Modern music and the movies

by Hanns Eisler

See background notes by G Mayer and list of Eisler’s writings in English.

Modern music and the movies [I] (1939)

Modern music and the movies [II] (1945)

 

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Modern music and the movies [I]

Typescript by Hanns Eisler, 1939.

Taken from Hanns Eisler – Musik und Politik – Schriften 1924-1948, ed. Günter Mayer
(1973: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig), pp. 459-460 © Stephanie Eisler.
Page turns in the 1973 edition are inserted here according to the principle that |411-2| means the change from page 411 to 412.

Speaking about modem music and the movies, firstly I have to make a few things clear. By modern music we (mean the style (which was) developed on the concert stage and the opera in the last thirty years. And by style, I mean the new musical material and the technique of |459-60| composition and instrumentation. These styles (are represented) were developed by (the) three masters, Arnold Schönberg, Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. Every modern composer is influenced by them. (Aside from the purely musical side of modern music, there exists also the technique of applying music to the motion picture, a dramaturgical technique which also deserves the name modern.) I want to make clear that I don’t intend at all to reform the present type of motion picture, which I do not like at all. There is neither the necessity or possibility (to write) of writing an interesting (modern) score for certain types of motion pictures like Getting Gertie’s Garter, Duel in the Sun or The Razor’s Edge. When I think about applying modern musical methods to motion pictures, I think about the potentialities of this art (which are really tremendous). Even the worst motion picture shows clearly the enormous possibilities this art form could have and will have in the future. But if I detest the present state of motion pictures, this doesn’t mean that I am advocating a defeatist point of view of a composer working in the studio. Without any cheap illusions of rosy optimism, a composer has to do all what he can, in daily little fights for little details, for little improvements, his best to achieve something better. It has to be said very sharply that present motion picture music, with very few exceptions, is ecclectic trash in every way. It is trash as music itself, and is trash in the way it is handled dramaturgically. Musically, this constant derivation from Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Ravel has become so cliché that it cannot any longer produce any dramatic effects of all. Aside from the more conventional clichés (it can very often produce) there is also a kind of pseudo-modernism, a certain imitation of Debussy and Ravel, with a certain sprinkling of Stravinsky.

But also the more modern clichés are now overdone and tedious. The same cliché shows itself in the dramaturgical approach which can be summarized in the following way. If, on the screen, the boy kisses the girl, a solo violin is applied, and if he falls down, a brass drum announces that he has hit the ground. Without joking usually the music imitates the screen action to such a degree as if the music were produced for the benefit of the blind only. You yourself must often have recognized how often and in what a tasteless manner the music announces the coming action so clumsily, that every dramatic tension is announced and |460-1| vitiated before it occurs. We have to ask ourselves what are the reasons for the backwardness of film music, backwards not only as music but also in comparison to other arts employed and developed in the (movies) motion pictures.


Top of this file  Modern music and the movies [II]

Typescript by Hanns Eisler, 1945

See background notes by G Mayer and list of Eisler’s writings in English

See also Modern music and the movies [I]

Taken from Hanns Eisler – Musik und Politik – Schriften 1924-1948, ed. Günter Mayer
(1973: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig), pp. 461-462.
© 1973 Stephanie Eisler (Berlin) and George Eisler (Vienna).
Page turns in the 1973 edition are inserted here according to the principle that |411-2| means the change from page 411 to 412.

Speaking about modern music and the movies, firstly I have to make a few things clear. By modern music I mean the style developed on the concert stage and the opera in the last thirty years. And by style I mean the new musical material and the technique of composition and instrumentation. These styles were developed by three masters, Arnold Schönberg, the late Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. Every modern composer is more or less influenced by them. I want further to make clear that I don’t think reform is possible for the present type of motion picture, which I don’t like at all. There is neither the necessity nor the possibility of writing an interesting score for certain types of motion pictures like Getting Gertie’s Garter, Up In Mabel’s Room or Down on the Farm.1

When I think of applying modern musical methods to motion pictures, it is in terms of the potentialities inherent in the medium. But if I detest the present state of motion pictures, this does not mean that I am advocating a deafeatist point of view for a composer working in the studios. Without any cheap illusions or rosy optimism, a composer has to do his best in daily little fights, even with certain bitterness, to achieve something better. It has to be said very sharply that present motion picture music, with very few exceptions, is mostly ecclectic trash in every way. It is trash as music, and is trash in the way it is dramaturgically handled.

Musically, this constant derivation from Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Ravel has become so cliché that it can (no longer) hardly produce any dramatic effects at all. Aside from the more conventional clichés, there is also a kind of pseudomodernism, a certain imitation of Debussy and Ravel, with a sprinkling of Stravinsky.

|461-2| But even these more youthful clichés are now overworked and tedious. These same clichés show themselves in the dramaturgical approach. The boy kisses the girl... an inevitable solo violin. In a later reel, if he falls down, a bass drum assures us that he has hit the ground. But more seriously, to make a serious point, the music usually imitates the screen action to such a degree that it could easily be assumed that the film was produced for the benefit of the blind only.

You yourself must often have recognized how often, and in what a tasteless manner the music announces the coming action, or underlines it so clumsily that any possible dramatic tension is vitiated and made impossible.

I cannot give all the reasons for the backwardness of film music, not only as music but in comparison to the other art forms employed in the motion pictures. But, I will try.


1. A silent film version of Up in Mabel’s Room appeared in 1926, a talkie in 1944 (Allen Dwan/United Artists, music by Eddie Paul). Down on the Farm (Erle C Kenton, 1920) was a Max Sennett production.

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