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Vertigo: Film Score, Herrmann, and Wagner

vertigo_soundtrack_coverWhen I first saw Vertigo I was not at all sure I liked it. I knew nothing about it before viewing and I was surprised and made a little uncomfortable by the story. But it wouldn’t leave my mind and I had to watch it a second time soon after, just to get a better handle on the story.

I watched it again, recently, and there’s something about it that I find impossible to shake. It sticks with you like few movies do. Haunting, aching, longing, dreamlike…

There are many things you could say Vertigo is about: obsession, a revelation of Hitchcock’s own obsessions and desires regarding the blonde leads in his own films; but at its most basic core, Vertigo is about longing. Especially longing for something that does not exist or cannot be attained. All people have it. What Scottie has is the mad desire to try bring it about, no matter the cost to other people. Most of us simply accept it.

It really stood out to me when I last watched Vertigo, how Scottie becomes completely absorbed in the story of Madeleine. He even seems to forget about Gavin Elster, the supposed husband. He’s consumed with Madeleine and her story…a story that is entirely made up. He can’t even see Midge, who is real and warm and solid and always there for him. In Vertigo, reality seems just as much of a dream to Scottie as the dream that Scottie falls for.

(Random aside: my sister and I wondered why Midge had broken off her engagement with Scottie all those years before. Was it because she knew he never loved her, could never love her, or did she sense there was something a little off about him, that something in him that leads him to prefer the illusion of Madeleine over the very real love of Midge and Judy?)

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Hitchcock and Herrmann

It was also interesting to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s achingly beautiful score for Vertigo in isolation from the film and visuals. What is interesting is how the obsession of the film takes a back seat and the longing comes strongly to the fore. It almost aches to listen to the soundtrack. Alex Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker, points out how tonally rootless the score is. It never finds it’s footing, tonally, leaving the listener feeling a bit lost. He also writes about the sequence where Scottie follows Madeleine. It is an extended, virtually a silent sequence, only accompanied by Herrmann’s score

Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases…The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.

For Herrmann’s ‘Scène d’amour,’ he took inspiration from Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod,” from the opera Tristan und Isolde. Liebestod apparently means “love-death,” which seems very fitting for Vertigo. The specter of death practically drenches the movie.

There is, apparently, some controversy about the title of “Liebestod.” The title is usually used to refer to the aria Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body, but Wagner evidently never referred to it as such. He called it “Verklärung” (Transfiguration). There is apparently some question about whether or not Isolde dies in the opera, as well. But Wagner referred to the prelude at the beginning of the first act as “Liebestod.” Either way, Herrmann has seemed to derive inspiration from both pieces of music.

Here is “Scene D’Amour,” where Scottie first sees Judy completely transformed into Madeleine.

And an orchestral version of the aria Isolde sings from Tristan und Isold. Compare 3:00 of “Scene D’Amour” with 4:00 of “Liebestod.”

The Prelude, which apparently is the real “Liebestod.”

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2016 in Music

 

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Maytime (1937)

maytimeMaytime made me think of Beau Brummel (1924) and Love Me or Leave Me combined into an operetta. The movie was based – loosely – on an operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Rida Johnson Young from 1917 and is constructed like an extended flashback.

When a rather flighty young lady contemplates trying to become an opera singer, she quarrels with her boyfriend, who wants to marry and settle down. Her neighbor, the elderly and mysterious Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) counsels thinking twice about leaving the man she loves and tells the young lady her own story, of how she was once the great Marcia Mornay, opera singer during the time of Louis Napoleon in Paris.

Marcia was a young singer from Virginia who was found by the great voice teacher/manager Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) and through his coaching and guidance, propelled into stardom. When the flashback begins, she is just beginning to make a name for herself in Paris.

In the meantime, Nazaroff proposes marriage. His usual mode of operating is to ask sexual favors from the women he mentors, but in the case of Marcia, he has fallen too deeply in love. Mostly, it seems, out of gratitude and a little bit of awe that he would propose, Marcia accepts him. But soon after, she also meets a carefree young American, Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) who is also training to be an opera singer, except that he does not apply himself or wish strongly to succeed. They fall in love, but Marcia is unwilling to hurt Nicolai, who she feels has given so much to her and her career, and she and Paul part ways and she marries Nicolai. An inevitable, tragic love triangle ensues.

Maytime 4In certain ways, this film did remind me of Love Me or Leave Me. Barrymore’s Nazaroff is not physically abusive or bombastic like James Cagney’s character, but the dynamics are the same and John Barrymore is excellent at suggesting the passion hidden beneath the elegant exterior. He’s like a languid vampire, always behind her like a brooding shadow, sucking the lifeblood out of her. No wonder she seems so tired after seven years of marriage to him. It’s not the lifestyle of an opera singer, as she assumes; it’s him. He seems to control her entire life and career.

You know from the beginning that he’s going to be the possessive, jealous type, though he seems to be trying not to be. He knows he has no right to be jealous, because he asked her to marry him knowing she did not love him. But though he tries, one can just tell that something is wrong and that at some point he’s going to explode and Hyde is going to emerge from Jekyll.

And Jeanette MacDonald also does an excellent job of showing that, subconsciously, Marcia is afraid of Nicolai. She never articulates it, but you can tell in the tentative and careful way she treats him. One can’t help but wonder if there was fear, as well as gratitude, that prompted her to marry him and not tell him about Paul.

Nelson Eddy as Paul gets the least interesting role of the film. Love Me or Leave Me had the right idea in making the story about Ruth Etting’s relationship with her husband rather than her lover. And might have been nice to have more between MacDonald and Barrymore in Maytime. Nelson Eddy’s role is necessary, but he doesn’t have any character dynamics to offer. He does, however, share an excellent chemistry with Jeanette MacDonald when they sing. I am constantly surprised at how sexy and emotionally intense opera can be on film. The climactic scene where they sing together while Nicolai watches from the wings and begins to boil over is believable largely because of the chemistry they generate. Nicolai is not just seeing things.

Maytime 3I also found it ironic that the only intimate moment Paul and Marcia can share during the production of the opera at the end of the film is on stage – very publicly in front of a whole audience – where they can whisper a few words to each other.

The songs are lovely, though I don’t know if I found them quite as memorable as Rose-Marie, New Moon, or Naughty Marietta. Many songs from many operas are featured, but the opera at the end is a fictional opera, called Czaritza, and was written using music from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. There’s really only one song from Romberg’s operetta left, the love song “Will You Remember.”

It’s a tearjerker, but in a good way, with an ending like Beau Brummel or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I call those kinds of movies cosmic romances, a romance that transcends time or space. It’s one of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy best films, aided tremendously by John Barrymore.

His history as an actor plays well into the role of Nazaroff. Perhaps we read more into it knowing he’s played Jekyll and Hyde or Svengali (which he did in 1931). Though he’s not exactly a Svengali in Maytime. This is, after all, Jeanette MacDonald, who already has tremendous talent and drive, but it’s a related idea.

As an aside, I think Barrymore would have made an excellent vampire or Count Dracula.

This post was written as part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read the rest of the contributions to this blogathon in honor of John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel Barrymore!

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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Movies

 

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Video

Rusalka – a water nymph or mermaid

I realize that opera isn’t usually in this blog’s purview, but this morning I discovered that I made a slight (ahem) mistake about the exact month of a blogathon. But the mistake has left me without a subject for today. I’ve also been meaning to review a book, but I’ve been in a reading rut and have not finished anything in two weeks! But I have been listening to opera and it has a slight connection to literature.

I greatly enjoy the music of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and recently I’ve been listening to his opera “Rusalka.” The libretto was written by Jaroslav Kvapil, who based it on the fairy tales of Czech writers Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová. A rusalka is a water nymph (or mermaid), but the story bears a lot of similarity to two other stories: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s “Undine.” I’m actually planning to read these two stories this year and I understand that “The Little Mermaid” has a less happy ending than the Disney film, making it closer to the opera. In an NPR article on the opera, it compares the story of the opera to the romance between Arwen and Aragorn in the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings…if Aragorn had dumped Arwen after she gave up her immortality.

The opera’s most famous aria “Song to the Moon,” is so beautiful it almost makes me cry every time I hear it. The water nymph, Rusalka, is singing to the moon about her love for a human prince who periodically swims in the lake where she lives and she wants to be human, too, so she can embrace him. Of course, after her wish is granted, she loses her voice to the witch, Jezibaba, and then the prince proves unfaithful to her, but realizes his crime and sacrifices himself for her in death (though it doesn’t exactly save Rusalka).

This version of the song is sung by Leontyne Price.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2016 in Music

 

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