf. Wulff 2013). 

One of the most prolific film composers ever was the Italian-German Giuseppe Becce (1877-1973), who began his long film music career in 1913 by compiling his own arrangements of symphonic music by earlier composers for the feature length biographical film Richard Wagner, in which he also played Wagner (legal issues prevented the filmmakers from using Wagner’s music) (Simeon 1996: 220-222). Among his many activities on behalf of film music, he catalogued, through his journal Film-Ton-Kunst/Kinomusikblatt (1920-1929), new film music from 1919 to 1929 in relation to different categories of dramatic scene, and the same piece of music could be used for entirely different scenes. He paired a generic scene with an emotional category attached to a musical tempo and then to a specific musical example but not to a specific film, such as: “Battle and Disturbance” (Agitato); “Infatuation” (Andante, Largo), although he was hardly the first to think about film music in this way. By 1927, when he and Hans Erdmann published their two-volume Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik, which contained over 3000 examples of music for use in relation to theoretical categories of dramatic action rather than in relation to specific film scenes, Becce could assert that there was no such thing as “film music” or music that was innately appropriate to film generally or to any particular film. The composer, the musician, and then the spectator assigned music to a theoretical category of emotion rather than to specific actions seen on the screen, for the actions functioned at best as cues to an emotional category. Composers largely composed music for generic dramatic scenes or “moods,” not films, so that different theaters could use their music for different films and thus increase the revenues generated by the scores while providing savings for theaters. Music composed for specific films occurred only occasionally, as with Pizzetti’s music for Cabiria (1913), Mascagni’s for Rapsodia satanica (1915), Hindemith’s for Kampf mit dem Berg (1921), Meisel’s for Eisenstein’s films, and Huppertz’s for Metropolis (1927), although Becce wrote scores for a large number of films, including famous works that continue to provoke serious and detailed discussion without ever mentioning his contribution to their significance. In ballet or pantomime on the stage, the performer either followed the music or the music followed the performer, so that movement and music seemed part of the same action, rhythm, and sometimes harmonic or contrapuntal signification—such was the illusion of synchronicity. With silent film, music gave the impression of a power external to the film that imposed an emotional value on the imagery that otherwise was not inherent to the image or to the action depicted. Neither film nor music had any organic connection to each other, and thus could exist independently of each other and could form completely different relations to each other to stir new emotional experiences. Nevertheless, although Becce catalogued a huge amount of new music composed for German films, the great majority of music that accompanied films was not modernist and was to a considerable extent composed before the advent of motion picture technology. Becce’s own music for the radically expressionistic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) was much more daring in its harmonies and orchestral effects than almost any other music used in the silent film era, though perhaps it was not as expressionistic as the imagery it accompanied. To say that musical accompaniments followed “conventions” as catalogued by Becce is mostly to say that musicians and audiences accepted nineteenth century and post-romantic assumptions about the relations between musical structures and emotional invocation. Modernist music currents in film accompaniments tended to occur when composers wrote for specific films, if one regards Pizzetti, Mascagni, and Meisel as modernists. Shostakovich faced much criticism for his score to The New Babylon (1929) because his sardonic music operated in “dialectical” tension with the imagery rather than conformed to the “tragic” dramatic scene categories that the critics ascribed to the screen narrative. Modernist musical innovation found much greater expression in the theater than in the cinema. It’s not clear why this is so. Perhaps film producers and exhibitors regarded modernist musical structures, with their dissonances, unsteady rhythms, and contrapuntal dynamics, as too “confusing” or “distracting” for movie audiences or too complex for musicians to perform. 

In any case, musical accompaniment to silent films did not prove to be an auspicious opportunity for modernist musical innovation. But nothing in the imagery of silent films or in the actions performed by actors in the imagery precluded the use of modernist musical structures. This was evident to composers even if it was not evident to film exhibitors. In 1929, the German music publisher Heinrichshofen, which specialized in scores for movies, commissioned the guru of dodecaphonic music theory, Arnold Schoenberg (1872-1951), to compose a piece of movie music, although neither he nor the publisher had any specific film in mind. Schoenberg had briefly, in 1901, worked as a conductor and arranger for a Berlin cabaret, and he had composed music for cabaret and pantomime: Brettl Lieder (1901), Die glückliche Hand (1913), so he was at least somewhat familiar with musical “conventions” in the theater, even if he was not notable for observing them. Nevertheless, with Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene (Begleitmusik zu eine Lichtspielszene) (1930), he wrote a dodecaphonic orchestral work to meet the generic dramatic scene category of “Menacing Danger, Anxiety, Catastrophe.” The music is eerie, tremulous and glimmering, at times ominous, and continuously shadowy, but it could serve as excellent accompaniment to a great variety of films, including comedies, not just films depicting doom. But although the piece has received numerous concert performances and recordings, apparently no one has used it to accompany the screening of a silent film. The only known use of the music in a movie has been in the static documentary Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene (1973), by Jean-Marie Straub (1933-2022) and Danièle Huillet (1936-2006), where the music creeps underneath monotone vocal statements by immobile speakers in a film that one might describe as anti-pantomime, anti-gesture, and anti-movement of any sort. The high cultural pretensions of the film indicate a reason why modernist music did not play a larger role in silent film. The cultural institutions invested in advancing modernist ideology had, even before Schoenberg had composed his piece, established a social environment in which a composer of film music could be taken seriously as a modernist only to the extent that filmmakers created a film around the composer’s music rather than that filmmakers applied the music to a “dramatic scene” in a film conceived and produced completely independently of the music, even though Schoenberg created the music for precisely this generic application. In other words, the lack of a strong modernist current in the musical accompaniments to film pantomime was not due to a failure of movie audiences to appreciate modernist musical structures, because such audiences had hardly any opportunities to experience these structures. Some kind of snobbery seems implicated in this failure to create opportunities, for it is certainly misguided to assume that modernist music is “too modern” to accompany silent film imagery. Schoenberg’s student, Alban Berg (1885-1935), composed turbulent dodecaphonic music to accompany a silent film pantomime montage sequence for his super-modernist opera Lulu (1935). Since the immense revival of interest in silent film beginning in the late 1960s, modernist musical accompaniments have found great favor with audiences internationally. The American composer Carl Davis (b. 1936) has been exceptionally successful in bringing a modernist orchestral sound to the accompaniment of numerous silent films released on video and in digital formats. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the change in thinking about the relation between modernist music and silent film pantomime has involved the accompaniments to public screenings of Carl Dreyer’s (1889-1968) famous film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Leo Pouget and Victor Alix (1890-1968), composers for the Lutetia Wagram movie house in Paris, composed orchestral music for the film’s showing at the theater in 1928. This score, which survives on old recordings, applies the “conventions” for dramatic scenes that defined cinema orchestra music in the late 1920s: the music is rather bland and somewhat operettish. But since at least the 1960s, no one seems to have believed that showings of the tragic film would benefit much, if at all, with Pouget and Alix’s original soundtrack. Instead, the film has inspired an astonishing profusion of modernist and postmodernist musical accompaniments from an internationally diverse variety of composers. The Dane Ole Schmidt (1928-2010) composed a powerfully modernist symphonic score to accompany screenings of the film in Denmark in 1983. The Dutch Jo van den Booren (b. 1935) followed him with a symphonic soundtrack in an equally modernist idiom for screenings in The Netherlands in 1985. Since then at least thirty more composers from Lithuania, Estonia, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Spain, England, the United States, and Norway have composed accompaniments to the film, and some composers, such as the Australian Nick Cave (b. 1957), in 1995, and the English “dark wave” electronica duo In The Nursery, in 2008, created accompaniments that fused modernist harmonies and orchestration with influences from rock and experimental electronic music. On the other hand, a British vocal group, the Orlando Consort, in 2015 created an a capella soundtrack using only music by French composers of the fifteenth century (Orlando Consort 2015). Thus, a marvelous feature of silent film pantomime is that, however bound it was by the cinematic and performance conventions of its own time, it has been remarkably successful at adapting to the musical conventions and idioms of our own time and in finding perhaps even larger audiences than it enjoyed originally. Silent film pantomime has shown that although much pantomime without music is largely too deficient in information to sustain the attention of audiences more than very briefly, it can nevertheless achieve powerful emotional communication in relation to a vast range of musical accompaniments. But this is not an insight that pantomime in the theater since 1920 has been able to appropriate.  

Even before the invention of motion picture technology, the relations between music and pantomime in the theater were pathetically underestimated. While multitudes of writers and composers discussed or contributed to music accompanying silent film pantomime, hardly anyone bothered to theorize or even comment on music in theatrical pantomime. Raoul de Najac and Séverin believed that music should follow the pantomimic performer and synchronize musical sounds with specific gestures or actions, so that music functioned like sound effects or gestural emphasis. Arthur Pougin (1834-1921), a theater composer, conductor, and music critic in Paris, quoted the dramatist Eugene Woestyn (1813-1861) on this use of music: 

At first a heavy tremolo of the basses indicates the wrath of Cassandre, which then sparks a nasal arpeggio of the oboe; response, a quick pizzicato of the violins symbolizes the silent laughter of Pierrot; then, on a rising scale, one could see the foot rising, a blow of a bass drum make the shock, and a shrill note of the flute and the violin translates the cry of pain snatched from the victim, while the horns declares the howl of the winner (Hugounet 1892: 110).

Paul Hugounet published a chatty book on La Musique et la pantomime(1892), in which he compiled anecdotal statements about the use of music in pantomime from musicians and composers associated with the Cercle Funambulesque. Reading the book is like listening to a witty conversation in a café. But the contributors do introduce some serious themes. Hugounet observes that most pantomime music consists of an eclectic “salad” of pieces by different composers adapted to the movements and gestures of the actors, rather like what became the practice with silent film. But this approach has limited ability to elevate the pantomime or move it beyond the realm of the vaudeville revue (11). Pantomime has not inspired significant music the way opera has. A short chapter discusses efforts to persuade the popular opera composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912), a member of the Cercle, to compose a pantomime score, since he had already written a children’s pantomime, Le Roman d’Arlequin (1873) as well as incidental music to plays, such as Théodora (1884), which starred Sarah Bernhardt. The contributors believe that pantomime requires a different and more powerful musical accompaniment than has long been the practice in pantomime performance. Piano accompaniment may work effectively with scenes of delicate gesture, but often the piano cannot convey enough emotion. Orchestral music assumes greater importance. For a production of La Sœur de Pierrot (1892) by the art historian Arsène Alexandre (1859-1937), the Cercle therefore assembled a small orchestra to support the score by the operetta composer Hervé (1825-1892): flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, horn, bassoon, trombone, timpani, violins, viola, cello, and double bass (30). Perhaps more impressive, however, was the “heroic and colossal” orchestral score that the great organist Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) composed in 1890 for a spectacular Joan of Arc pageant-pantomime in the Hippodrome (58-66). Not only should the sheer scale of pantomime music increase, new musical structures are necessary. Several contributors designate the chromatic music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) as a model for new pantomime music, so that, according to André Wormser, the “symphonic pantomime” becomes the “voice of the actor,” it “underlines, develops, and comments,” and is “equal to the scenario” (72). Several composers employ the Wagnerian concept of the leitmotiv by assigning a unique melody and sometimes an instrument for each character and for particular emotions, for “the leitmotiv will be as expressive as the mask of Deburau himself […] a translation of the most tender passions and the most terrible” (104). But the use of leitmotivs and Wagnerian chromatic harmonies means the end of using music to punctuate gestures and to establish a synchronized rhythmic relation between music and movement, because Wagnerian music produces an emotional commentary on a movement that exists independently of the music—one reason why ballet has been incapable of doing anything with Wagner’s music. René de Récy (?-1894), the music critic for the Revue bleue and champion of Widor’s Wagnerian symphonic composition in the Hippodrome, asserts that “pantomime will be the music drama of the future,” if it develops the leitmotiv concept for a theater orchestra larger than the one used by Grétry in the eighteenth century, which is what Hervé used for La Sœur de Pierrot. For de Récy and J.-C. Croze, a writer for the journal Art et Critique, the elevation of pantomime through Wagnerian symphonic accompaniments implies “the destruction of opera” and the emergence of a new form of music drama that has no need of words at all (119-124). 

But these prophecies did not come true. French music theater did eventually adopt a Wagnerian aesthetic—with opera: Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande (1902), Massenet’s Werther (1892) and Sapho (1897), d’Indy’s Fervaal (1895), Magnard’s Guercœur (1901) and Bérénice (1909), Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907), Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (1895), and Charpentier’s Louise (1900). Despite the efforts of Wormser, Victorin de Joncières (1839-1903), Adolphe David (1842-1897), and Raoul Pugno (1852-1914) to introduce Wagnerian ideas into pantomime accompaniments, French pantomime music completely failed to achieve anything resembling the recognition granted to any of these operas and did almost nothing to change the content of pantomime. Pougin and Camille Bellaigue (1858-1930) virulently opposed the introduction of Wagnerian ideas into pantomime, claiming that the richness of the French theater heritage, including “Pierrot […] that corner of blue sky above the dark skyline of Paris,” precluded the necessity of importing any ideas from Germany (100). But Pierrot was precisely the problem. Only de Récy, Croz, and Widor could imagine a pantomime free of Pierrot and the commedia format, while Pougin and Bellaigue sensed that Wagnerian musical ideas, when implemented with passion, required a bigger subject than Pierrot and would render him extinct. Wagnerian musical aesthetics inevitably amplified the idea that pantomime might be something other than Pierrot, something “bigger,” and without Pierrot, the French theater, despite the “immense success” of the Widor Joan of Arc production, seemed unable to imagine pantomime with the same level of grandeur achieved through opera (Arc 1894: 929-930). Pierrot was big because he kept pantomime small, and its music very small.

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