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Richard Wagner - a film biography

Giuseppe Becce as Richard Wagner, 1913

"Richard Wagner - a film biography" featuring Guiseppe Becce in the lead was filmed in 1913 on the occasion of Richard Wagner's centenary and it is regarded as being completely preserved. this opinion gets to a large extent confirmned when comparing the sychronisation and tempo instructions in the partly preserved piano score (the orchestra score is lost) with the film.
some music passages seem too long, though. it could well be that some shots of the film are missing. others are too short. this, in turn, is an indication for a rather liberal handling of tempo by the background music.

at the beginning of the silent movie era one attempted to apply as many as possible complete periods of a chosen composition for accompanying film sequences. in order to synchronise the music and the film, the music had to be matched with the duration of the according scene. tempo and pitch of the music were trimmed to fit the film's requirements as well as possible combinations with sections taken from other pieces of music.
this might be one of the reasons why at that time film music was considered frivolous.
not until many years later film composers began to write music of irregular periods that was structured in such ways, that according to the requirements of the length of the scene, motives or pieces of a theme could be splitted off.

the producers originally planned to underlay the film with music by Richard Wagner, an undertaking that was banned by the still living Cosima Wagner who regarded the early cinema as vulgar and inartistic. she likewise forbid the use of her father's, Franz Liszt, music. in every sense Cosima tried to boycott the work on the film.

as the producers were not allowed to use music by Wagner and Liszt they had to find a way out of the dilemma. Guiseppe Becce, in his real life a lawyer, suggested to compose a music that was based on both their music, and being so alike that everybody would immediately realise which composition was actually meant, but at the same time the music should be so different from the original that it could not be legally objected to. but indeed, the film music accompanying Richard Wagner's youth Becce compiled from orchestra classics such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and by using quotations taken from operas by Meyerbeer, Rossini and others.

to begin with, a reconstruction of this film and its music of which only fragments of a piano score seem to exist, raised the question about the approach.
because today, more than 75 years after the death of the composers Wagner and Liszt, one is legally free in the sense of the copy right to use their music. but Frank Strobel and Bernd Schultheis opted for the original film music, Becce's compilations and compositions, because from today's point of view the film is a caricature of Richard Wagner, and it contains much involuntary humour.
to underlay the film with the 'right' music would mean to excuse it.
indeed, Frank Strobel and Bernd Schultheis intended, by emphasising the humour in these pretentious pieces of music by Becce in an ironically distanced orchestra adaptation (only a few origianals stayed intact), to let also "non-wagnerians" experience the film, and in particular to refer to the beginnings of film music, the cinema itself. yet the film is not denunciated or ridiculed.

the re-instrumentation is based on the symphony No. 15 A-major op. 141 by Dmitri Shostakovich.
many of the musical quotations adapted in this film had fallen victim to Shostakovich's irony. a first impression emerged of how to cope with such an instrumentational challenge.

bernd schultheis, summer 1992

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