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By Dr. Michael Pratt

Tonal ambiguity is evident in the opening fanfare of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (example 1). Written in 1896, the tone poem for orchestra is an attempt by Strauss to depict in music the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche about his prophet Zarathustra. The tone poem’s famous opening fanfare begins with four measures of sustained pedal C which certainly firmly grounds the listener in the pitch of C but not the tonality of C (either major or minor) since there is no reference cadence by which we can ascertain the tonality. Even though we are strongly being led down the C path, at this point we could be in any tonality.

This tone poem, in broad terms, is a grand depiction of man against nature. In measure five the trumpet first intones the “nature theme” which consists of a rising fifth from the opening C followed by a rising forth to the octave C. This theme is a recurring theme throughout the entire tone poem. This “nature theme” (which hints at a C chord but is modally ambiguous without the third [either major or minor] ) is immediately followed in full orchestra by a C major chord and a c minor chord a sixteenth note apart with the c minor chord being sustained. This is followed by the timpani emphasizing the C (major/minor) chord by repetitive triplets on C and G. We now have a strong feeling for c minor since this is the first sustained chord in the piece but we are still lacking the necessary referential cadence to establish the tonality.

Next follows a repetition of the trumpet intonation of the “nature theme” followed by two more full orchestra chords, reversed this time; first c minor followed by a sustained C major (and another set of reinforcing timpani triplets in C and G). Now we have a strong feeling for C major and, like before, are still lacking the necessary cadence to establish the tonality (or modality, for that matter, since we have now had strong statements in both major and minor).

Next a third repetition of the trumpet “nature theme” is also followed by two chords a sixteenth note apart. This time, however, we have a C major chord followed by an F major chord. Measure fifteen is the first measure to move away from the pitch center of C, strongly suggesting a subdominant, and thus making C major our tonality. We are not quite there yet, however. It is possibly we are in F major and C was the dominant. Without a cadence we are still tonally ambiguous fifteen measures and almost a minute into the piece.

What follows in measures seventeen through twenty puts all doubt to rest; a second inversion C major chord followed by an a minor chord, a G major chord, and a C major chord. At last we have a very strong and conclusive authentic cadence of I 6/4, vi, V, I and are unequivocally and very firmly in C major (which we suspected all along). Strauss is musically mixing the purity of nature (represented by the three rising notes of C, G, and octave C) with the imperfection of man (represented by the “waffling” back and forth between major and minor, and the not knowing for the longest time where our “center” lies). The fact that the opening fanfare concludes strongly in C major exactly as we expected it to do does not take away the opening tonal ambiguity.

“We experience the ambiguity over time, and the concluding resolution

 cannot change the temporal experience.”[1] Zarathustra 1

Example 1.1

 Zarathustra 2

Example 1.2

 Zarathustra 3

Example 1.3 

Later in the tone poem, man attempts to overcome his imperfection by the means of science (represented by a fugue begun in the low strings). This fugue theme (example 2) shows both tonal ambiguity and rhythmic ambiguity.

 Zarathustra 4

Example 2

The theme seems to begin in C major/minor with the “nature theme” from the opening fanfare. Throughout the tone poem nature has been represented by a C tonal center and man has been represented by a B tonal center. The fugue theme thus begins with nature immediately followed by man (the descending b minor chord). Tonality-wise, these two key centers, while next door neighbors, are worlds apart. This is followed by a rising Eb major chord followed by a descending A major chord (a tritone away) and concluding with a rising Db major chord. This succession of chords (C major/minor, b minor, Eb major, A major, and Db major) does not establish any tonal center. In fact it is purposely designed to destroy any feeling of tonality. If you consider the C# tied to the Db as one note, and ignore the octave C (first measure – third note) and the repeated G (third measure – second note), what you are left with is a twelve tone row. The fugue based on this theme, with each entrance beginning a fifth higher, is, as a result, almost atonal, which is exactly the effect Strauss was trying to achieve.

This ambiguous effect is amplified by rhythmic ambiguity as well. In the beginning the beat is quite well established by two measures of quarter, quarter, half. The beat is made very murky, however, in the third measure by the two quarter note triplets and completely shattered in the forth measure by the half note triplet (especially with the first note of the half note triplet being tied to the preceding quarter note triplet: the effect is amplified when the rhythms are “stacked up” in a fugal setting). This rhythmic ambiguity is evidenced by the fact that even veteran orchestral players find this particular rhythm difficult to perform because the beat after the first few measures simply ceases to exist.

Nietzsche has Zarathustra end his struggle between man and nature by proclaiming the dawn of a new age of supermen. Strauss believed that this conflict was an eternal one and thus ended his tone poem by depicting the struggle between man and nature with a juxtaposition of the C tonal center of nature and the B tonal center of man ( again, so close yet worlds apart). The closing page of Also sprach Zarathustra (example 3) alternates a B major chord for man in the upper strings and woodwinds with the C (major/minor) “nature theme” in the low strings. Are we in C major/minor or are we in B major? The tonality is intentionally ambiguous because Strauss wanted to show there was no winner in this struggle.

Zarathustra 5

Example 3

In example 3 measures 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 are B major chords representing man (interestingly in the high register or “up in the clouds”). Measures 2 and 4 contain the C major/minor “nature theme” in the contra basses (also now representing the baseness or basic nature of man). Neither by themselves can establish a tonality of either C major or B major. The tonal center seems to shift back and forth between C and B in an ambiguous manner. Note the trombone “chord” in measures 2 and 4: C, E, and F#. The chord is made up of the root and third of a C major chord and the fifth of a B major chord. Thusly Strauss combines both man and nature into one chord. In the end, though, he allowed “nature” to have the last word with the last three pizzicato Cs in the contra basses.

So the piece ends with man struggling to attain the heavens while still being rooted in nature. Strauss uses musical ambiguity to brilliant effect in recreating the world and philosophy of Nietzsche.


[1] Deborah Stein, “Introduction to Musical Ambiguity,” in Engaging Music, ed. Deborah Stein (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.

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by Dr. Michael Pratt

In 1849 Richard Wagner was at the median point of his life. He was 36 years old and had another 34 years to live. He had completed two operas virtually never performed (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot), and one opera rarely performed (Rienzi). He had also competed three operas which are considered early masterpieces (The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, and Lohengrin). Ahead of him were his seven mature masterpieces (the four parts of The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal).


Also occurring in 1849 was the Dresden uprising against the Saxon government in which Richard Wagner played a minor role. As a result, after the revolution was put down by Saxon and Prussian troops, an arrest warrant was issued for Wagner and he was forced to flee first to Paris and then to Zurich. While residing in Zurich he wrote a set of prose essays including Art and Revolution (1849), The Art-Work of the Future (1849),  Jewry in Music (1850), and Opera and Drama (1851). These essays were to have far reaching impact not only on musical thought, but on far-ranging intellectual, philosophical, and political theories of the time, and for several generations to come, culminating in Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.

These essays also served to help fill a musical void in which Wagner found himself during this period; a compositional drought extending from Lohengrin (1847) to Das Rhinegold (1854). In these essays Wagner attempted to define not only the direction in which he would proceed personally and artistically, but the direction in which he felt he was destined to lead German art into the future (and hence, all important world art, since German art was at the forefront, in his view). These essays, along with the writing of the poems comprising The Ring of the Nibeling constituted the bulk of Wagner’s output during this period.

In Art and Revolution Wagner “discussed the Athenian drama, which had brought together the arts of poetry, music, drama, dance, and design in a profound civic and religious expression.” [1]  In The Art-Work of the Future Wagner went on to describe “the Greek dramatic synthesis, after whose decline and disintegration, he asserted, the individual arts went their egoistic, separate ways; having in his time reached the limits of these divided routes, they longed to reunite, languishing for absorption, dissolution, and redemption in the universal art-work…” (ibid.)  In Jewry in Music Wagner wrote some of his most famous, influential, infamous and, ultimately, destructive prose describing “the Jew as a materialist, hindering the pure instincts of the German folk [saying] the Jew, therefore must be eliminated from German life.” (ibid.)  Of course, several generations later this almost came to pass in Germany, with Hitler citing Wagner as one of his main influences. In Opera and Drama Wagner outlines more specifically the format of his art-work of the future:

Opera and Drama postulated a compound formed of verse and its parallel vocal melody. The verse, the poet’s part, presenting the conceptual elements, would beget the musician’s vocal line; the latter was to interpret the text emotionally through artfully calculated juxtapositions of rhythm, accent, pitch, and key relationships. A resulting congruity of verse and musical phrase was to be further confirmed by an orchestra providing harmonic modulations and instrumental color appropriate to the stage situations . . . The orchestra with its many tongues would take over the traditional operatic tasks of the chorus. Throughout its length, the art-work was to be unified by a system of motifs, reiterating and stressing the conditioning forces of the drama. Toward this end certain musical phrases were to be abstracted from their positions under their correlative verses and repeated by voice or orchestra in later dramatic situations whenever ideas associated with the original words had any particular pertinence. (ibid.)

Wagner further postulated that the only proper subjects for German opera in the future were to be found in German mythology; hence, he logically proceeded with his monumental tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung.

In The Art-Work of the Future Wagner makes the argument that Beethoven carried all of the various elements of art to their limits with his latter symphonies, especially the Ninth Symphony. “This was the word which Beethoven set as crown upon the forehead of this tone-creation: and this word was: – “Freude!” (“Rejoice!”) With this word he cries to men: “Breast to breast; ye mortal millions! This one kiss to all the world! – And this Word will be the language of the Art-work of the future.” [2] [All capitalizations and punctuations are that of Wagner and Ellis.]  Wagner felt that Beethoven had led us to the doorstep of his art-work of the future. He fulfilled nature with his Pastoral Symphony, he evoked the very essence of dance with his Seventh  Symphony, and he took the final step and embraced drama with his Choral Symphony.

The Last Symphony of Beethoven is the redemption of Music from our own peculiar element into the realm of universal Art. It is the human Evangel of the art of the future. Beyond it no forward step is possible for upon it the perfect Art-work of the Future alone can follow the universal Drama to which Beethoven has forged for us the key. (ibid.)

Wagner conceived the next step as being an amalgam of all of the artistic elements: poetry, dance, music, drama, painting, sculpture, and design. He felt the outmoded forms of German opera must give way to what he called music-drama; thus embarking on this new form in The Ring of the Nibelung

Wagner saw himself as the successor to Beethoven and the absolute leader in the new wave of all things artistic and, above all, German. Wagner’s conceit in this concern knew no bounds. At first he drew legions of devoted followers who worshipped at his doorstep (in some cases, like Bruckner, almost literally). He attracted such thinkers as a young Friedrich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy he writes a “Preface to Richard Wagner” in which he says:

On the basis of this most significant way of understanding all aesthetics, which, taken seriously, marks the first beginning of aesthetics, Richard Wagner, to confirm its lasting truth, set his stamp, when he established in his Beethoven that music must be assessed on aesthetic principles entirely different from those for all fine arts and not at all according to the category of beauty, although an erroneous aesthetics, in the service of a misleading and degenerate art, has become accustomed to the idea of beauty asserting itself in the world of images and to demand from music an effect similar to the effect of plastic arts, namely, the arousal of satisfaction in beautiful forms. [3]

Nietzsche’s early devotion to Wagner (which later became a famous and public complete reversal of opinion) was intimately connected to Wagner’s thoughts in  The Art-Work of the Future which he pursued in his own writings:

 Through the character of Zarathustra [Also Sprach Zarathustra], Nietzsche insisted that his true audience had not yet been born. For both men [Wagner and Nietzsche], the value of art was not to be found in the dominant function that they believed it performed in contemporary society: that of diverting the public’s attention from the emptiness of modern life. Art’s value lay, rather, in its ability to reject the vacuous present that required such diversion, in the name of an almost prophetic invocation of a radically different future. [4]

Writing fifty years later Ernest Newman talks about the value of Wagner’s prose writings saying:

It is in pursuit of this vision that he ranges, in the tortuous pages of ‘Opera and Drama,’ through the heavens above and the earth beneath and the waters under the earth. Rid the huge book of all its superfluous matter and we arrive at last at the simple propositions that music-drama is a union of drama and music, that each must take something from and give something to the other, that the drama must be worthy and capable of moving us, and that the music must be a living organism, not an arbitrary collection of badly-jointed limbs with no flow of blood between them. It is this that the artist in him was driving him on to create, and it used the thinker in him merely for its own purposes of clarification. [5]

So where was Wagner going when he started writing his poem for The Ring of the Nibelung and subsequently began its musical composition based on the principles he had set forth in these prose writings? He maintained that he had written the last, great German opera in Lohengrin and the path to the future lay in a new direction. Gone was the chorus. Gone was the collection of separate pieces which were strung together to make an opera (the very word itself, of course, simply meaning a group of related works – thus opera being the plural for opus). In the future Wagner would call his works “music-dramas”. Actually it may have been more accurate to have called them “drama-musics” for in Wagner’s view the drama was the most important element. The music was what Wagner liked to describe as “continuous melody”. It was unceasing in pursuit of the drama of the moment. Gone were the pauses to applaud certain arias, dances, or scenes. The viewer, listener was expected to be continuously propelled along the lines of the drama until the very denouement of the music-drama. Gone was the florid, ornamental type of vocal writing which had become so very popular through opera composers such as Bellini and Donizetti. The understandability of the text was paramount. This is curious since many German-speaking people attending Wagner’s music-dramas wish that they could not understand the language being sung (the way non-German-speaking people experience Wagner’s operas) because Wagner’s poetry is written using such archaic and arcane language that it is almost not understandable by German speakers and tends to be distracting to the music.

The subject matter of the music-drama has its origins in German mythology, which Wagner felt was the only true source for his true, German art-work of the future. Another component to Wagner’s vision for the art-work of the future was the concept of the leitmotif. This, of course, was not a technique originated by Wagner, it had been heard earlier in certain works like Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, but Wagner elevated it to new heights of prominence, importance, and artistic usefulness.

Some of these principles were abandoned by Wagner in the future. For example, In Die Meistersinger he makes use of a chorus, which he had especially eschewed earlier. Since, however, this particular opera was written for completely altruistic reasons, Wagner set aside his “philosophical” viewpoints and wrote what he felt amounted to what would become a “popular hit” (Wagner needed money and set out to write a “little” work which could be produced by every small opera company in Germany and Europe, and thus make him a fortune in return; this “little” work turned out to be the longest work in the entire standard repertoire to date. Wagner never did anything in a small way). It is a testament to the genius of Wagner that he was able to take this short detour from composing The Ring of the Nibelung and compose first Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and then Tristan and Isolde, returning after many years to complete The Ring tetralogy (he set Siegfried aside after the end of Act II and came back many years later and much changed as a composer). The astute listener at a performance of Siegfried can discern subtle changes in Wagner’s style between Acts II and III (including the inclusion of the so-called “Siegfried Idyll” music which he had written for his wife, Cosima, as a birthday present).

The poet Wagner met the composer Wagner. When it came near time to prepare for the first presentation of his spectacular tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner expanded his vision even further and proceeded to scour Europe for singers who had the ability to change their style of singing and use a new method, devised by Wagner, which was necessary to portray vocally the huge musical scale he was writing. Next he found a location for what he envisioned to be a grand festival playhouse in which to pursue his dream. He chose Bayreuth, raised the necessary capital, and designed and constructed his Festspielhaus. In this unique performance venue he designed an orchestra pit which would be invisible to the audience (an ingenious creation). Wagner also designed the sets and the costumes, again all part of his master conception of the art-work of the future. Finally Wagner assembled the finest instrumental musicians he could find for his invisible orchestra (oddly enough containing a large number of Jewish musicians, Wagner being ever the pragmatist). When this monumental creation finally reached the stage in August of 1876, attracting an all-star audience from all over the world, Wagner had finally reached his dream of the art-work of the future in a technical display with such a tour de force that Wagner immediately became firmly established as the leading “thinker” of his day. All in all, Wagner became the poet, composer, entrepreneur, singing teacher, conductor, architect, set designer, costume designer, dramatist, director, and inventor (he invented an ingenious “steam curtain” at Bayreuth which was the envy of opera houses world-wide). Taken as a whole, The Ring of the Nibelung could be considered the greatest work of art in any medium by any artist who ever lived. George Bernard Shaw, in commenting on “The Music of the Future” (in reference to Wagner) said: “The ultimate success of Wagner was so prodigious that to his dazzled disciples it seemed that the age of what he called “absolute” music must be at an end, and the musical future destined to be an exclusively Wagnerian one inaugurated at Bayreuth. All great genius produce this illusion. Wagner did not begin a movement: he consummated it.” [6]

Such is the enigmatic nature of the gigantic story Wagner told in his tetralogy that it has been subject to widely divergent interpretations. Shaw probably brought forth the first widely divergent interpretation in his The Perfect Wagnerite where he attempted to make the case that the story of the myth is nothing but a gigantic allegory of the lower class against the middle class in an industrialized society. It is, in fact, nothing more than the socialist struggle to overcome capitalism (predating the communist revolution in Russia). Shaw writes:

There is a considerable portion of The Ring, especially the portraiture of our capitalistic industrial system from the socialist’s point of view in the slavery of the Nibelungs and the tyranny of Alberic, which is unmistakable, as it dramatizes that portion of human activity which lies well within the territory covered by our intellectual consciousness. All of this is concrete Home Office business, so to speak: its meaning was clear to Wagner as it is to us. (ibid.)

Subsequent stagings at Bayreuth in modern times have placed the tetralogy in contemporary dress and even in outer space. All this is to suggest the magnitude of Wagner’s creation and the scope of his vision that it has the ability to mean so much and exist so divergently for so many people for so long. Even more than thirty years after his death Wagner was still an imposing musical influence on the world:

At the time of Richard Wagner’s death in Venice (Feb. 13, 1883) the German stage was in a curious condition. Though his works had not prevailed everywhere, there could be no doubt as to their ultimate triumph, and the last opponents of the living master bowed willingly before the dead genius, whose gigantic spirit even after death defeated all resistance, entered the enemy’s land, and finally stormed the fortress of his antagonist Meyerbeer. Wagner’s works had swept everything that was not in conformity with them from the German stage, and many old operas, the delight of our fathers and grandfathers, disappeared, never to rise again, in the bottomless depths of the theater archives. [7]

After Wagner’s death many German composer’s tried to emulate his style and utilize his principles as set forth in The Art-Work of the Future. Some, like Karl Goldmark and Hans Pfitzner were somewhat successful during their lifetimes and are even sometimes performed today. At least one “Wagnerian-style” opera remains in the standard repertoire; Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. Humperdinck was Wagner’s musical assistant for the first performance of Parsifal in 1882 and was, thus, fully indoctrinated into the Wagner “way-of-thinking”. In a review of the Vienna production of Hansel and Gretel:

Eduard Hanslick shows that what was pointed out (and objected to) as “Wagnerian” also included the adventurous harmony, the many-stranded orchestral texture, and some allegedly direct evocations of Wagner’s work. In general, the score was considered too ponderous for its subject and the Witch’s Ride stigmatized as a ‘weak Ride of the Valkyries on broomsticks’. Moreover the ending of the opera was mocked by Hanslick as a compulsory Wagnerian element of “redemption” quite irrelevant to the story. Yet even Hanslick had to grant the opera a favorable verdict. In his notice he quoted from the current press a judgment by Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner naming Hansel and Gretel ‘the most significant German opera since Parsifal.’ [8]

Wagner’s Art-Work of the Future influence can be seen to extend beyond Germany’s borders into other musical realms which might at first seem to be a world apart from Wagner and Germany, such as France and Claude Debussy. Debussy’s crown jewel of the operatic world, Pelléas and Melisande, however, shows a great debt to Wagner:

However it is produced or performed, the external events that form the plot of Pelléas are only part of the point of the play. Maeterlinck’s symbolism, couched in seemingly insignificant dialogue, demands a response far removed from that required for conventional 19th-century opera. A more central question is the opera’s debt to Wagner. Whatever Debussy claimed, there are strongly Wagnerian elements in Pelléas, notably in the harmony, which reflects procedures found in Tristan and Parsifal, and in the system of leitmotifs portraying characters, themes and symbols. In an article in Le théâtre in 1902, Debussy himself wrote out motifs, identifying one of them as the ‘thème initiale de Mélisande’, and in a rare technical comment about his opera, he interestingly referred to his conscious treatment of Mélisande’s motif to emphasize the view he held of her character:

Notice that the motif which accompanies Mélisande is never altered. It comes back in the fifth act unchanged in every respect because in fact Mélisande always remains the same and dies without anyone – only old Arkel, perhaps – ever having understood her. [9]

 Wagner’s influence was so pervasive and lasted for so long that it led directly to the atrocities comitted by Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. In his book Hitler Speaks Herman Rauschning quotes Hitler as saying: “I recognize in Wagner my only predecessor . . . I regard him as a supreme prophetic figure.” [10] Hitler was a supreme Wagnerite. He regularly attended performances of Wagner music-dramas at Bayreauth and Nuremberg. His opinions on Aryanism, anti-Semitism, and vegetarianism were all sympathetic to Wagner’s views. Robert Jacobs, commenting on a passage in Hitler’s Mein Kampf says:

“to what Hitler considers to be the root cause of the first World War . . . Hitler describes in terms of a Wagnerian drama, thus: “It was the fantastic idea of a Nibelungen alliance with the decomposed body of the Hapsburg state the brought about Germany’s ruin.” The reference is plain: whereas Wagner’s Wotan destroyed himself by stealing and bartering the ill-gotten Nibelung hoard, Germany destroyed herself by allying herself with an empire ridden with Nibelung-Jews, Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats … (Ibid.)

Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner writes of Hitler: “Hitler’s passion for Wagner served to legitimize his own political mission, because he used Wagner’s conceptions of a national art form for the benefit of his personal ideology. German art was whatever the National Socialists proclaimed it to be.” [11] Indeed, Wagner’s influence on Hitler began occurring early in Hitler’s life. “Under a sketch he drew in 1912 of Young Siegfried, he appended the comment ‘Wagner’s work showed me for the first time what is the myth of blood.’ Blutmythos – war and racial purity already in 1912.” [12]

In modern times a great deal of time, money, and energy is being spent to erase the destructive legacy left by Adolph Hitler on Richard Wagner. While everything that Wagner wrote and said cannot be withdrawn or denied, and certainly nothing Hitler was responsible for can ever be forgiven or forgotten, still the musical creations of Richard Wagner must be viewed on their own for what they are: works of genius which are astounding in the art-form, their profundity, and their aesthetic worthfulness. In commenting on the modern performance of Wagner, Andreas Huyssen states:

Any discussion of monumentality and modernity inevitably brings to mind the work of Richard Wagner: The Ring, the aesthetics of the Gesamtkunstwerk [art-work of the future], the monumental artist, the history of the Bayreuth Festival. […] Whereas Germans have been laboring under the reproach of forgetting or repressing their historical past for decades since 1945, critics for some time now have articulated the reverse approach: inflation of memory. […] Currently there are several hundred plans in the works for Holocaust monuments or memorial sites all over Germany. […] {In the summer of 1995] the 84th Bayreuth Festival opened in July under the motto “redemption through love.” […] In today’s Germany, redemption through memory is the goal. […] German’s have eagerly appropriated the old Jewish saying “the secret of redemption is memory.”  [13]

Instead of trying to forget about the German atrocities of the 20th Century and their linkage to Richard Wagner, the modern approach is to do everything possible to not let the past be forgotten while at the same time extricating the monumental music-dramas of Richard Wagner, creations of his Art-Work of the Future, from this memory to allow them to continue (or in the case of the Israeli Philharmonic to begin) to be performed.

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and his Music (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1990), 138.

[2] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future (1849), tr. William Ashton Ellis, 1895 (www.kessinger.net: Kessinger Publishing, 2005) 44-45.

[3] Friderich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 8.

[4] Gary Zabel, “Wagner and Nietzsche: On the Threshold of the Twentieth Century,” The Musical Times 131, 1770 (Aug. 1990): 407.

[5] Ernest Newman,Wagner’s Prose Works.” The Musical Times  54, 843 (May 1, 1913): 299.

 [6] George Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite 1923 (New York, Dover Publications, 1967), 123.

[7] Edgar Istel and Janet Wylie, “German Opera since Richard Wagner,” The Musical Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 2 (April, 1915): 260-290.

[8] Arthur Jacobs, Liner Notes from Hansel und Gretel. Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Jeffrey Tate, EMI 7 54022, 1990, (CD).

[9] Richard Langham Smith, “Pelleas and Melisande,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy, http://www.grovemusic.com (accessed April 28, 2007).

[10] Robert L. Jacobs, “Wagner’s Influence on Hitler,” Music & Letters Vol. 22, No, 1 (Jan., 1941): 81-83.

[11] Wolfgang Wagner, Acts: The Autobiography of Wolfgang Wagner (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), 26.

[12] Frederic Spotts, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 141.

[13] Andreas Huyssen, “Monumental Seduction,” New German Critique No. 69 (Autumn, 1996), 181-200. 

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by Dr. Michael Pratt

1. Film Music as an American Art Form

Many people had a hand in the birth and early development of the motion picture in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in this country including Thomas Alva Edison who in 1887 invented the movie camera known as the Kinetograph in his New York studio with the help of his assistants and the movie projector known as the Kinetoscope. In 1888 George Eastman began to mass-produce celluloid roll film for still photography at his plant in Rochester, New York. In 1896 Edison brought the Vitascope to the market based on the Cinematopgaphe of the Lumière brothers and Auguste and Louis.[1] In 1903 one of the first milestones in the history of the motion picture was produced by Edison’s “Black Maria” movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey with the production of what is considered the first narrative film and the first film of the so-called “western” genre – The Great Train Robbery (based on an actual incident by Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang).[2] By 1908 there were twenty movie producing companies in America and between 8,000 and 10,000 movie theaters (so-called Nickelodeons). “Feature films made motion pictures respectable for the middle class by providing a format that was analogous to that of the legitimate theatre and was suitable for the adaptation of middle-class novels and plays. This new audience had more demanding standards than the older working-class one, and producers readily increased their budgets to provide high technical quality and elaborate productions.” [3] The result was the emergence of the “movie palace”, one of the first of which was the 3,300 seat Strand in the Broadway district of Manhattan in 1914. By 1916 there were more than 21,000 such movies theaters in America, marking an end to the Nickelodeon era and the start of the Hollywood studio system of producing movies (dominating the industry through the 1950s). Literally thousands of films were produced during the silent film era between 1904 and 1927 giving rise to stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Fattie Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Lon Chaney. By the early 1920s there were forty million Americans attending movies each week. (ibid.)

            Everything changed forever in 1927 with the release by Warner Bros. of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. For the first time the audience heard a voice and would never again be content with silent movies. Such was the demand for “talkies” that “The wholesale conversion to sound…took place in less than 15 months between late 1927 and 1929, and the profits of the major companies increased during that period by as much as 600 percent.” [4] Initially film scores were limited to Main Titles and Credits with all else being diegetic (sounds whose sources are visible on the screen or whose sources are implied to be present by the action of the film).[5]  It soon became apparent that a musical score was not only essential to a film but highly beneficial as well and soon non-diegetic scores began to appear (sounds whose sources are neither visible on the screen nor have been implied to be present in the action – ibid.). Dramatic scores appeared. Scores whose presence in sound made the film better (a premise in Hollywood among film composers is that a good score can make a bad film better and a good film cannot be hurt by a bad score). “In the hands of clever composers, a true musical drama is created. Erich Korngold persuaded you that Errol Flynn was really Robin Hood, Max Steiner told you what it was like for a Southern aristocrat to lose the war and a way of life, Miklos Rozza let you know how Ray Milland felt on a lost weekend, and Bernard Hermann terrified you as some weirdo butchered Janet Leigh in the shower. If you believed Dana Andrews really loved Laura, thank David Raskin; or if you shared Dana’s mind wanderings as he sat in the nose of a wrecked B-36, tip your hat to Hugo Friedhofer. If your heart went out to Gary Cooper as he waited for those gunmen at high noon, you might give a thought to Dimitri Tiomkin; and if you really thought Jennifer Jones saw the Virgin Mary, then light a little candle to the memory of the late Alfred Newman. And Joan Fontaine was absolutely right when she felt Manderley was haunted, but it wasn’t spirit of Rebecca – it was Franz Waxman’s music.” [6]

 2. Max Steiner’s Biography

 Maximillian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in Vienna on May 10, 1888 and died in Beverly Hills on December 28, 1971. His father and grandfather were theatrical producers who produced the operettas of Franz von Suppe, Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss. Max was a child prodigy studying piano with Johannes Brahms, orchestration with Richard Strauss and conducting with Gustav Mahler. After completing a four year course of musical study at the Vienna Conservatory in one year, Max worked throughout Europe from 1904 to 1914. Finding himself in London at the outbreak of World War I he was classified as an undesirable alien and quickly emigrated to New York where he worked on Broadway for the next fifteen years as a copyist and later as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor of musicals and revue shows, on and off Broadway. “These shows included the Gershwins’ Lady Be Good! (1924), Kern’s Sitting Pretty (1924) and Youman’s Rainbow (1928). His only Broadway show, Peaches, was composed during this period. He also worked extensively with Victor Herbert, arranging many of the composer’s dance numbers, and acting as the musical director for a touring production of Oui Madame (1920). Herbert’s influence can be seen in the attention to orchestration which characterizes Steiner’s film scores. For musical theatre he learned to combine small numbers of instruments to create the impression of a fuller orchestral sound, a skill which was to prove useful in the under-funded music departments of Hollywood.” [7]

In 1927 Steiner orchestrated a Broadway show called Rio Rita which was later purchased by RKO Pictures for the film. As a result of Steiner’s ability to create big sounding orchestrations with a small orchestra, he was hired by RKO to do the film version. The first original film score by Steiner was in 1930 for the film Cimarron. Steiner’s career as a film composer really took off when the thirty year-old David O. Selznick came to RKO in 1932. With the film Symphony of Six Million: “David said, “Do you think you could put some music behind this thing?” Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring – the producers were afraid the audience would ask “Where’s the music coming from?” unless they saw an orchestra or a radio or phonograph. But with this picture we proved scoring would work.” [8]

Steiner soon became known for his ability to depict things musically: Leslie Howard’s limp in Of Human Bondage, a dog walking along a corridor in Since You Went Away, or the water dripping in Victor McLaglen’s cell in The Informer. This technique, known as “mickey-mousing” proved to be quite effective for Steiner. The film that brought Steiner to everyone’s attention was King Kong in 1933. “In addition to composing scores, Steiner also acted as the arranger-conductor on many RKO musicals. He was the musical director on most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pictures.” (ibid.) In 1936 Steiner left RKO for Warner Brothers. “It’s doubtful if any composer in history worked harder than Max Steiner. In his first dozen years for Warner Bros. he averaged eight scores a year, and they were symphonic scores calling for forty and fifty minutes each. His peak year was 1939 when he worked on twelve films including Gone With the Wind, the longest score then written. Steiner’s career with Warner Bros. spanned almost thirty years and included scores for nearly 150 films.” (ibid.) A partial list of Steiner film scores would include King Kong, 1933; Little Women, 1933; Of Human Bondage, 1934; The Informer, 1935; The Three Musketeers, 1935; The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936; A Star is Born, 1937; The Life of Emile Zola, 1937; Jezebel, 1938; Gone with the Wind, 1939; They Died with their Boots On, 1941; Now, Voyager, 1942; Casablanca, 1943; Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944; Since You Went Away, 1944; Mildred Pierce, 1945; The Big Sleep, 1946; Life with Father, 1947; Johnny Belinda, 1948; Key Largo, 1948; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948; The Glass Menagerie, 1950; This is Cinerama, 1953; The Caine Mutiny, 1954; The Searchers, 1956; A Summer Place, 1959; The FBI Story, 1959; and Spencer’s Mountain, 1963. He received numerous Oscar nominations, winning the award three times for the films Now Voyager, The Informer and Since you Went Away. The last film scored by Max Steiner was Those Calloways in 1965. Steiner died in 1971 of cancer.

 3. The Score to King Kong (1933)

 RKO was in financial difficulties and nearing bankruptcy. It had already spent nearly a half million dollars producing a film about a fifty foot tall gorilla named King Kong.  Steiner was in charge of the music department at the studio in a time when a single film had a budget for a maximum of a three hour recording session with a ten piece orchestra. For King Kong it was decreed even this would not be allowed and that Steiner had to use music tracks from other recent film scores such as Little Women (!) The film’s director Merian C. Cooper was convinced of the potential for the film and the importance of a good score by Max Steiner. “Cooper said the magic words, which I quote: ‘Maxie, go ahead and score the picture … and don’t worry about the cost, because I will pay for the orchestra.’ And so he did, to the tune of fifty thousand dollars – an enormous sum to expend on music then; and to hear him tell it, it was worth every dime. The music meant everything to that picture, and the picture meant everything to RKO, because it saved the studio from bankruptcy…. The impact of King Kong on the movie going public was astonishing. It emerged into a country frightened, impoverished, in the grip of the Great Depression. Yet, on the very day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks and declared a moratorium – a period of grace on the repayment of debts – the following advertisement appeared in a New York City newspaper: ‘No money! Yet New York dug up $89,931 in 4 days to see King Kong at Radio City, setting a new all-time world’s record for attendance at any indoor attraction.’” [9] In a time when the average ticket price to a film was ten cents, the price of admission charged for King Kong by Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood was fifty cents to seventy-five cents for matinees and fifty cents to a dollar for evening screenings. Opening night was an incredible $3.30. The fifty foot gorilla may have been the initial draw but the Max Steiner score certainly contributed to the on-going success of the film over the years. “[Merion C.] Cooper was a strong supporter of [Steiner’s] work on his own The Most Dangerous Game, released several months before Kong, and he continued over the years to secure the services of Steiner whenever possible – sometimes undercover because of contractual conflicts (This is Cinerama, etc.). ‘So far as my experience goes he was the originator, the creator, the dramatist of music on the screen’, said Cooper.” [10]

            “Steiner used what would be considered for the time a large orchestra for film scoring – 46 players).” (ibid.)  Being a classically and European trained musician of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Steiner fell under the influence of composer Richard Wagner (as did almost the whole of the musical world at the time). As a result he used Wagner’s leitmotiv method of composing for his film score. Steiner is often quoted as sayingIf Wagner had lived in this century he would have been the number one film composer“. 

 King Kong Orchestra

Max Steiner Conducting the King Kong Studio Orchestra [11]

Utilizing Wagner’s leitmotiv system of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events and using them developmentally in a symphonic fashion allowed Steiner to craft a film score which was both musically dramatic and story enhancing (to the same effect as Wagner’s usage in his Ring Cycle of operas). The “Main Title” music opens with King Kong’s three note motive; heard throughout the entire score in many sections and guises, but always identifying King Kong himself. King Kong’s leitmotiv is usually descending but sometimes rising (or a combination where the three notes descend but are repeated in a rising sequence, for example, as King Kong approaches).

King Kong's Leitmotiv

Scored in full brass and low strings these ominous three notes give the audience the expectation of what is to come in both scope and terror. Followed by a brief fanfare the “Main Title” music continues with the “Stolen Love” theme of the movie’s heroine, Ann Darrow. Eventually this theme refers not only to her love for First Mate Jack Driscoll, who saves her life, but also to her relationship to Kong himself, which is the core of the film (which ends with the famous line “It was beauty killed the beast”).

Ann Darrow's Leitmotiv

 The “Main Title” music continues with its third motive, the jungle dance seen on Skull Island when the main characters first land.

Jungle Dance Leitmotiv

After the jungle dance and a second fanfare, the Kong leitmotiv returns scored in a much more soft, lush, and romantic fashion. The listener is signaled that not everything with Kong will be terrifying. Steiner’s constantly evolving use of these motives not only dramatically underscores the action of the movie but makes the movie maker’s almost impossible task of turning a fifty foot tall gorilla into a sympathetic figure a realistic goal, achievable in large part by audience sympathy aroused by the musical score.            

Kong’s motive, utilized throughout the entire score, is heard in sections such as “The Entrance of Kong”, “Log Sequence”,  “The Cave”, “The Theater Sequence” (in New York), “Kong Escapes”, “Elevated Train Sequence”, “Aeroplanes”, and, or course, the “Finale”. The Stolen Love motive of Ann Darrow is heard in “The Sea at Night – Forgotten Island” with Jack Driscoll, and later in “The Cave” with Kong (it is largely through Steiner’s score that the fondness of the gorilla for a woman is portrayed). Christopher Palmer notes the three note Kong motive “greatly facilitates its contrapuntal inclusion in many different contexts. At one point it becomes the motif of Kong’s approach. Later it is transformed into the first phrase of the march played in the theater when Kong is put on public display in New York (doubtless a nostalgic backward look on Steiner’s part at his years in the pit on Broadway). A particular subtlety is the way in which at certain critical moments – notable in the finale, in which Kong falls to his death from the Empire State Building after depositing Fay Wray in a place of safety – the Kong theme and the Fay Wray theme [Secret Love] (which in its pristine state is a pretty waltz melody) actually converge and become one thus musically underlining the tale of Beauty and the Beast.” [12]  The Jungle Dance motive begins with the “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance” and is heard later in the “Return of Kong”. In the “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance”, when the leader of the tribe first sees the Americans he stops the dance and approaches them as they continue to film what appears to be some sort of ceremony. As he approaches them he walks with heavy and deliberate footsteps. Steiner’s score uses a descending scale in perfect synchronization with these footsteps. This deliberate use of music to not only underscore but mimic the action on the screen is Steiner’s first use of what would later be know as “mickey-mousing”.

            “Steiner composed this music in the full Wagnerian orchestral tradition…com[ing] up with compromises such as woodwind players being asked to play up to four different instruments within a given cue, or a viola player to run quickly (but quietly) over to the celesta and play a few notes, or even having some of the violin players change over to violas for some passages. Excerpts from Steiner’s score turned up in several subsequent scores, such as The Son of Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Last of the Mohicans, and Back to Bataan.” (ibid., The Complete 1933 Film Score)

            Noted film composer Danny Elfman says “I think it is important to remember that when Steiner set down to score King Kong there were almost no references. He was practically starting from a clean slate – uncharted territory. So many things that Steiner did we take for granted now that the language has been defined. Steiner really is the granddaddy of this wonderful art form.” (ibid.)

 4. The Score to Gone With the Wind (1939)

            In 1936 one of the most popular and best selling books of all time was published, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. David O. Selznick immediately acquired the rights to film the book and actual filming began after many delays in December 1938. In a memo in 1935 Selznick stated that “’he considered the right score a major element in the success of a picture…and there is no one in the entire field within miles of Max’ [Steiner]. Two months later Steiner was signed as musical director of Selznick International.” [13]  Two years later Selznick refers to the music for GWTW for the first time saying “My first choice for the job is Max Steiner and I am sure Max would give anything in the world to do it” (ibid.) The deadline for the premier was set for Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 1939. Steiner was busy completing the scores for We Are not Alone, Four Wives, and Intermezzo (three of the twelve movies Steiner scored in 1939 (!) including the longest score which had ever been written for a movie for GWTW). Steiner complained to Selznick that it was impossible for him to meet this deadline but Selznick discounted this “largely because Steiner is notorious for such statements and works well under pressure, and I am inclined to take that chance and drive him through.” (ibid.) About the process of writing, orchestrating and recording the music to GWTW, Hugo Friedhofer recalls “The whole thing had a really nightmare quality about it, because we were really under pressure. We never started recording until after dinner and then until two, sometimes three in the morning…then we would go home, grab a couple of hour’s sleep, write with orchestrators and copyists breathing down our necks, grab a bite before recording, and then start the whole thing over again. And this went on for I don’t know how many weeks.” (ibid.) According to Tony Thomas “Steiner says he managed to live through these weeks only with medical aid; a doctor came frequently to his home and gave him Benzedrine so that he could maintain a daily work routine of twenty hours at a stretch.” (ibid., Themes from The Vienna Woods)

            As was his practice, Steiner used Wagner’s leitmotiv method of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events. In addition Steiner used patriotic tunes from the era (Civil War) and other Southern and popular songs (many composed by Stephen Foster). All eleven principal characters have their own motive. More important than all of them, though, is the theme for Tara, the O’Hara family plantation. Not only is this motive the theme which identifies the film, it has become an iconic musical symbol for the grandeur of the Southern, aristocratic way of life itself. Steiner masterfully uses the upwardly leaping octave to musically capture both the grandeur of Tara (and the South) and the huge scope of the topic (and of the motion picture itself). 

Tara's Leitmotiv

            In King Kong Steiner used orchestrations which were heavy with woodwinds, brass, and percussion and short, “punchy” themes for dramatic effect. In the score to GWTW he utilizes more string orchestrations, writing with a much more sweeping scope to the melodies. Some of the writing, for instance “In the Library” where Scarlet first meets Rhett Butler, contains many sections for solo violin.

Scarlett Meets Rhett Leitmotiv

            The 1939 Academy Awards nominations for best original score included twelve films including Of Mice and Men (Aaron Copland), Wuthering Heights (Alfred Newman), and Dark Victory and Gone With the Wind (both Max Steiner) with the award going to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz (about the only category in which it beat GWTW). In 1942 Margaret Mitchell wrote to David O. Selznick “At the Grand Theater here in Atlanta, they play the theme music from Gone With the Wind in the interludes of the pictures and when the last performance of the night is over. Frequently I remain in my seat to listen to it because it is so beautiful.” (ibid.)          

An interesting footnote is that the huge fire created to simulate the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind was achieved primarily by burning the gigantic wall from King Kong.

 5. Max Steiner’s position as a landmark composer of American film music

            Ray Harryhausen (the creator of the magical effects seen in such films Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and, of course, King Kong) had the following to say about Max Steiner: “Steiner’s output varied to such extremes of filmed subject matter that it really boggles the mind…He was one of the few “Hollywood Greats” who could instantly inject “the spirit” of the screen story into the audio accompaniment thus enhancing the visual image many times over with emotional values only the ear can perceive…Steiner tackled these subjects with originality, dramatic charisma, and aplomb, indelibly enhancing our visual images to unforgettable proportions. His many imitators soon fell into oblivion.” (ibid., King Kong, Marco Polo)

            Ray Bradbury (author of The Martian Chronicles) says “At one of the Academy Awards broadcasts, an eminent composer said: ‘Thanks to the Academy, the members of the Academy, and to Tschaikovsky, Berlioz, Vivaldi, Moussorgsky, and Bach.’ My response to cinema music history would go like this: ‘Thanks to Max Steiner’” (ibid.)

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Motion Picture, History of the,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52136/ (accessed January 22, 2006).

[2] Tim Dirks, “The Great Train Robbery (1903),” The Greatest Films, 1996, http://www.filmsite.org/grea.html. (accessed January 22, 2006).

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Pre-world War I American Cinema,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52140/ (accessed January 22, 2006).

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Conversion to Sound,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52149/ (accessed January 27, 2006).

[5] Bordwell-Thompsson & Reize-Millar, “Diegetic And Non-diegetic Sounds,” The Art Of Filmsound.org, 2006, http://www.filmsound.org/terminology/diegetic.htm#nondiegetic/ (accessed January 27, 2006).

[6] Tony Thomas, “What’s the Score?” [Page 5] in Music for the Movies, (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997).

[7] Kate Daubney (with Janet B. Bradford), “Steiner, Max,” Grove Music Online, 2006, http://www.grovemusic.com/ (accessed January 28, 2006).

[8] Tony Thomas, “Themes from the Vienna Woods,” [Page 146] in Music for the Movies, (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997).

[9] David Raskin, “Max Steiner,” American Composers Orchestra, 1995, http://www.americancomposers.org/raksin_steiner.htm. (accessed January 28, 2006).

[10] Max Steiner, “King Kong,” Original Motion Picture Sound Track, Turner Classic Movies R275597, 1933, CD.

[11] Max Steiner, “The Complete 1933 Film Score,” King Kong, Marco Polo B-223763, 1997, CD.

[12] Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood [Pages 28-9] (Great Britain: Marion Boyars, 1990).

[13] Max Steiner, “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” Gone With the Wind, Turner Classic Movies R272822, 1939, CD.

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