Sunday, October 1, 2017

Harmony series 1, a passage in Casablanca

Max Steiner's symphonic underscore for Casablanca (1943) is justly famous, even though in the first 30 minutes of the film there is surprisingly little of it (by classical Hollywood standards -- and by Steiner's own preferences).

Here is one detail from early in the first scene, when the police stop a man and demand his identification papers. After one policeman exclaims "These papers expired three months ago!" the man runs and is shot dead; shortly, it is revealed that he was holding "Free French" leaflets. Here is my sketch of the music:   (click on the image to see a larger version)

The sequence of chords is fractured (see below; click on the image for a larger version): C# diminished doesn't normally go to A minor [it does make dramatic sense, though, as the moment the man breaks and runs for it]; the A minor chord is an add6 (less stable than a major-add6) and there's a conflict between the timpani playing the root (A) and the bass that is not; this slightly awkward A minor dissolves into ambiguous whole tone chords, which then evolve into a sequence of sharply dissonant augmented-major seventh chords, which become louder and louder till the man is hit by the gun shot. A very Steiner-ish stinger -- the noisy gliss down -- follows the man as he falls. When we hear the Marseillaise in the minor key (end of my example: E-A-B-E melody), it's A minor, and the same Am-add6 we heard earlier (see the line connecting the boxes). Although we probably won't actually hear the connection, it would seem that Steiner is suggesting nothing has changed, despite a man's dying.    

Of the eight possible ways to put a seventh on top of a triad, four have been in use since the 17th century -- see (a) -- and four have only been in use since the turn of the last century -- they start showing up between 1890 and 1915 -- at (b).

Steiner was undoubtedly drawing deliberately on the German Expressionist musical style of Arnold Schoenberg, for whom the "b" chords above were favorites. Here is the end of the Little Piano Piece, op. 19n2 -- (click on the image to see a larger version).    Note the block of whole tone (circled) and the final chord, which has the aug.-M7 at the bottom and its mirror (same intervals upside down), the m#7, on top.

Steiner was a thoroughly trained classical conservatory musician -- and from Vienna, like Schoenberg! -- but, like his colleagues in Hollywood, used the expressionistic style conservatively, for emotionally intense, disruptive situations like this one in Casablanca. That's not inconsistent with extensive dissonant and fragmented music in the horror film: Hans Salter, who had been a student of Schoenberg's student Alban Berg, even became a horror film "specialist" at Universal.