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October 10, 2003
da capo
Part I: Igor Stravinsky on Film Music
As Told to Ingolf Dahl

Editor's note: We are pleased to present a fascinating three-part Da Capo series. The following article by Igor Stravinsky first appeared in the September 1946 issue of The Musical Digest, a monthly publication which proclaimed itself as "an independent magazine to intensify your enjoyment of good music" and was financed by Henry H. Reichhold, a chemical corporation mogul. The magazine ran from 1920 to 1949.

Because of its length, Stravinsky's article is offered in two parts. Below we feature Part I; Part II will appear on Friday, October 17. Part III on October 24 will be a historical "counterpunch" essay that appeared in a subsequent issue of
The Musical Digest.

[Original introduction by Ingolf Dahl:]

Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso
Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso

As Igor Stravinsky is eminently a "contemporary" composer and decidedly a "modernist," it is sometimes difficult to remember that this Russian innovator in tone, born in 1882, was already 15 years old when Brahms died. It is almost as hard to realize today that The Firebird, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring ballets were composed prior to the outbreak of World War I, while Histoire du Soldat was created before that war ended. Even the much later Symphony of Psalms, which had been composed for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony, dates as far back as 1930. Such biographical details are worth mention, not only for the record but as collateral tribute to the vitality and verve of the composer and his creations. As for the man himself, his opinions on the relation of music to moving pictures set forth in this article acquire additional weight and momentum, of course, because Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) reaches the celluloid in Walt Disney's Fantasia.

Some of the Russian's views may startle some readers; hardly one reader will be shocked into anything less profitable than a fresh examination of his own opinions.

Igor Stravinsky on Film Music

What is the function of music in moving pictures? What, you ask, are the particular problems involved in music for the screen? I can answer both questions briefly. And I must answer them bluntly. There are no musical problems in the film. And there is only one real function of film music – namely, to feed the composer! In all frankness I find it impossible to talk to film people about music because we have no common meeting ground; their primitive and childish concept of music is not my concept. They have the mistaken notion that music, in "helping" and "explaining" the cinematic shadow-play, could be regarded under artistic considerations. It cannot be.

Do not misunderstand me. I realize that music is an indispensable adjunct to the sound film. It has got to bridge holes; it has got to fill the emptiness of the screen and supply the loudspeakers with more or less pleasant sounds. The film could not get along without it, just as I myself could not get along without having the empty spaces of my living-room walls covered with wall paper. But you would not ask me, would you, to regard my wall paper as I would regard painting, or apply aesthetic standards to it?

Misconceptions arise at the very outset of such a discussion when it is asserted that music will help the drama by underlining and describing the characters and the action. Well, that is precisely the same fallacy which has so disastrously affected the true opera through the "Musikdrama." Music explains nothing; music underlines nothing. When it attempts to explain, to narrate, or to underline something, the effect is both embarrassing and harmful.

What, for example, is "sad" music? There is no sad music, there are only conventions to which part of the western world has unthinkingly become accustomed through repeated associations. These conventions tell us that Allegro stands for rushing action, Adagio for tragedy, suspension harmonies for sentimental feeling, etc. I do not like to base premises on wrong deductions, and these conventions are far removed from the essential core of music.

And – to ask a question myself – why take film music seriously? The film people admit themselves that at its most satisfactory it should not be heard as such. Here I agree. I believe that it should not hinder or hurt the action and that it should fill its wallpaper function by having the same relationship to the drama that restaurant music has to the conversation at the individual restaurant table. Or that somebody's piano playing in my living-room has to the book I am reading.

The orchestral sounds in films, then, would be like a perfume which is indefinable there. But let it be clearly understood that such perfume "explains" nothing; and, moreover, I can not accept it as music. Mozart once said: "Music is there to delight us, that is its calling." In other words, music is too high an art to be a servant to other arts; it is too high to be absorbed only by the subconscious mind of the spectator, if it still wants to be considered as music.

Furthermore, the fact that some good composers have composed for the screen does not alter these basic considerations. Decent composers will offer the films decent pages of background score; they will supply more "listenable" sounds than other composers; but even they are subject to the basic rules of the film which, of course, are primarily commercial. The film makers know that they need music, but they prefer music which is not very new. When, for commercial reasons, they employ a composer of repute they want him to write this kind of "not very new" music – which, of course, results in nothing but musical disaster.

Related Articles:
Part I: Igor Stravinsky on Film Music
Part II: Igor Stravinsky on Film Music
Part III: Hollywood Strikes Back

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