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The Scrivener: Music Of Love And Death

Brian Barratt tells of more films which had never to be forgotten music as their soundtracks.

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At a time when films (movies) were usually less than a quarter of an hour long, an 80-minute film was made in Melbourne, Australia. In 1906, 'The Story of the Kelly Gang' became the world's first full-length feature film. It is perhaps both iconic and ironic that the subject chosen was Ned Kelly, a horse thief who shot a policeman and became a hero for people oppressed by land-owners.

Later well known 'Australian' films such as 'On the Beach' and 'The Sundowners' were shot in Australia by overseas film-makers but the local industry came to life in the 1970s. Among films which achieved international acclaim were such as Bruce Beresford's 'Breaker Morant' in 1980 and one of Peter Weir's earliest works 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (1975).

The theme music for this film became a 'hit' round the world. Gheorghe Zamfir, a Romanian musician, played a hesitating and haunting melody on the flute de Pan, the pan-pipes, with quiet organ accompaniment. It was an unusual but inspired choice which added an aura of mystery to everything that happened among the weird natural rock formations near the small town of Macedon. Extracts from a Beethoven piano concerto were also used, and additional music was composed by Bruce Smeaton. The variation in this overall choice worked very well indeed.

When Zamfir visited Melbourne in 1979 I went to one of his recitals at Melbourne Town Hall, which houses the largest grand organ in the southern hemisphere, with over 10,000 pipes. It is ideal for the music of Widor, Saint-SaŽns and Bach but, unfortunately, too powerful to be appreciated as an instrument accompanying the softer tones of the pan-pipes.

A couple of years later, I went with some friends to see Hanging Rock itself, a geological curiosity not far north of Melbourne. Though the story is fiction, those rocks are real. We climbed up the rough pathway and wandered around the top, recognising features used in the film. It is a very strange place. We quickly realised how it could give rise to a tale about people disappearing. One of my friends casually walked behind one of the towering rocks, and disappeared. It was some time before she re-appeared from behind a different pinnacle a short distance away. The place is a natural maze. We could almost hear the eerie music of Zamfir's pan-pipes.

When thinking about other films which had 'never to be forgotten' music as their soundtracks, the Swedish 'Elvira Madigan' comes immediately to mind. Made in 1967 by AB Svensk Filmindustri, it pioneered the use of pastel shades and soft focus in glorious summer landscapes.

Based on a true story, it tells of an army officer who eloped with a young teenage circus tightrope walker. We read on the box of the DVD: '...as summer turns to winter and without food or money, the tragedy of the young lovers' situation becomes apparent'. It is a tale of doomed love.

The music was Mozart's piano concerto no. 21, which is still sometimes referred to as 'Elvira Madigan'. This upsets musical purists but at least it brought an exquisite piece of Mozart's music to a much larger audience.

Another film, of impossible rather than doomed love, made use of great classical music in its soundtrack ó Luchino Visconti's picture-perfect adaptation of Thomas Mann's short novel, 'Death in Venice'. Dirk Bogarde played Aschenbach, a musician who becomes visually obsessed with a seductive youth, played by the almost androgynous Bjorn Andressen. The boy's mother is played by Sylvana Mangano, who has little dialogue but whose very presence in period costume is sufficient in itself to command attention.

Visconti demanded nothing less than the best. There were many re-takes of sequences in this film. Accompanying the stunning photography by Pasquale de Santos, and the period detail, we hear music from Gustav Mahler's 3rd and 5th symphonies played by the National Academy Orchestra of Santa Cecilia under Franco Maninno. In the final sequence, the synchronisation of the famous Adagio with the action is perfect, and heart-wrenching.

So here we have three great films about friendship, infatuation, love, and death, truly enhanced by their haunting and memorable musical soundtracks. You might not agree but it's worth viewing them again. And again.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008

Richardson, Matthew, 'The Penguin Book of Firsts', Penguin Books, 1997.


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