Friday Film (4)

Why Liszt…?‘, I wrote in the previous film-music posting — and I really wasn’t kidding: in the Hollywood movies and serials of the 1930s, Liszt’s music is everywhere

Here — just in case anyone hasn’t seen it recently! — is the ‘standard opening’ of the twelve-chapter serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)…

And here — just in case you’ve been living on a planet where Liszt is never played! — is where that music comes from…

If you keep watching our serial, you’ll immediately hear that the very next bit of music is this…

And here’s where that comes from — yes, it’s the very same piece

You see, it’s all from Liszt’s Symphonic Poem No.3: ‘Les Preludes’, first performed in 1854 — and, yes, there’s yards and yards of it used in this ‘Flash Gordon’ adventure…

lespreludespage1Down the years, a lot of people have been every bit as snooty about  Liszt’s ‘Les Preludes’ as they have about everything else he wrote. And, once again, I am happy to stand up and say that for me this piece is a simple fact of musical life, and I wouldn’t be without it. What’s more, I actually owe a great deal to this particular work of Liszt…

For it so happens that, back in the 1970s, ‘Les Preludes’ was one of the first classical pieces I got to know really well — thanks largely to a stereotypically battered old library LP that was one of the several that I bought for 30p each when the local library service was selling them off. And, once I’d been bitten by the ‘music bug’ and wanted to know all about how that notational system of tadpoles and telegraph wires worked, it was actually ‘Les Preludes’ that taught me. What I did was go to the local Central Library and borrow a ‘miniature score’ of the work … and stare at it, on the bus back from school, every day for what must have been weeks… What I was trying to do was work out which bits of signage signified which elements or aspects of the sound I could by now ‘play back’ in my memory. And, gradually, I worked it out: ‘pizz.’ was that plunky sound; ‘arco’ was normal string instrument sound; tadpoles went up when the pitch went up; tadpoles dangling from a beam were shorter than tadpoles alone; etc… Yup, it all started falling into place…

And everything ‘falling into place’ was something that was about to happen in the Hollywood of the 1930s — at least, as far as film music was concerned. (No, we haven’t finished with Liszt; just indulge me for a few minutes…)

Here’s a clip that, in its full historical, film-musical context, positively shouts out that ‘There’s a new guy in town. And he’s this good…’

The ‘new guy’ is, of course, Erich Korngold (1897–1957) — and what he represents is a ‘quantum leap’ in the conception of what a film composer is for. Because while Max Steiner and his colleagues were undoubtedly sound musicians and even — in some cases! — highly trained composers, my ears tell me that Korngold is someone on a different level altogether

Here’s the original trailer for ‘Captain Blood’, just so a little more of Korngold’s music can get across…

And now, here is the reason why I am talking about this film in a posting about Franz Liszt’s sometime filmic omnipresence. Watch this clip from near the end of ‘Captain Blood’ — and memorise all of the music

Got that…? Good.

Now, listen to this, and observe the closeness of the relation, once we’re a few minutes in…

Yes: it’s almost all by Liszt. Even though ‘Captain Blood’ is a Warner Bros picture — nothing at all to do with Universal and their monster movies! — and even though Korngold is notionally the composer, the fact remains that when (one assumes…) he and his assistants ran out of time — towards the end of those three stressed and sleepless weeks, all the way back in 1935 — it was Liszt’s music to which they turned to fill the gaps they couldn’t otherwise fill. Nor, in fact, is this the only bit of Liszt they reached for in order to bulk out their swashbuckling score as the release date approached: along with the Symphonic Poem No.5: ‘Prometheus’ they also used slabs of the Symphonic Poem No.6: ‘Mazeppa’

So, let me ask once again…

Why Liszt…?

MD

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One thought on “Friday Film (4)

  1. Perhaps because Liszt’s orchestral music wasn’t widely known at that time? On the one hand, it did the job, but on the other it didn’t come with so much baggage (even to reasonably well-educated filmgoers) that it would distract from the film? OK, this is mere speculation.

    Oh, and there weren’t any rights issues to deal with! That’s surely an important factor when choosing pre-existing music.

    Like

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