Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Surprising Hans Keller

Having recently published Adrian Wright’s superb biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, we thought it might be interesting to see what Hans Keller had to say about his film music. In Film Music and Beyond, published last year by Plumbago, Keller addresses the subject of surprise and speech rhythm in The Ship that Died of Shame:

Measured against its context, the loudest shock we know is probably the one in Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony. But it does not introduce any immediate news; on the contrary, the fortissimo chord and drum tap seem but a jocular variation on the perfect cadence of the period’s first statement. “That will make the ladies jump,” was the composer’s comment.

Keller focuses on the element of surprise in the second half of Alwyn’s music for Ship, a score he found dull until a point where Richard Attenborough, the ship’s evil captain, shouts “Come on out!” to a hidden murderer he was about to help escape. His cry was the exact counterpoint, in both rhythm and intonation, of a new three note motif:

From this surprising juncture onwards the score proved novel and fascinating. Attenborough’s trisyllabic sentence was crucial from the dramatic standpoint: the ship had not behaved all too decently before, but now its real shame had begun, its doom was sealed. By acquiring the rhythm of the dialogue’s most operatic sentence, the score proved able to replace film-musical tautology by genuinely musico-dramatic interpretation.

This impressed Keller so much that he wondered if “I had not missed many a relevant point while drowsing during the first half of the score; unfortunately I had no opportunity of hearing it a second time.”

On what Peter Pears described as "the eternal struggle between song and words, sound and sense," Keller remarks:

Alwyn’s achievement, hardly imaginable outside the cinema, consists in unifying the two belligerent parties at the very stage where their differences are at their acutest, where speech remains speech and music remains wordless; and the incisive contrast between the two sharpens our wits for the understanding of new musico-dramatic unities between them…Thanks to the cinema, Alwyn has been able to go all the way, nor will his shock treatment easily wear off, for the eternal struggle between music and speech is not likely to become any less eternal in future.

He concludes:

We must not forget that the instrumental version of “Come on out!” is, after all, a surprise of the most genuinely artistic order, for it is a necessary consequence of the extreme contrast to whose extreme unification it draws our attention.

To read all of Keller’s essay, see Film Music and Beyond, pp.87-89. The book is available in both cloth and paperback from all good booksellers.

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