Sunday, November 6, 2011

Notes on scoring 'Faust' (1926)

We screened Murnau's 'Faust' (1926) today at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater the score fell together exceptionally well, I thought. So here are a few notes while it's still all fresh in my head.

First, something I didn't use: the Dies Irae, the traditional melody from the Catholic Death Mass. I had prepared an arrangement of it, and used it in a screening of 'Nosferatu' (1922) last month. And I was all set to make it one of the building blocks for Faust -- in fact, it was supposed to open the film. But in the end, I didn't use it, partly because it didn't seem to fit the other material I developed, and also because I didn't want to repeat myself.

Most of what I would have done with the Dies Irae, however, was accomplished with a simple melody in 3/4 time that wound up being very effective, I thought, as accompaniment for scenes in which Mephisto (played by Emil Jannings) makes mischief, and also for the film in general. I don't know what it was about this melody, but it was enough to carry quite a lot of the film.

One fairly basic device was to equate "good" with music in major keys, while evil was accompanied by music in "minor" keys. Nothing too daring about that, I know, but what was neat was that the 3/4 time melody starts in a minor key, then shifts to a major key in the middle, and then back to minor for the finish.

And many times, I found some emotional shift happening in a scene when the major part of the melody kicked in. So it often seemed like I was in synch with the rhythms that director F.W. Murnau baked into the film, which helps it all in terms of audience acceptance and effect.

The film is bracketed by similar scenes at the very beginning and end, so that helps provide a framework for the music. Not only does the film's conclusion merit some dramatic accompaniment, but the return to the opening setting (and shifting back to what we heard at the beginning, but transformed) also gives music a chance to reinforce the journey and the distance we've all come.

Probably the toughest scenes to score are those that make up the semi-comic sequence in which Mephisto interacts with Gretchen's aunt. After more than an hour of building up Mephisto as all-powerful, suddenly the film confronts him with the unwanted attentions of an older woman. What kind of music goes with that? And to make things worse, the film cuts back and forth to Faust and Gretchen, who are seriously in love. I ended up keeping Mephisto's 'devil music' in 3/4 time, but more bumptious, for his scenes with the Aunt, and then keeping the 3/4 beat going for Faust and Gretchen but laying over it some softer chords that sounded a bit more aspirational at first, then grew as the emotional temperature of the scenes rose.

Most of the score ended up being built out of elements taken from the 3/4 time melody. The only other material was a 6/8 march first heard at the beginning of the film during the village celebration, and later morphed into many different shapes for different purposes. I also had a "religious chord sequence" that I first developed for a screening of 'King of Kings' last year, and which came in handy here in many places, especially as material for the big ending.

Audience response was strong. Found out later than the screening was extra credit for an English class from a nearby high school, which explains the group of teenagers all sitting close to one another on one side of the theater.

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