You are on page 1of 10

Charms That Soothe

This page intentionally left blank


The title of this book is adapted from the familiar opening lines
of William Congreves 1697 tragedy, The Mourning Bride:
Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks,
or bend the knotted oak.1 This quotation-book staple is the de-
finitive idealized expression of musics benevolent powers, and
of course it relates to more than just music. Straightforward dec-
larations like this, and the straightforward use we often make of
them, speak to our deep desire for simplicity and comprehensi-
bility. They evince an ancient and persistent faith that there can
be a parallel relation between a statement and its object, between
a set of conditions and the sentiments, ideas, and applications
that arise therefrom.
From another perspective it might be observed that these reas-
suring, apparently universal parallels have been much questioned
for a very long time now, and not altogether without reason. We
may have had such a direct experience with music, and with
other things besides. Ideas and the experiences that give rise to
them, or that emerge out of them, can surely be congruent. But
congruency does not exhaust every possibility, and ambiguity
lies always in wait. When we investigate Congreves statement
further we find ourselves confronted with a pair of common quo-
tation-book complications. The first of these is that for almost
every position we urge there is sure to be an equally urgeable
counterposition. The other is that this counterposition is often to
be found at the source of the original statement, and that the roots
of received wisdom are generally more tangled than wed like
them to be.
Almeria, Congreves mourning bride, illustrates this idea as
she opens the play with her well-known statement, which she
then immediately contradicts.

What then am I? Am I more senseless grown

Than Trees, or Flint? O Force of constant Woe!
Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs. (68)
Here is a problem with famous quotes, and with platitudes in
general. We often use them to prove our position or even to by-
pass any proving process. We seek to establish fixed points, or
even a single fixed point, when the context out of which the ob-
servation emerges is in a state of constant and multiplicitous flux.
Sometimes it is possible to sort these threads, to reach a syn-
thesis of opposing yet complementary ideas. In this instance we
might say that Almerias opening monologue demonstrates that
music can both calm and disturb, that the very same tones might
strike one person as being harmonious and another as being dis-
sonant. It suggests that these properties of harmony and disso-
nance, or at least our apprehension of them, are subject to our
own dispositions or circumstances, both individual and cultural.
Leaving the terms of the debate to consider the process by which
we reconcile them, we might draw an important conclusion that
also extends beyond this particular discussion. When we interro-
gate, when we go beyond the well-known expression or the trun-
cated idea, we find that there are more positions, and more to
each position, than we had ever suspected.
These are uncontroversial points, but they bear repeating be-
cause of the way they reflect the subject at hand, as well as the
insistently partisan discussions that still surround it. This is a
book about parallels and perpendiculars, and about what can hap-
pen when apparently opposing concepts clash. It illustrates these
outcomes by considering quotations, the uses we put them to,
and the contexts out of which they emerge. The quotations in
question are musical, so that the book also addresses the places
of music in narrative and in the transmission of meaning gener-
These last are familiar questions, widely debated through re-
cent centuries, and still of central concern to the come-lately
communities of film composition. Until recently the question of
film musical quotationof music originally created for one par-
ticular purpose being used in a separate, cinematic settinghas
not had much of a place in these discussions, whether they be

broadly musical or specifically cinematic. One important reason

for this is that whereas many musicians of various stripes have
an investment in totalities and musical idealisms, quotation is
almost unavoidably fragmented and even disruptive. Far from
clarifying or covering its contexts, this repurposed music has had
a consistent and decidedly disconcerting effect on a number of
music cultural factions.
As we will see, the idealists have some justification, and we
will not pretend that all of the effects of quotation are straightfor-
wardly salutary. In passing through some of its complications,
however, we will find that this is more than just a troubling trend
with which we must come to terms. Rather it will be argued that
the institution of musical quotation in film narrative is quite cen-
tral in its resonance and relevance, and that it holds the possibil-
ity of real instruction and enjoyment.
It is possible to find these things when we take the trouble to
investigate a quotation, when we trace it back to a source or con-
sider its transformations in a narrative, or in the way that a spec-
tator receives it. In doing this we will very often find that what
has begun in fragmentation can lead us to a certain resolution and
to an illumination of broad contexts and common experiences.
Congreves platitude and counterplatitude is emblematic of most
any intertextual interchange, and even of our own attempts to
relate our own particular experiences and partial knowledge to
the broader settings around us. We are surrounded by fragments,
removed from roots, troubled and tempted by echoes of pleni-
tude, disconcerted by the possibility that these echoes are only
an illusion, or a deception. Seeking reassurance, we may incline
toward cliche d expressions and conceptual reductions, even fil-
tering our experiences and perceptions through such selective
lenses. Conversely, and in reaction, we may tend toward nega-
tion, seeking alternatives to and even denying the viability of
conventional affirmative impulses.
These are precisely the contradictory impulses that motivate
and characterize the main traditions not only of narrative film
generally, but most particularly of film music. Harmony and dis-
sonance, parallelism, and what has most commonly been called
film musical counterpoint, together constitute both the prescribed
practice and the most standard critique of classical film music.

These are binary oppositions, and they were important in estab-

lishing and giving definition to some of the first film music dis-
cussions. Initially these oppositions invited staunch advocacies,
as well as corresponding antipathies, all of which bore fruit in
both the theory and practice of film music composition.
The positions, or at least the received representations of these
positions, are familiar. Closer scrutiny will follow, but the stan-
dard versions bear repeating in this introduction. The prac-
titioners and theorist-historians who together codified the
conventions of classical film music accepted certain institutional
imperatives. As a rule golden age Hollywood produced fairly
simple narratives that provided, through numerous straightfor-
ward cinematic means, a clear and unobjectionable experience
for the audience. Continuity editing and what has been called
Aristotelian structureclear protagonism and antagonism, un-
ambiguous objectiveswere some of the devices that became
standard in studio output, which was designed both for entertain-
ment and profit and not to overly tax the viewer. In exchange for
these considerations it was hoped the viewer would feel com-
forted and cared for, and that his patronage would continue.
To safeguard this relationship, the film music community did
its part, adopting and expanding the notion of parallelism, which
is to say that it provided movie music that charmed and soothed.
To work as efficiently as the rest of the cinematic apparatus, film
scores were to be congruent with and subordinate to the narra-
tive; what you heard was dovetailed to what you saw, though the
correlation was to be quietly communicated and subconsciously
processed. Further, lest this correlation of music to image, and
more importantly of narrative to reality were to seem strained
and inadequate, it was determined that audiences were not to
know of the taming processes to which they were being sub-
jected. And for the most part they seemed not to recognize them:
the subjugation was successful, audiences were subdued, and
Hollywood, industrially, economically, and ideologically, pre-
This is a defensible characterizationa usable quotetaken
out of a more complicated context. There is more to this story
than Hollywood hegemony. Opposing production alternatives
arose to the film industrys guiding and smothering devices, and

in the stalls there were many who were able to read against the
intended industrial grain. At the core of the contrary reading was
the idea that commercial, conventional films parallel processes
and straightforward representations may have been simple and
comprehensible, but they were not adequate to the complexity,
richness, or direness of art and experience.
So it was that the musical community, when it condescended
to take notice of film music, consistently decried its subservient
state. Musicians and musical scholars believed and had a stake in
the independence and integrity of music, but they felt that these
things were, and were likely to remain, nonexistent within the
confines of the film industry. Other voices, more sympathetic to
cinematic projects, nevertheless sided with the musicians in their
perpendicular relation to and their general rejection of film musi-
cal parallelism. For film modernists of formalist persuasion the
effects of conventional film music were aesthetically impover-
ished. For the ideologically and politically minded, these effects
were even more serious: the conventional devices of film music,
and of commercial film generally, had a dangerous influence on
both spectators and citizens. These films left audiences domesti-
cated and enervated, with the result that audience members were
circumscribed in the expression, apprehension, and exercise of
freedom, and of freedoms responsibilities.
A good deal of time has passed since these first formulations
were made, and a good deal of more measured theoretical and
practical activity has taken place. The need for this more reason-
able discussion has at least something to do with the totalizing
tendencies that inform the seminal film music statements. We
find in these a seemingly unwavering faith in commerce (Holly-
wood and its apologists), or in communism (the early statements
of the Soviet modernists), or in the ineffability of abstract music
(Romantic elements of the music community). The certainty in
these statements is undeniably appealing, and dangerous as well,
and it is still present in the trenches of media production and
public perception. As it was in the early debates, so it is some-
times today; salesmen and artists and their respective defenders
can all be restricted by platitudinous self-images, which not inci-
dentally distort their notions of the other side. And scholars, my-
self included, are not immune, as these last, slightly monolithic

thumbnail sketches indicate. Our antagonism, even our mild dis-

inclination toward opposing positions can blind us to some of the
complexities of these positions, and to the possibility that we are
not in such opposition after all.
It need hardly be pointed out that notwithstanding their many
constraints and vulgarities, Hollywood and other commercial
centers have produced a great many excellent films, full of nu-
ance, subtlety, and beauty. Likewise the classical film score has
played a frequently beneficent part, providing much of convic-
tion and emotion even in its most conventional story support. If
on the other hand it is true that there is much that is inadequate
in commercial film production, then it might be argued that the
contrapuntal alternatives of the film modernists could be, in their
conceptual homogeneity and inflexibility, as limited as that
which they opposed. The standard accounts of the positions of
various film music communities are something like the quotes
already discussed; these are famous expressions and truncated
ideas, essential and incomplete, in need of interrogation and sus-
ceptible to real synthesis and even reconciliation.
If a single quote can signify more abundantly when we trace it
to its source, then these broad accounts can likewise benefit from
contextualization and comparison. A book about musical quota-
tions in film is in some senses a very particular, very specialized
investigation. But in tracing the consistently disapproving atti-
tudes that firmly constituted and widely diversified film music
factions have had toward quotation, and by outlining the nature
of and the motivations behind these attitudes, this book also be-
comes an alternative history of film music itself. What is perhaps
new is that this alternative is both revisionist and conciliatory; it
reaches for and finally posits a kind of synthesis of several very
valid and ultimately incomplete positions. After the history
comes a contemplation of possibility, taken from the fragments
of things already partly said, and partly done.
This book is divided roughly into three sections, correspond-
ing to three important ways in which serious music interacts with
film and film culture. The first, as portrayed in chapters one and
two, is critical and cultural. In these chapters we will find film
music advocates squaring off against the musical establishment
over the subject of classical music in film. In this debate each

community will reveal much of its values, and much of the social
and historical context in which these values operate, and out of
which they emerge. We will also consider some of the more mea-
sured, less factional scholarly accounts of the subject, some of
which will inform the direction of my own eventual argument.
The second point of film-to-classical music contact is figura-
tive. In chapters three and four we will discuss film music analo-
gies, metaphors that have suggested, as well as a new one that
will suggest, ways in which film and music might actually have
similar aims and effects. The first analogy, the influential and
confounding idea of film-musical counterpoint, emerged out of
the Soviet cinematic avant-garde. With its bold prescriptions and
refusals, this is a faction as surely as the other two just men-
tioned. As such, and as might be expected, its analogy, or at least
the way in which it has most frequently been wielded, is far from
conciliatory. But the counterpoint analogy will lead us to an-
other, largely unmarked figure that encloses and gives place to
both film and classical music cultures, and which presents an
alternative to the largely divisive, pugnacious exchanges that
have tended to prevail on the subject.
This latter film-musical analogy is built upon the institution of
program music, which reminds us that some kind of narrative,
some set of assumptions or expectations generally predates and
informs almost every expression, musical or otherwise. This in-
forming can clarify, or it can be incoherent, but in either case the
results can be both interesting and instructive, and they are at the
least emblematic. Programs lead us finally to the books last sec-
tion and the final way that film and classical music have acted
togetherin actual practice, in the production and the receiving,
which practice has been and continues to be most broad and var-
ied. Films, and music, and the places where both combine, may
return us to the standard positions and analogies, but they will
allow us a refreshed look at and helpful alternatives to the famil-
iar paradigms.
Finally, a word about the parameters of this study. It is not
intended to be an exhaustive list of films in which classical music
appears. Such a list would be useful as a resource for further
study, but it would necessarily leave aside the critical work
needed to provide theoretical context. Instead, as I have sug-

gested, I will consider a number of texts and contexts, attempting

to draw therefrom some general patterns and their implications
for the ways films are made, both at the level of production and
For classical music I will use the term in its generally, popu-
larly accepted sense. It is art music which has, either in its time
of composition or by some evolutionary process, come to be ac-
cepted as serious, and that has been composed by the formally
trained to be played by the formally trained, with a few excep-
tions. It includes that which usually falls within the standard con-
cert hall repertory, comprising mostly the Baroque, Classical,
and Romantic periods. In relation, it is generally that which has
been composed and canonized long before the production of the
film in which it appears. There will be some consideration of
twentieth-century forms as well, especially those that derive from
the traditions and culture of classical music. I will not generally
deal with opera, though its utilization in film has been very fre-
quent and raises many of the same issues that will be discussed
here. As for compositions and composers which have become
serious after the fact (such as George Gershwin or Kurt Weill),
there will be only passing mention.
Even more loosely utilized will be narrative film, that which
tells a story of some kind, which is of course true to most fiction
and much of nonfiction production. Narratives can range from
the most familiar conventions to the most stringent boundary
stretching. Narratives both transparent and opaque fall within the
purview of this study, and though avant-gardes are officially out-
side the present scope, there will be some reference to these tra-
ditions as well.


1. Congreve, 1967, 326, lines 12.