Thursday, December 28, 2017

Harmony series 2, postscript

In his main title cues for Warner Bros. films from about 1938 through the 1940s, Max Steiner almost always opened with his studio logo passage. I talked about its harmonies in Casablanca in my previous post (from October).

Here it is in Mildred Pierce (1945). (We discuss this film at length in Chapter 8.) The opening two bars are identical: mostly C or Cadd6 with some shorter elaborating neighbor chords (see the October post for details), plus a shift to Ab major. From that point, Steiner is likely to do almost anything (but always moving toward the main theme): from a simple diatonic continuation to some ear-bending dissonances and chord changes that I don't recommend trying at home. In Mildred Pierce he piles on both. The bass in bar 3 shifts down a whole step, from C to Bb—already an unusual progression (so much so that in traditional music theory it's sometimes called a "retrogression," with the negatives that term implies). The Ab chord changes from major to minor (see the black notes in the bass clef) and the upper parts add a Cb major triad. When the note Cb goes down to Bb in bar 4, it's a suspension resolution (Cb-->Bb over the Bb bass, or 9-8 in counterpoint language).
This 9-8 move—I've isolated it at (a) below—is identical to the last bit of the progression in Casablanca, at (b), or just as the "Arabian theme" starts.

In Mildred Pierce though, Steiner is not done yet. For reasons known only to him, the main or "Mildred" theme is in Db major, a half step up from the C major he starts with. It would have been much easier to stay put in C, but then the drama of the progression in bars 3-8 would have been lost, of course. Mildred Pierce is a woman's name -- in Hollywood at that time, that's an announcement that it's a women's film (sometimes lumped in with melodrama, though the two are distinct), but the rich harmonizations and lyrical melody we expect in this genre are missing and we get instead a cue (pun intended) that this film is really a tragedy: it doesn't end well, as Mildred's daughter is arrested for the murder of her (Mildred's) former husband.

Steiner liked to write a lot of music for a film, if he was allowed to, but he also paid an extraordinary amount of attention to details, especially those that could affect the viewer's understanding of the narrative.