Two recent trips to the cinema provided some food for thought about the way music is used and abused on film soundtracks.
A few months ago I saw A Quiet Passion, the biopic about the US poet Emily Dickinson, which closes in a gloomy mood. As the final credits rolled on the emotional unfulfilment of her life, slow-moving strings provided the accompaniment. These caught my ear first for their beauty but immediately after because I recognized them. They were written by the composer Charles Ives and were taken from his 1908 piece The Unanswered Question. What was striking was that the trumpet part and the woodwind quartet which are integral to the piece were both missing. I felt this was a typical example of the film industry’s disregard for the artistic integrity of musical works, which it has often cut and paste for its own purposes.
More recently I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, about the legendary few days in June 1940 when the British army was evacuated from northern France. The film was impressive in many ways, and the musical score had a crucial role in piling on the sense of tension with a series of dissonant repeated-motifs which gradually accelerated. In its own terms I thought this was very effective.
The surprising moment came toward the end of the film when a moment of small triumph and pride was supported by a brief statement of the melody of Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ – one of the Enigma Variations, deeply associated with English history and still played at many commemorative events. But the melody was played on synthesized strings and at a drastically slower pace, so that I think many people would not have recognized it. This fitted the nightmarish feeling of the events unfolding on the beach and in the sea.
During August I taught a week-long course on Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring. Always on that course several people will mention how their first exposure to the music was on the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia, where a mangled version of parts of the Rite accompany the dinosaurs. It takes awhile to get those images out of the way, but the film at least brought something of Stravinsky’s idiom to a much-bigger young audience.