BSO goes silent

Following the success of last year’s screening of City Light’s, the BSO will again be performing a Charles Chaplin classic to close the concert series on Friday 19 May.


Modern Times, Chaplin’s last full-length silent film and his final screen appearance as The Little Tramp with his defining attributes, the too-small Derby hat, toothbrush moustache, baggy trousers and funny walk, will be projected onto a twenty foot screen in the Lighthouse concert hall and accompanied by the full orchestra. Marin Alsop will be conducting the BSO as they play the musical score originally composed by Chaplin himself, newly restored by Timothy Brock.


This is going to be a rare opportunity to step back in time and experience what cinema going was like before the ‘Talkies’ when live music went hand in hand with the motion picture, and equally a chance to explore one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic composers.


Before the invention of recorded sound, cinemas often had their own small ensembles or a solo pianist to provide the musical accompaniment to silent films, but a large orchestra like the BSO might have accompanied silent films at special events, in particular glamorous premières or a road show.


To be historically accurate Modern Times, completed in 1936, was actually a ‘semi-silent’ film. By this time the ‘Talkies’ had been well established for a decade and although Chaplin had fought a long battle against film dialogue, from the early 1930s he used recorded sound to his advantage to add music, limited speech and sound effects to his pictures.


Not unexpectedly, Charlie Chaplin is better remembered as an actor, director and producer. With so many talents it is little surprising that few people today recognise him as a composer! But did you know that Chaplin won an Oscar in 1973 for his soundtrack to Limelight? Were you also aware that Petula Clark’s 1967 hit This is My Song was composed by him for A Countess from Hong Kong? In total he was responsible for devising music to no less than 18 of his feature films, ultimately going back to pictures he made before the invention of sound recording and re-releasing them with his musical themes.


He was certainly much admired by the renowned classical musicians of his day. There is footage of him improvising duets with pianist Germaine Tailleferre, while he was friendly with composer Hanns Eisler and on dining terms with Horrowitz, Rachmaninov and Schoenburg. There were even talks between Chaplin and Stravinsky on the possibility of making a film together.


I caught up with the BSO’s Principal Conductor Marin Alsop who cites Chaplin as one of her heroes. As a composer, Marin believes Chaplin to have been “extremely gifted” uniquely understanding that music must reflect the architecture and detail of his films, and of course, being a great advocate of the principle that music, far more than language, can express the inexpressible.


An accomplished player of the piano, cello and violin, Chaplin learned to play by ear practising from four to six hours a day since the age of 16: he could devise music and sing it… his single downfall being that he couldn’t write it down! Chaplin enlisted a variety of musicians to aid him with the orchestration of his work, but always kept the upper hand. Marin describes him as “a perfectionist, an entrepreneur and a passionate, uncompromising artist.”


Sure enough, his autobiography reveals him to have been a fervent but tempestuous partner to work with, “Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me, and I would cut him short, whatever the melody is, the rest is just a vamp … If I saw a lot of notes in the brass and woodwind section I would say: That’s too black in the brass or too busy in the woodwinds.”


One of these long-suffering musicians was David Raskin who later went on to write the theme to Laura and whose songs have been recorded by Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Arranging Chaplin’s Modern Times score was one of Raskin’s earliest jobs, and it is the original Chaplin/Raskin manuscript that Timothy Brock meticulously restored to produce the soundtrack that the Orchestra will play in May.


Particularly noteworthy on the film score is the amusing Nonesense Song, where Chaplin, employed as a singing waiter, entertains a café audience with a song in mock French/ Italian gibberish. Despite the language being incomprehensible, Chaplin’s actions give away the meaning of the words and the audience is left entertained and cheering for more. This was the first time that cinema-goers had ever heard Chaplin’s voice on film, but rather than showing he had finally succumbed to dialogue it was a brilliant testimony to the fact that universal understanding is dependent not on language, but music and mime.


So how exactly does an event like this differ from the BSO’s conventional series concerts? I spoke to Principal Cellist Timothy Walden, who explained that playing the soundtrack to a silent film is less like a symphony concert and more like the musical accompaniment to an opera – minus the divas!


Marin expanded on this idea, explaining that as in opera there is a visual situation for the audience to follow where each character has his/her own theme and each situation has its own thematic context. “Emotions are developed and defined multi-dimensionally, meaning that one person can watch a Chaplin film and walk away having simply been highly entertained while the next can also be moved on a deep level.”


Alternatively, Tim tells me that performing a film soundtrack may sometimes resemble chamber music. Each character is associated with an idiosyncratic musical piece, so instruments often take it in turns to perform solos, especially if only one character is on screen.


I was curious about how the BSO rehearse for such a performance and whether it is more difficult to perfect than a normal concert? According to Tim, the Orchestra first rehearsed the entire score for last year’s City Lights without the film at all. It was only at the second rehearsal that it was screened with the BSO stopping and starting whenever a discrepancy arose. The players were absolutely forbidden to get distracted by the picture on the night though – Tim confesses it was quite off-putting having it in the background while trying to watch Marin and keep playing in time!


It is Marin, however, who really has her work cut out. She told me that although she still enjoys a certain amount of interpretive liberty, it is her primary responsibility to serve the film and coordinate the score to the picture.


Which brought me to wonder how she manages to keep in time, and whether she relies mostly on the score’s annotation or watching the film? “I mostly watch the film as I am conducting. It’s challenging but great fun.” Yet it’s the audience reactions that Marin appreciates the most: “the added joy of having a live audience reacting to the film is wonderful.”


In his autobiography Chaplin wrote: “Nothing is more exciting than to hear the tunes one has composed played for the first time by a fifty-piece Orchestra”.


And who could argue with Charlie Chaplin?






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