Contemporary Music Review Vol. 27, Nos. 2/3, April/June 2008, pp. 171 – 177
What is Film Music?
Preface by Hyesu Shin
This article by Stefan Wolpe appeared in 1926 in Das Kunstblatt, a renowned but controversial periodical with avant-garde tendencies that today is regarded as one of the most important art-historical sources of the Weimar Republic.1 Wolpe’s article belongs among the few essays on music. Despite the subtitle, ‘Monthly Journal for Artistic Developments in Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Literature, Music’, the periodical was largely dominated by the visual arts. The founder and publisher was Otto Westheim, promoter and publicist of Expressionism, who was especially interested in Oskar Kokoschka.2 This might help to explain the style of Wolpe’s article, which can be described as thoroughly expressionistic, as one sees already at the beginning with his critical yet amusing exclamations. His treatment of the topic of ﬁlm music accords with the spirit of the journal, which aimed to be ‘international, pluralistic and modernistic’, and valued above all ‘avant-gardist novelty’. According to Jost Hermand and Frank Trommler, the journal promoted Expressionism, then Constructivism and ﬁnally Neue Sachlichkeit, but beyond all these aesthetic standpoints ‘it sought from all these movements the highest standards’ (Hermand & Trommler, 1978, pp. 389ff). Contributors who wrote for the journal included George Grosz, Oskar Schlemmer, ¨ Le Corbusier, El Lissitzky, Theodor Daubler, Carl Einstein, Gustav Schieﬂer, Willy ´ ´ ¨ Wolfradt, Will Grohmann, Alfred Kemeny and Ernst Kallai (Windhofel, 1995, p. 332). In addition to Wolpe’s article in 1926 there were ﬁve essays on contemporary music, including three by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt. In the ﬁrst issue he wrote an article ‘In Praise of the Gramophone’, and in numbers 2 and 10 on Josef Matthias Hauer3 and Ernst Krenek, respectively. In number 7, Hanns Gutman wrote on ‘Opera Outside of Berlin’. Articles informed readers about ﬁlm at irregular intervals; in 1926, there were ﬁve brief notices in the reviews section. Wolpe’s article consists of four parts. After a brief introduction he proceeds in the next two parts to discuss what constitutes the essence of ﬁlm music and how it ought to be produced. In conclusion there is a kind of proclamation in which Wolpe calls on musicians to produce with courage ‘good and proper music’ for ﬁlms. It is noteworthy that Wolpe speaks of music for the cinema (Kino-Musik), as in the original title, ‘Was ist Kino-Musik?’ Although he uses ‘Cinema Music’ and ‘Film Music’ interchangeably, he clearly favored the term ‘Kino-Musik’ when he was pressing
ISSN 0749-4467 (print)/ISSN 1477-2256 (online) ª 2008 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/07494460801990155
his argument. The article has ‘Film-Musik’ twice and ‘Filmmusik’ once, indicating a preference for the hyphen that marks a visual division between ‘ﬁlm/cinema’ and ‘music’. With ‘Cinema-Music’ the distinction between ﬁlm and music is experienced as a spatial and visual fact and thus is made more conscious to the reader than with the term ‘Film Music’.4 It is precisely because ﬁlm and music are two independent art forms that are uniﬁed in the cinema that Wolpe makes an aesthetic point that could also apply to the musical theater. In fact, his view on the musical theater is similar to that of Kurt Weill’s, above all when Wolpe in the third section of his article discusses the importance of rhythm in the creation of ﬁlm music: ‘A scene’s rhythm, then, must become the primary technical basis for the music.’ The Gestus was one of the central ideas of Weill’s musical theatre: ‘[The gestic means of music] is expressed ﬁrst of all in a rhythmic ﬁxing of the text’ (Weill, 2000, p. 86). Rhythm is thus the decisive dimension by means of which the music unites with the moving picture in the ﬁlm and with the text for the stage. The desired result in either case is music that, in terms of Busoni’s image, forms a suit of armor that has integrity in and of itself. Wolpe’s interest in ﬁlm and ﬁlm music had a family background. His father David Wolpe lost his business in the collapse of the economy after the war and for a time managed a small chain of movie houses until that business also failed. After Wolpe reconciled with his father in 1921 and returned to live at home, he supported himself by playing piano in his father’s cinemas. He told his third wife Hilda Morley that he enjoyed the job, for it gave him the opportunity to exercise his gifts for improvisation (Wolpe-Rademacher, 2003; Morley, unpub., p. 102). Thus Wolpe’s ideas on ﬁlm music were grounded in personal experience. He must have learned about what was effective from experimenting and judging the reactions of the audience, if, as he writes, one only has the courage. Thus he was able to conclude his essay in conﬁdence with the challenge: ‘Begin—please, ﬁnally begin!’ Translated by A. Clarkson Notes
 Westheim (1926). Wolpe noted in his diary in 1926 that he spent an evening in the Kunstblatt circle with Deri (?), van Linken (?), H.[annah] Hoch and [Paul] Westheim (Wolpe, Diary I, p. 96, SWC).  Westheim published the ﬁrst monograph on Kokoschka in 1918.  An article by Hauer on ‘The Theory of the Atonal Melos’ appeared in the Kunstblatt in December 1924.  Wolpe’s ideas on ﬁlm music had important consequences for his compositions for the musical theater. See the article in this issue on ‘Zeus und Elida: Wolpe’s Kunstjazz Opera’.
Hermand, J. & Trommler, F. (1978). Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik. Munich: Nymphenburger. Morley, H. (unpub.). A thousand birds: A memoir of Stefan Wolpe. Hilda Morley Papers, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.
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¨ Weill, K. (2000). Uber den gestischen Charakter der Musik. In S. Hinton and J. Schebera (Eds), Kurt Weill, Musik und musikalisches Theater: Gesammelte Schriften, mit einer Auswahl von ¨ Gesprachen und Interviews. Mainz: Schott. ¨ ¨ Westheim, P. (Ed.). (1926). Das Kunstblatt: Monatsschrift fur kunstlerische Entwicklung in Malerei/ Skulptur/Baukunst/Literatur/Musik. Wildpark-Potsdam: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion. ¨ Windhofel, L. (1995). Paul Westheim und Das Kunstblatt: eine Zeitschrift und ihr Herausgeber in der ¨ ¨ Weimarer Republik. Koln/Weimar/Wien: Boehlau. Wolpe-Rademacher, I. (2003). Recollection. In A. Clarkson (Ed.), Recollections of Stefan Wolpe. Available online at: http://www.wolpe.org.
What is Film Music?
Stefan Wolpe (translated by Sherri Jones)
1. Soon enough this will demand serious attention. However, people are seldom more boring than when it concerns matters of principle. Fussing at them would be too unjust, for they are neither held rigorously enough accountable, nor has anyone made it clear to them what it’s all about. How unfortunate it is that ﬁlm music so quickly outgrew its baby shoes. But now it’s over with! The lonely band members and musicians left behind in the dark are long dead. The earnestness and harmony of the harmonium are no longer, the amusing bum-bum-tremolo of the piano as well. Ah ye magniﬁcent premonitions of grand principles! Time and the inconsequentiality of passing fashion have turned a deaf ear to what those masters of the dark with humble inspiration produced, and what would be considered childish today will once again be taken up, examined and developed by youngsters to come under more reasonable circumstances. 2. The ﬁlm industry, after having established the inﬁnite contrasts of inﬁnitely human, not to mention all-too human, actions into stereotypes, attempted to turn music into the shadiest form of ‘affect-art’. One has seldom had the chance to discover the gestures woven into cinematographic language in the noblest music’s materials by ﬁnding it expressed in the music; for the conductors are lousy and even worse than that are their hearts. Only good art forms possess their own psychic logic. The metamorphoses and subsequent ﬁnal forms of their Gestalt, the more precise exempliﬁcations of their
gradual fates—in short, their structures—are unfavorable, even irreconcilable, with regard to their later use. An artistic phenomenon attains signiﬁcance only within its context, and its context alone is what proves its meaningfulness and shields it from vainglorious self-reﬂections arising out of its many-facetted affects. The phrasing and subdivisions of its proportions and dimensions, how efﬁciently its episodes (i.e., its developments) are treated, that is, its conception and the realization of the idea—all of this (and those with experience certainly know more!) is stimulated through the intelligence of a well-trained, abundantly creative, talented economist. How, one may ask, has it become possible to cause an intact art form to become so utterly meaningless, so meaningless that it is not even in a position to serve new demands, much less capable of crystallizing new meaning? One took from music what it couldn’t give, but didn’t take from it what it would have been able to give (albeit not of its own accord)! They took away the atmosphere and manhandled its articulations, yet they didn’t take its forms, though doing so would have destroyed its consciousness. They forgot how easy it is to cultivate form whose motivations would not have been psychological and whose Gestalt would not have been the worst identiﬁcation. It is necessary to be clear about the reason why music should accompany (really accompany!!!) or illustrate a ﬁlm. The essence of an accompaniment reinforces the synthesis of the materials; the essence of an illustration reinforces the acoustic markers of the events taking place and their forms of articulation. An adequate understanding of what constitutes truly good ﬁlm music—thus able to translate by way of its sounds, communicate through its rhythms and phrasings, and judge by its rests and pauses— is possible only through the uniﬁcation of these two disciplines. The better the ﬁlm, the more compelling and unambiguous its actions and upheavals, and the purer its mimetic outpourings and the rhythm of its pictorial sequences are, then the more the problematic issue of music’s sound is directed toward the most rudimentary units of motion. The more monumental the impulses, shapes and suggestions on the screen are, then the more monotone and modest, yet all the more sure-footed music is in its expression! The assuredness of such music is that it refrains from reinforcing or intensifying the most vigorous gestures, doesn’t participate in the agitations, tragedies and more high-strung, temperamental episodes, but rather furnishes the only thing that matters: reﬂexive graphics. For the purpose of ﬁlm music is the dissolution of all one-sided mimetic intensities that portray [malen] instead of describe [schildern]. What language suppresses cannot be compensated for by gestures; conversely, music, through its sound and more importantly its pictoriality, is itself saturated with postures and symbolic gestures in which the individual characters and their parallel ornamentation ﬁnd their realization. Music as ornament hardly captures an audience’s undivided attention, because music accompanies it. Music accompanies both the audience and the ﬁlm, and it is essential to realize that music entertains the senses in order to stimulate the audience’s imagination [Vorstellung]. Film music’s expression resides in nuance, and the value of the nuance resides in the eloquence of its affect! Music comprehends a gesture without making it. It is not
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supposed to produce it, rather it is the actor’s job to demonstrate it. Music expresses itself only in one speciﬁc direction while the actor experiences all his traumas. Music has no other reality beyond its notes, indeed no other, and yet it possesses the ability to inﬂuence sensory and private feeling, which it then proceeds to capitalize on by capturing the audience before the actor does. In the meantime each actor is hardly aware of this, and therein lies the magic: the actor fosters a calming of the senses by charming them all so as to rattle just one of them more thoroughly. 3. Film music is not concert music. In the beginning was the rest. The rest in music does not mean: no music. (We do not want to give those without talent the beneﬁt of the doubt; it would be best that they not begin at all.) It is a mistake to demand of music that it adapt itself to us. Woe to a ﬁlm if it’s bad! Only a bad ﬁlm serves as a playground for antiquated and foolish tragedies, for idiotic rhapsodizing and unceasing melodrama. These days one is apparently reluctant to die on screen, which is a good thing: one more reason for music to be denied its elegiac posturing. The more subtle a scene’s rhythms are, the more dynamic the plasticity and fate of the characters and crowds are, the more ascetic their feelings—the more focused their goals and prejudices—then all the more challenging are the responsibilities of the music. There is no room for even the best melody in ﬁlm, since it would have to be listened to, and in a movie the music is not meant to be heard, unless, of course, one values being taxed. Away with the musical props by Massenet, Auber, Thomas and all the others, which died an all-too just death—a death so just that it could hardly stand the transformation even in the dark. Film music is without character, it is neither sublime nor proud; this music is soley destined for versions, formulas and types of sound, it is prepared beforehand and prepares for what comes next: it lacks the wherewithal of something that develops so that it can understand itself. There is no other possibility! As true as it is that the ﬁlm determines the music, it is equally unquestionable that ﬁlm music doesn’t make music, for if it did, it would have to begin somewhere, and it happens not to prefer to begin properly, to keep from developing the wrong way. Current ﬁlm music instrumentalizes emotions without any sense of its gradations. It is dramatic and always eager to be upset, whether it is dealing with intimate tragedies or raging and bloody circumstances. It goes along with everything, although it actually is a part of nothing, and the very last thing it has to offer in the way of stupor and drunken exactitude is emphasis—although it can’t even differentiate between the colors that determine the emphatic. One can read about what kinds of ridiculous principles and dated bad taste one still pays tribute to today in a recently published manual for ﬁlm illustrations (by Otto Junne, Leipzig).1 Good music for the cinema guides the effects of a scene. First one has to study the rhythm of a scene, even when its structure is built entirely differently. Music must nevertheless strive to emulate a scene’s imagined, more sublimated potential, thus, its utterly pivotal power center—then, in the same way that rhythm melds together the
more fragile impacts and outpourings of every feeling, the music should be a magniﬁcent framework for the situation, through the ﬁnest reﬂections and (the above-mentioned) reﬂexive graphics, which, without a trace of vehemence, ultimately leads to more temperate contours, forms and vivid arpeggios—seeing to it that it avoids stepping on a scene’s toes or misleading the audience with its melodramatic asthmatic wheezing. A scene’s rhythm, then, must become the primary technical basis for the music. Out of this the music then etches out all the precise articulation—the articulation of the atmosphere, of the characters, of relationships and all their unambiguous and ambiguous tensions. However—taking care to never intimidate or impose upon a scene, thereby advertising its vulnerabilities—music, with its innate strengths, should never detract from whatever is momentarily being expressed or highlighted on the screen. In the same way, the music can neither allow itself to burgeon into an auditory vehicle nor into an entourage of affects; its criterion is instead founded upon each speciﬁc type of rhythm in which the movement’s homogeneity is elucidated, exposed and sublimated in the most versatile way. The intrinsic difference between rhythm and tempo is still being contorted into the worst possible directions. Tempo is a form of rhythmic effect; rhythm is a form of essential relationships. Music that tries to attain psychic sensations by way of tempo destroys every nuance of intimate mobility and stimulation in that it makes the visible seem normal instead of keeping it in check. Tonal constructions, soundscapes and an unremitting, practically inconceivable rhythm are the tangible and more modern fundamentals of this music. Only the kind of technical perfection that transforms de-psychologized music into sublime energies is able to deliver that particular aesthetic harmony in which the synthesis reconciles the effects of the various materials and thereby renews its style through this amalgamation. 4. The ﬁrst thing that has to be done is a radical reorientation of all matter and materials. Comedy—the cinematic burlesque—demands its own musical characterizations, its witty, one-of-a-kind improvisations (minus any obbligato bass or any obbligato descant), its skimming the cream off the top, its punch lines, spontaneous impulsivities, and lively monodies—what valuable prospects to be in command of every situation, in every situation to be orchestra [Kapelle] and conductor [Meister] alike. Emphasize and pay attention to the rhythms, the rhythms that are the scenes themselves. Grade the tone colors, sections and rest according to their contrasting values. Hire virtuosos who grasp the passions of their instruments; experiment, produce ﬁgures, passages and formulas. Colors and the rhythmic consequence of tone-color-melody [Farbmelos] widen themselves into those gestures that are imbedded in a great succession of entities! Why Grieg when the sun sets? Why Chopin’s B-ﬂat minor when someone is in a bad way? Why Beethoven’s Fifth every time two or more are on the rampage? Music has no compassion! Its greatest
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contentment should be its passivity; its global character negates the instantaneous passions on the screen. Music is only interested in the behavior of characters, crowds and fates. When there’s action, music should be meager; when there’s no action in a scene, it should be arrogant and just musical. No more pre-composed music, not the bad, even less the good! Overlook convention, which is a victim of weak nerves. Good, convincing ﬁlm music won’t be performed by a hundred musicians who could just as well be sitting in a symphony orchestra (if they would have learned all they could), but by musicians who can pick up a cinematic effect with their ears and savor it on their instrument. Begin—please, ﬁnally begin—to create unpretentious scores that no longer leave the music in straights, but gets it involved. Begin to hone stylized fantasies that grant the scene freedom and suppleness without later ﬁnding itself listed on censors’ sheets of melodic props, invoking neither the forms nor means with which ﬁner and more speciﬁc things are organized. Have the courage to think of everything, and don’t confuse nerves’ comfort and the ill will of a poor and vaguely ﬁckle audience with serious tasks worthy enough to involve the brave and dashing minds of today. Note
 Bijok, J. (Ed.). (1921). Handbuch der Film-Illustration. Leipzig: Otto Junne.