Friday, October 17, 2008

Classical Music in Film: A Programmatic Oddity?

In light of our early discussions about assigning "programs" to pieces and our discussion of Stravinsky, I thought I would share a related experience I had recently.

Last week I was watching a 1944 propaganda film called "Know Your Enemy: Japan," which was made to encourage continued American support of the war with Japan. Much can be said about this 70-minute work, but I found one of the most interesting elements of the film to be the use of music. The director (Frank Capra, perhaps better known for his feel-good Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life) uses some clips of Japanese music to demonstrate the "backwardness" and "otherness" of Japanese society, which was not unexpected. However, I was shocked to hear the familiar strains of Le Sacre du Printemps over footage that featured recreations of pre-modern Japanese conflicts. You can watch the scene here (Le Sacre begins around 4:20).

The use of this piece raises a lot of questions. Le Sacre is perhaps one of the most programmatic works in existence, and it's hard to believe that the filmmakers wouldn't have had some idea about the content of the piece. It's not hard to believe that Capra's use of a ballet depicting pagan rites was intentional. Considering his discussion of the objectivity of music in Poetics of Music, one wonders what Stravinsky's perspective on the piece's use might have been, too. Is drawing a parallel between Japan's Shintoism and Russian pagan rites the kind of betrayal Stravinsky considers "interpretation" to be?

Propaganda films aren't the only place one can find reappropriated classical music. Richard Strauss' tone poem "Also Sprach Zarathrustra", based on Friedrich Nietzche's landmark work, is a highly programmatic work in itself, but may be best known in its appropriated form as the "Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey". The piece has been used in other films, in ironic turns in Catch-22 and Clueless. With the piece so firmly ingrained into our cultural memory with images of discovery and vastness, it's hard to hear the seminal opening as anything different.

(Shameless plug: You can hear the piece played by the Brown Orchestra tonight at 10, tomorrow at 8, and Sunday at 3. Tonight's performance will be followed by a screening of 2001, so you can analyze the effects of the reprogramatization of the piece first-hand!)

How does the reappropriation of classical music change how we view its program, whether or not it was initially intended to be programmatic? Is it a betrayal of the composer's intent, or is it just another way to do honor to a great composition?


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