It’s tricky to find the right formula
A handful of films stand out from my teens and twenties. Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) with Catherine Deneuve was one of them, Harold Pinter’s The Servant (1963), featuring James Fox and Dirk Bogarde, another. But perhaps the most indelible impression of all was left by Stanley Kubrick’s mould-breaking 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange (being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence…and Beethoven). Buñuel himself was one of those to praise the film, but it was besieged by the ignorant and the intolerant, and the blinkered Mary Whitehouse brigade got their way when, after three years of incessant attacks, Kubrick himself quietly withdrew the film. It did not reappear in Britain until after his death in 1999.
I don’t believe A Clockwork Orange has lost any of its power. I find its impact is as shocking today as it was in 1971. Yet, to a considerable degree, this derives from the fusion of the screen action and the music soundtrack. Kubrick made extensive use of classical music throughout his directorial career but never to greater effect than in A Clockwork Orange, where the visual extremes were accompanied by Purcell (Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary), Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and William Tell Overture, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches – and, of course, the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven.
A Clockwork Orange is a fine example of how music enhances a film to complete the message. But, equally, I can’t imagine The Third Man, with its iconic performance from Orson Welles as Harry Lime, without the zither music of Anton Karas. Dustin Hoffman’s shortly to be released Quartet wouldn’t amount to much without its soundtrack – or without the 'Quartet’ in question, from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
So I was curious as to how I would react to an unusual concert at Ciné Lumière, part of the Institut Français in London, where the young Quatuor Voce featured in one of the inaugural events being put on by Sound on Screen, an organisation dedicated to celebrating and exploring music in film. One of the Voce was unable to be present, so a violinist from the Béla Quartet was drafted in, but they are a talented group and their performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, D810, was a musical delight. The idea was for the work to be performed against scenes from Roman Polanski’s film Death and the Maiden, where Schubert’s music is an integral ingredient.
I’m not sure, though, that this is the most effective way of celebrating music in film. One ends up watching moments of movie punctuated by long stretches of blank screen. That doesn’t detract from the musical performance, but it fails to give a true flavour of the music’s power as part of the filmic experience.
That comment applies equally to the evening's other performances, of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, used in the 2008 film of the same name, and Mahler’s A minor Piano Quartet, which is the crucial element of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). Both these were notable musically for the performances of the pianist, Alexander Schmalcz.
Sound on Screen events cover the range of music, from contemporary to classical and jazz. The concept – to bring to the foreground music’s role as in integral element of the films we know and love – is one thing. What will be interesting to see is what innovative ways the organisation can find to achieve this.