Composer Stephen Horne
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In the last five years, the fashion for cinema screenings with live musical accompaniment has significantly increased, and popularity has meant venues are offering increasingly sophisticated performances that now blend dialogue and musical numbers with an orchestral score played in the room. And while the Albert Hall may focus on delightful showings of West Side Story, ET and even Casino Royale, the Barbican takes us back to where all it all began, silent cinema.
The 1925 German movie Variety is a tale of jealousy and passion in an aerial acrobatic trio taking place among the high wires of a sophisticated circus troop at the Berlin Wintergarten Theatre. Having retired from gymnastic displays “Boss” lives a frustratingly quiet life in a Hamburg caravan with his wife and baby until the mysterious dancer Bertha-Marie enters their lives. Unable to quell his ardour the pair run away to the Berlin fairground where they are talent-spotted by an agent who unites them with famous trapeze artist Artinelli, who takes quite a shine to the alluring young woman.
With many original music tracks for silent film lost to history, there are plenty of opportunities for modern composers to create something fresh, and Stephen Horne is not the first to take on the challenge of creating an entirely new score for an early film classic. Using just a piano, drums, percussion, accordion and flute, Horne’s new music references all the conflicting emotions the actors suggest as well as the light jazzy feel of the 1920s.
Impressively performed just by Horne and Martin Pyne, one of the key passages includes the breathy flute sounds that signal Boss’ lust for Bertha-Marie as she does everything in her power to seduce him while still seeming innocent. The lightness of the music here creates a creeping tension however as the audience feels Boss’ inner turmoil as he attempts to control his feelings.
There are plenty of other highlights that capture the dizzying fun of the fairground where Boss and Bertha-Marie end up, and Horne’s music captures the montage-like speed of E.A. Dupont’s direction along with Karl Freund and Carl Hoffman’s rich cinematography that crams every frame with action. The spectacular trapeze scenes still dazzle, particularly as they were filmed on location in the Wintergarten Theatre, so Horne’s music picks up some of the recognisable circus sounds with drum beats and cymbals to underscore the tense moments during aerial spins and rolls.
German cinema at this time was streets ahead of anywhere else and not only does this 93-year old film stand up to scrutiny in its examination of jealousy and suspicion, but Dupont’s use of expressionist and abstract camera shots, some from the trapeze itself, still feels innovative and daring. Horne’s score, though perhaps a little samey in the prologue section, recognises a landmark moment in cinema, so increasingly uses different kinds of sound to create tension later in the film, easing away from the piano to add a scuffling staccato backdrop to scenes with a variety of other instruments.
Showing as part of the Mime Festival as well as the Barbican’s own regular Silent Film and Live Music strand, this was a rare chance to see a genuine movie classic given a fresh new life with Horne’s interesting and ultimately varied musical accompaniment. There is something genuinely enchanting about watching silent movies with orchestral performance in the room, something that reinforces Norma Desmond’s famous line from Sunset Boulevard – “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces” – and how right she was.
Runs until: 21 January 2018