02 Oct 2017

‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’: Thomas Kemp and the OAE present a film of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was premiered at the Dresden Semperoper on 26th January 1911. Almost fifteen years to the day, on 10th January 1926, the theatre hosted another Rosenkavalier ‘premiere’, with the screening of a silent film version of the opera, directed by Robert Wiene - best known for his expressionistic masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The two-act scenario had been devised by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and the screening was accompanied by a symphony orchestra which Strauss himself conducted.

The film was half the length of the opera but included some additional scenes such as a huge outdoor battle scene - the FeldMarschall, absent from the opera, is seen doing his patriotic duty on the battlefield when he learns of his wife’s dalliances at home - an open-air masked ball and a garden fête coloured by some delicate 18th-century dances.

On Monday 12th April 1926 Strauss travelled to London to present the film at the Tivoli Theatre on the Strand, accompanied by a chamber version arranged and conducted by Strauss - an event described by the Evening Standard the following day as ‘the most distinguished event in the history of cinematographic entertainment’. However, the emergence of ‘talkies’ in 1927 interrupted plans for a US tour and subsequently the film was lost, until musicologist and film music specialist, Berndt Heller, reassembled a print from sources in London, Prague and Vienna.

I ask conductor Thomas Kemp how he came to be involved in the screening of the original film which will take place during the Oxford Lieder Festival , where he will conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as they accompany the silent film with Strauss’s own chamber orchestra arrangement.

Thomas Kemp’s musical interests are quite eclectic: he is Music Director of Chamber Domaine, an ensemble which focuses on 20th and 21 st century music, and Artistic Director of Music@Malling - an international festival that promotes the works of contemporary composers alongside masterworks from the Classical and Romantic periods. However, Tom explains that he has specialised largely in late 19th- and early 20th- century repertoire, interpretation and performance practice, and it’s clear during our conversation that he has become fascinated with and energised by an event which he notes is often just a “footnote in Strauss biographies” but which he believes was much more significant than people realised in terms of the development of the medium and, indeed, the film industry: “It was the first example of a major composer arranging their music for the screen.”

Thomas Kemp points out that the original artistic team was illustrious: for example, the set designer, Alfred Roller, was chief set designer for Mahler in Vienna. He argues that film composers from Korngold to John Williams owe a huge debt to Strauss. I wonder whether he would describe Strauss’s music as ‘cinematic’ in nature? After all, Debussy was the first to draw attention to the visual and narrative qualities of Strauss’s music, suggesting that in Till Eulenspiegel the orchestra has a role ‘comparable to the amusing illustrations in a book’, and that Ein Heldenleben is characterised by ‘a frenetic motion, which carries you along wherever - and for however long - it wants to’. The latter, Debussy commented, is ‘a book of images […] even cinematographic. […] But it must be said that the man who can construct a work of this sort with such continuity is very close to genius.’

Tom replies that certainly the use of leitmotif could be seen in this way. The climactic music of the overture of Rosenkavalier also has similarities with the sense of the ‘spectacular’ which early 20 th-century film composers were seeking to create.

Some have argued that Strauss himself had little interest in the film. Alex Ross, for example, commenting on a presentation in 1995 by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein at Avery Fisher Hall, described it as ‘an intriguing but imperfect spectacle, conspicuously marred by indifferent efforts on the part of Strauss’. Kemp admits that while Strauss supervised the chamber version, the work of arranging and preparing the music required for the additional scenes was undertaken by Strauss’s was carried out by assistants Otto Singer and Karl Alwin, and that some of the extra music was drawn from existing pieces such as Strauss’s Couperin Suite. Even at the time, a commentator remarked that a march for the Field Marshal, was ‘tonic-and-dominant stuff almost in the vein of Beethoven’. But, Thomas Kemp disputes suggestions that Strauss was apathetic about the project, contending that he believes the composer saw the medium of film as an innovative way to embrace the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. He draws attention to a letter from Hoffmansthal to Strauss which suggests that they saw film as a way of introducing new people to opera and of enabling those who were already familiar with his operas to experience them again in a new light. So, the film may have been intended to promote, rather than replace, the staged opera: to whet the audience’s appetite, so to speak.

Rosenkavalier Image - credit Filmarchiv Austria.jpgPhoto credit: Filmarchiv Austria.

Tom also notes that film offered a new way of working; that opera productions in Vienna and Dresden were often fairly static and that singers would often come in and perform ‘cold’, with little or no rehearsal. Moreover, he explains, it was quite common for composers, including Strauss, to make salon arrangements of works that had initially been performed in full symphonic versions, to allow them to be heard in new venues - such as cinemas, music halls, hotel lounges and private music clubs - and by diverse audiences.

Strauss embraced new technology: he made many recordings of his own music and, in fact, the day after the Tivoli Theatre performance the composer made a recording with an augmented orchestra. Tom observes that during Strauss’s day there was a much more flexible approach to music-making - in Vienna, the film was presented with just violin and piano accompaniment - compared to our own time when performance practice has been so changed by the growth of the recording industry.

Thomas Kemp imagines, too, that Strauss would also have enjoyed the film’s “whole raft of ironies”: some obvious - as when a Viennese waltz accompanies a scene set in 1740s Vienna, “as if Haydn had put a scherzo in a symphony rather than a minuet” - but others more profound and sometimes difficult to ascertain. Tom suggests that, in this way, the film might be said to embody Hoffmansthal’s remark that music is “eternal but also in the present”. He refers me to another letter from the librettist to Strauss, the concluding comment of which is apposite:

‘Sophie stands beside the Marchallin as girl beside woman, and once more Octavian stands between, and both separates and links them. Sophie is deeply bourgeois, like her father, and so this pair stands opposite the noble, the great, who will allow themselves every freedom of action. Ochs, be he what he may, is still kind of nobleman; Faninal and he need each other…Octavian draws Sophie to him - but does he really and for ever? Perhaps that remains in doubt. So group stands opposed to group, the once united are divided, the divided united. They all belong together, and the best of all is what lies between them: it is momentary and eternal, and this is the realm of the music.’

Thomas Kemp’s two performances at this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival will be the first time he has worked with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and I ask him what impact he thinks that performing this score with period instruments will make? “Colour,” is his immediate response. Surprisingly, there is no place for the horn among the eleven instrumental parts, and Tom points out that the “texture of the sound will be altered by the use of gut strings”. He notes, too, that as there is just one player per part the music is extremely virtuosic, and that the instruments employed are properly differentiated: the Vienna oboe creates a totally different sound-world to that produced by a modern instrument. He suggests that Strauss’s notation is essentially ‘Classical’: for example, the last note of a slur is closed off, shorter.

The parts of the salon version were littered with inconsistencies and so he has found it necessary to put together a new score but this offered a way to “unpick what an arranger would have to do to make it come alive”. The OAE will be expanding their horizons too, engaging with performance practices which are in living memory.

Thomas Kemp’s passion for the music of Strauss is infectious. His animated description of Rosenkavalier’s presentation scene, with its magical celeste entry, and of the directness of Strauss’s music, of the “masterful” way in which he “colours” his scores, makes me want to put the CD on immediately! Strauss, Kemp believes, gets “inside the orchestra”: “he really understands how the orchestra functions and how to use sound to create spine-tingling music.” Tom compares Strauss with Mahler. The latter was more of a “control freak”, and more inconsistent - he changed his mind and every few years a new edition would be required. Strauss, he suggests, gives the performer less information; he had less need to be “in control”. When one watches Strauss conduct he seems almost “passive”, but he makes strong eye contact with his instrumentalists who always play well for him.

Thomas Kemp and the OAE will be opening the Oxford Lieder Festival with more ‘salon’ arrangements and more Strauss, when they perform Schoenberg’s chamber arrangements of Mahler’sLieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde with soloists Toby Spence, Dietrich Henschels and Kate Royal, who will also sing some Strauss songs. Again, Tom notes that it was very commonplace for composers to make such arrangements to enable members of private music societies to listen to new music, though subsequently, when the country was hit by hyper-inflation, many such societies closed. Moreover, he remarks, the songs Kate Royal will sing were actually published by Universal Edition in a collection of existing works in arrangements specifically intended for film accompaniment: the Vindobona Collection, which was published in 1926 through to the mid-1930s.

At the Tivoli Theatre in April 1926, what the Evening Standard critic described as the ‘magnetic presence’ of Strauss himself was clearly a big draw for many of the ‘vast and tremendously eager’ audience, although the reviewer noted that there was some applause for the film itself, including one scene ‘showing a curved street with high buildings, a cortege passing and spectators at every window, a stimulating study in animated décor, recalling (as did much of “Rosenkavalier”) some of the charming scenes from Dr. Ludwig Berger’s “Cinderella”.’

The Standard described the film as the equivalent of a ‘visual ballet, with screen figures instead of dancers interpreting the music’. And, although at the premiere there had been some technical problems - Strauss became annoyed that he had to keep stopping because of the difficulty of co-ordinating with the projectionists - at the Tivoli the synchronisation of music and image was praised, with the suggestion that Strauss had re-orchestrated the score using ‘the screen as a metronome’: ‘Dr Wiene has succeeded in making every movement of the players a rhythm, and the movement of the picture as a whole has also definite rhythm, so that ear and eye alike are equally delighted’.

Tom explains that in Strauss’s arrangement the vocal material has been transferred to the instrumental parts - the Italian Tenor’s aria is delegated to the trumpet and harmonium, for example! - and he notes the significance of a pamphlet by Hoffmansthal in which the latter argues that gesture is more powerful than the written word: the music thus acts as a ‘gesture’ which is co-ordinated with the moving image on the silent screen.

The significance of the Tivoli Theatre screening is evidenced by the fact that it was broadcast by the BBC, and on Tuesday 13th April 1926 a review (in the ‘Wireless Notes and Programmes’ column) appeared in the Manchester Guardian. The wireless listener had been pleasantly surprised: ‘Over the wireless one had something far short of the real thing, but fully enough of the familiar and captivating melodies of this great comic opera to be very worthwhile’, although the sound quality had left something to be desired, for ‘[the melodies] came through between shrieks and gusts of unintelligible noise. The microphone needs a cutting-out device for noise!’ This commentator, too, complemented the co-ordination of image and music noting that there ‘was none of the sudden jumping from a half-finished phrase that is one of the comic elements of the average kinema [sic] show, the perennial triumph of the conductor over the discomforted conductor’. In his opinion, the wireless broadcast had captured all of the opera’s moods - the ‘humour, agitation, serenity, passion’: and, ‘never were such sensuous waltzes broadcast’. His hyperbolic conclusion was, ‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’

This screening was clearly seen as the start of something new. The Manchester correspondent dismissed Strauss’s avowal that he was too old to write film music with the riposte that ‘it is just his young spirit that is needed for a much more adventurous exploration of … the uncharted wilderness of the ether’.

In May 2018, Thomas Kemp and the OAE will be bringing Rosenkavalier to London and taking the film back to Vienna. Before that, however, they will travel to Shangai to give China its first opportunity to see this remarkable film.

In April 1926, the Evening Standard suggested that this film had ‘done more for the prestige of the cinema in one night than six months of Hollywood’s pretentious efforts’. And, Tom argues that the screenings of Rosenkavalier in Dresden and London in 1926 were not merely a ‘footnote’ but were central to the cultural philosophy of the period. Sadly, the last 625-metre reel of film - which offered an ‘alternative’ ending, in which the Marschallin and her husband were reconciled - is missing. Presumably, no one will ever again be able to see their reunion, but the result is, as Thomas Kemp remarks, that it is therefore Strauss’s music which has ‘the last word’.

Claire Seymour