for clarinet, accordion, percussion and contrabass - 84 min.
(F.W. Murnau, director)
Commissioned by the UCSD German Studies Program
My score for Nosferatu draws inspiration from many sources in and around F.W. Murnau's film: its basis on Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula; German music, especially during the Weimar era; the traumatic conditions in the aftermath of World War I; and of course, the personality of the characters in the film.
The trauma of war and disease, filtered through Murnau, makes a distinct mark on his presentation of the vampire myth. Musically, sickness and shell shock are conveyed in a variety of ways, including wavering, hallucinatory distortions of tuning, and a tinnitus liking ringing sound, similar to what might be experienced when deafened by a nearby artillery shell exploding.
The imprint of the Weimar period German music, that of Second Viennese School, contemporaries of Murnau, is strong on the music. Their expressionism was the musical equivalent of Murnau's work in film. Inspired by them, rigorous but expressive technique binds the musical fabric of the film score together. This fabric is studded with fragmentary or hidden quotations from earlier German composers J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert, while an extended parody of Richard Wagner actually quotes director Werner Herzog, whose own telling of the Nosferatu tale is a seminal work.
Rhythmically, each character's propensity for change influences different layers of the musical texture, creating rifts in coordination. As Hutter races frantically around the house, preparing to travel to Transylvania, his wife Ellen slips into a catatonic state – musically depicted as the vibraphone races away from the accordion in the dying gasps of a deranged waltz.
Much of the timbral material, that is, my palette of “sound colors,” comes from auditory descriptions of events found in Stoker's novel:
"... such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses ... " (38)
“Somewhere high overhead, probably on the tower, I heard the voice of the Count calling in his harsh, metallic whisper.” (47)
“... noises that used to frighten me out of my wits - the flapping against the windows, the distant voices which seemed so close to me, the harsh sounds that came from I know not where and commanded me...” (137)
These descriptions informed the creation of the electronic sounds, which surround the live musicians on their journey like an uncanny sonic fog.
About the Film:
Although it is true that Prana Films, the film company that produced Nosferatu, was sued by the estate of Bram Stoker over copyright infringement, it would be short-sighted to view the film simply as a clumsy adaptation of the seminal vampire novel. Released about 25 years after the first edition of Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu uses the subject of the foreign bloodsucking menace to deal with perceived threats and devastating trauma that many Germans experienced at that time, shortly after the ending of the “Great War”.
This war had confronted the involved nations with horrors that had previously been unimaginable. In Germany a whole generation of idealistic and unprepared young men went to fight in the war, incited by authorities from the older generation, only to be brutally slaughtered on the battlefields. “It will cost some efforts, a little sweat, and perhaps a little blood,” Knock says to Hutter when enticing him to go to Count Orlok’s castle in Transylvania for a real estate deal.
Hutter stands in for the “lost generation” of WWI. The journey east that he undertakes with child-like enthusiasm for adventure will be dramatically life changing. He will return home in a catatonic state resembling shell shock.
Furthermore, an unsettling current within the film music be mentioned. With the end of WWI many Jews from Eastern Europe fled westward and ended up in Germany, The population there did not greet them with open arms, but rather saw them as a threat and menace. The Other. This led to a surge in anti-Semitism in Germany, with tragic consequences.
Nosferatu, with his foreign features, and emaciated body represents this menace and embodies the fear. He is the threatening Other that brings chaos and destruction into the town. Eventually he is not defeated by enlightened science (as in Dracula), but by the fearless sacrifice of a woman. But the film ends on a hopeless note. Evil is defeated, but the town is destroyed.
In this expressionistic masterpiece, F. W. Murnau creates haunting images. And while the exaggerated, histrionic acting of the main characters may seem strange to a contemporary eye, the actors evoke an existential fear that leaves a haunting impression, even for viewers in the 21st century.
World Premiere: November 21, 2011
Meghann Welsh, accordion, Curt Miller, clarinets, Scott Worthington, bass, Dustin Donahue, percussion
Mandeville Auditorium, University of California, San Diego