Home > Uncategorized > An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 2 – Influence on Cinema)

An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 2 – Influence on Cinema)

The notion of a “moving picture” was in its embryonic stage around the time of Wagner’s passing in 1883. Within a few decades, it was becoming a ubiquitous medium: film, cinema, or the colloquial “movies.” While a fair number of films contain music composed by Wagner, his broader influence on the form is arguably discernible. In 2010, Indiana University published a compilation of essays entitled Wagner and Cinema, edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman. In the book’s introduction, Joe acknowledges the affinities between the composer’s ideas and the medium, but implies as well the risk of overplaying the case. Some of it depends on how one interprets the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, more or less translated as “total artwork,” a term that Wagner employed in his 1849 essay The Artwork of the Future.

Since Joe’s and Gilman’s compilation contains a diverse array of subtopics, I’ll attempt not to retread the same ground. Rather, my aspiration is to expand on it, albeit in less academic language, based on some of my own personal experiences with film that brings to mind aspects of Wagner.

Besides John Williams, a number of film composers owe, and have even acknowledged, their debt to Wagner. This became most prominent in the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (approximately the 1930s and 1940s), after a number of composers fled political situations in Eastern and Middle Europe. Many left because they were Jewish, bringing with them a need for a living wage income, along with composition techniques filtered down from Wagner through such composers as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Names include Erich Korngold (1897-1957), whose music was derided by more “sophisticated” types as “more corn than gold”; Max Steiner (1888-1971), perhaps best known for King Kong (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Casablanca (1943); Franz Waxman (1906-1967), who composed scores for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Rear Window (1954); and Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979), who lent music to films ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) to the original The Thing from Another World (1951). During his acceptance speech for winning Best Score (for The High and the Mighty) at the 1955 Academy Awards, Tiomkin wryly thanked some people who made it possible for him and other film composers to succeed in Hollywood (his speech starts at around 2:10).

Along with a few others among the names he mentioned, no surprise about Wagner appearing among that bunch.

Despite his aspiration to be known as a “legitimate” (non-cinematic) composer, New Yorker Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) is one of the most renowned for his contributions to the medium, with a career stretching from Citizen Kane (1941) to Taxi Driver (1976). Unlike many of his near-contemporaries, he generally eschewed usage of leitmotif. Nonetheless, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), he contributed music that alludes strongly to Wagner’s headily erotic (and arguably spiritual) opera Tristan und Isolde (1865). One can hear in both Herrmann’s Scene d’amour and Wagner’s Liebestod (Love Death) tender sonic tendrils in the strings, along with swellings of passion embedded in swirls of sound.

To a degree, one can even pick up on similar allusions to Wagner in Herrmann’s score for North by Northwest (1959), most especially in the piece “Train Conversations.”

Whether or not film composers deliberately plant “Easter eggs” for those who understand allusions to certain works, “Wagnerian” techniques continue to pervade film scores. I’ve even made some of my own personal connections, all of which I’ve tried finding information about… whether or not they were intentional. However, in many cases, I’ve had to go with vague hints and circumstantial evidence, and just trust my ears.

Perhaps a very apt one with which to start is the Chevaliers de Sangreal portion of Hans Zimmer’s (1957- ) soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code (2006), which seems to evoke both the Christian pilgrims’ motif from Tannhäuser, as well as musical strains from Wagner’s final opera Parsifal (1882)… also more or less “about” (given its arcane symbolism) the “Holy Grail.”

Götterdämmerung is an apt word for massive catastrophe, another stock in trade of the film industry. More so than its English translation “Twilight of the Gods.” It’s also, of course, the title of yet another Wagner opera. The final one in his Ring cycle. It concludes with what`s commonly known as Brunnhilde`s Immolation, which portrays the Valkyrie`s self-sacrifice to bring about the destruction of Valhalla (home of the corrupt and outmoded gods, derived from Nordic legend), making way for the dawn of a new world. Here’s the end of that sequence, and of the whole 14-16 hour epic, with subtitles:

Themes similar to the “redemption” motif, which appears throughout the aforementioned sequence, appear in other works. While West Side Story (1957) isn’t about large-scale destruction, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) integrated the redemption motif into the heartbreaking song “Somewhere.”

Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) typically drew inspiration from composers like Stravinsky, and never admitted to a Wagner influence as far as I can tell. Nonetheless, one can’t help but notice it in the film Gojira tai Desutoroia (1995). Listen closely to the “Requiem,” which portrays the nuclear meltdown and death of the iconic monster who has brought both terror and salvation to Japan.

I don’t know if this apparent allusion was deliberate on Ifukube’s part, but it seems a bit more than coincidental… and entirely appropriate. Oddly enough, someone took the battle preceding Gojira’s death, and set it to the previously-mentioned Chevaliers de Sangreal music from Da Vinci Code. Somehow, that seems to work as well. Something about our desire for saviours, perhaps…

Along with concepts, music motifs can also refer to individuals. Think about the themes associated with certain characters… a series of music bars that act as a sonic calling card. Again, while not technically Wagnerian in his technique, Ifukube gave many of the iconic daikaiju from Japanese horror movies some unforgettable themes, changing key, tempo, orchestration, and the like as needed. Here’s music for a battle between Gojira and his pteranodonian freinemy Radon, employing themes associated with both.

As mentioned in the last posting, Star Wars contains a number of motifs portraying characters, including this one in a “minor” key.

Also courtesy of John Williams, another character-related motif in a “major” key.

Another movie hero possesses a motif that sounds almost like it could be in minor or major key (although technically it’s apparently the latter). Someone whose womanizing and dirty work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service make him a bit less of a goody-two-shoes than Henry Jones, Jr. But not unlike Jones, he takes on villains with malevolent plans for such things as world domination. His theme initially appeared just over 50 years ago in a “jazzy” form, prominently featuring an electric guitar played by Vic Flick.

Whether Monty Norman (1928- ) or John Barry (1933-2011) originally came up with “The James Bond Theme,” the latter composed scores for many of the initial outings for British Secret Service agent 007. Some say that it actually originated with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), but I digress…

Barry used the theme in various forms, a tradition continued by current Bond film scorer David Arnold (1962- ). In the series reboot Casino Royale (2006), Arnold avoided explicit usage of the Bond theme until the very end. This was to indicate that Bond had (more or less) completed his first mission as a “00” agent… and that he had also “returned.”

I’ve always found the Bond film scores intriguing. In particular, related to my research interests, the tendency to move almost seamlessly among different genres. Most certainly, they possess a palpable conservatory sensibility amidst the pop and jazz elements. I suppose some might criticise Barry, especially genre-based purists, for not picking a style and staying with it. But his defiance of genre-based conventions more or less reflects the risky world of Bond, and ended up creating an oft-imitated style in itself… sometimes to the point of parody.

As stated near the end of this article on another Barry piece, regarding his score to Goldfinger (1964), the composer utilised what he self-deprecatingly called “Mickey Mouse Wagner.”

Technically, as Barry stated in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, the main theme to Goldfinger draws primary inspiration from “Mack the Knife.” Like “Goldfinger,” Weill’s song has undergone numerous renditions in many genres, ever since it appeared in Die Dreigroschenoper, or “The Threepenny Opera” (1928). Composed by Kurt Weill (1900-1950), the song portrays a villain and his sinister acts. The same for “Goldfinger,” although Barry embedded the Bond theme in it as well.

Still, the film’s IMDB trivia entry mentions the title song’s “huge, Wagnerian orchestral opening.” Even with the “five trombones, four trumpets, four French horns and a tuba,” even I (who can find musical similarities under practically every rock) believe that this notion overstates the case. That said, I think Barry’s statement hints that Wagnerian techniques pepper the score. And this is something I’ve suspected for years, especially in what I would call the “death” motif that appears throughout the film.

Let’s return to Götterdämmerung, this time to “Siegfried’s Funeral March.” Listen to the first minute or so.

And then listen to this, where one of Goldfinger`s minions kills a group of gangsters by trapping them in a room he fills with deadly gas.

(As a side note, with the relatively recent memories of concentration camps at the time of the film and the purported Nazi past of the actor who played Goldfinger, this scene created some degree of controversy. Perhaps when he composed the music for it, with his possible allusion to “Hitler’s favourite composer,” Barry had a similar connection in mind.)

The “death” motif appears in other segments as well, including when the sister of one of Goldfinger’s victims is herself felled by the villain’s manservant.

You might hear a bit of mournfulness, felt by Bond, in this track as well… almost reminiscent, I’d say, of the tenderness in Herrmann’s Tristan-esque music for Hitchcock (eroticism, death, etc.). The film contains at least a few other examples of this as well, but I don’t want to belabour the point.

For an example of a more lush contrast, also a bit reminiscent of Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock, the first two minutes of this clip feature a slightly different version of “Alpine Drive.” At least relatively speaking, it acts as a repose from the action, even though it’s merely a slightly less menacing variation on the title theme; in the most bucolic of settings, Goldfinger`s shadow imposes itself.

As mentioned earlier, Arnold carries on a similar tradition. I must admit to feeling gobsmacked when I heard what I took to be an allusion to Brunnhilde`s Immolation from Götterdämmerung in the main theme for Skyfall (2012), the most recent Bond outing. Considering what happens near the end of the film, I wouldn`t be surprised if it were deliberate.

To help underscore the comparison, start around 6:50 here:

Taking into account the examples mentioned above, along with those cited in numerous other writings, it isn’t surprising that a number of films have used Wagner’s compositions as well. A November 2011 article in the L.A. Times discussed its usage in two films that came out at approximately the same time: Melancholia and A Dangerous Method. Even the trailer for the former, about a previously-unknown planet approaching Earth, actually uses music from Tristan, which also appears throughout the entire film.

Even extramusically, some recent films have alluded to aspects of Wagner’s Ring. With the tagline “The Reich Strikes Back,” the tongue-in-cheek “Nazis from the Moon” film Iron Sky (2012) features “Siegfried class” warships, along with the massive ship Götterdämmerung. (There`s even a character with the surname Wagner.) Likely through the influence of opera fan Christoph Waltz, Quentin Tarantino alludes to the epic in Django Unchained (2012). While the film takes place before any of the Ring operas premiered, a number of articles (including this one from the New York Times) note a number of parallels between them.

This idiosyncratic perspective of mine on film music just scratches the surface of connections between Wagner and cinema. But the aforementioned examples should suffice, even if they might colour a bit outside the lines of what some find acceptable. Others have written elsewhere on these connections, too. The Joe / Gilman book mentioned near the beginning goes into much greater depth on such matters, and its essays can speak more eloquently for itself than I could.

Certainly, the distance between film scores and “classical” music isn’t all that great. Between “classical” and “popular” music in a broad sense, however, there exists more of an apparent division. Nonetheless, as the next installment outlines, Wagner’s influence has spilled into this realm as well.

  1. May 21, 2013 at 01:06

    I don’t have time yet to listen to all the musical examples, but I will! Thanks for your series (though I don’t think there is a reason to be ambivalent on his 200th. It’s just a time to celebrate all that is good, which is a lot.) Do you know the Samuel Goldwyn quote he allegedly said to some composer he hired: “Please write music like Wagner, only louder.” Thought it should be here..

  2. May 21, 2013 at 10:09

    Thank you for your comments! I’m not sure that I’ve come across the story about Samuel Goldwyn, but I think a number of film composers have succeeded in meeting that standard. The ambivalence… I think it’ll stick with Wagner for some time. Not because of his music, of course, although some critical musicologists claim to have found coded anti-Semitism there (along with his librettos) as well. It’s a sketchy claim that I’ll mention in my last posting in this series. But, yes, arguably there is much good. At the end of his documentary on Wagner, Stephen Fry says as much.

  1. July 23, 2013 at 10:13

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