Some Thoughts on the Absence of Mahler

I'm not sure I would have noticed if the lawyer hadn't been Schoenberg's grandson.

The Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann's fight to regain ownership of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an iconic painting that the Nazis stole from her family's home in Vienna on the eve of World War II. Her legal representative in this affair was E Randol "Randy" Schoenberg, the grandson of the (in)famous composer Arnold. Thruout the film, numerous people, on learning his heritage, make a comment about Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and how difficult and yet rewarding it can be to listen to. And this turned out to be a bit of a problem.

I normally pay pretty close attention to the soundtracks of movies I watch, but with each successive shout-out to the serialist composer, it became more and more of a game: How much could they praise and discuss Arnold Schoenberg's music without playing a single note of it for us to hear? And in scouring the sound waves for Schoenberg, it became impossible not to notice every moment of Hans Zimmer's score, and to get caught up in the choices he made in writing it.

The narrative is split between two primary time streams: The first is the legal fight over the ownership of the painting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the second is the destruction of the Altmanns' pre-war lives in Vienna as the Nazis rise to power. As Maria Altmann's father was an amateur cellist and her husband was a professional opera singer, these latter scenes are shot thru with quotations from the classical repertoire, often presented diegetically by the characters themselves. These scenes also included the only music specifically marked as Jewish, in the form of a hora played at Maria's wedding celebration.

At first it might seem strange that even the relatively happy and untroubled Jewish community scenes are scored by such ostensibly neutral[1] music, but I think this is actually an excellent choice. While it would certainly be an overstatement to say that the Jewish citizenry of Vienna in the 1920s were entirely and seamlessly integrated into Austrian society, there were many Jewish composers making a solid living plying their craft, and Jewish performers were common in opera halls and concert stages[2]. They weren't playing specifically Jewish music, either, they were performing the standard, heavily Germanic Western concert music canon — Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms. Indeed, one of the subtle horrors of the Third Reich was the poisoning of this repertoire: Once you've heard The Magic Flute used as the theme song for Nazi propaganda broadcasts, it is difficult to go back to an untarnished listening[3].

But it was the scoring for the scenes set closer to the present day that really caught my attention.  It's a score with strong Minimalist tendencies, pensive and terse, generally devoid of big sweeping gestures. As I said, I don't think I would have noticed it if I hadn't been hunting for stealth Schoenberg quotations. And in keeping my ears peeled for tone rows, I couldn't help but pay special scrutiny to the rest.

It was an effective score. It underscored the mood and helped propel the action without drawing too much attention to itself. But it was also a score that, at least on its surface, seemed weirdly disconnected from the subject matter at hand, given the (almost self-referential, in this case) history of Hollywood film scoring.

I first started thinking about it due to the absence of Mahler. Much of the film, in both time periods, is concerned with a nostalgic sense of loss, of seeing ghostly remnants of Vienna-that-was contrasted harshly with Vienna-that-is. If the Vienna of the past wasn't a perfect idyll, at least it was better, better than the creeping horror of Naziism or history-denial taking it over. And if there is one composer associated with being greatly disturbed by the loss of an older Vienna to a nauseating present, it is Gustav Mahler.

Mahler was himself of Jewish heritage (tho he officially converted to Catholicism at one point, possibly just so he could get the job of director at the Vienna Court Opera), and altho he died in 1911, his bittersweet love songs, distorted echoes of klezmer street bands, and grotesque parodies of military marches would hardly be out of place in describing his country a few decades down the line. (This isn't just my own opinion. Much of the most aggressively militaristic music in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem — a piece written by an ardent pacifist about the Second World War and its relentless destruction — is very strongly influenced by Mahler at his most bombastic, an influence Britten would not have denied.) My associations between Mahler and themes of loss and nostalgia (especially when applied to Vienna, doubly especially when Jewish people are involved) are so strong that his music's omission from the score struck me at first as a pointed, deliberate choice. On reflection, I don't think it was; I think Hans Zimmer (who is himself Jewish, tho I do not know the degree to which he does or doesn't consciously engage with that aspect of his heritage) was just trying to score the movie as effectively as he could, regardless of any clever referential possibilities that were lurking in the background.

But the absence of Mahler drew my attention inexorably to other absences, including the seeming absence of an awareness of the history of film-scoring itself[4]. Because, you see, the Nazis are at least partly responsible for the film score as we know it today.

Music meant to accompany films actually predates the advent of sound synchronization, but these early scores were often cobbled together from pre-existing pieces and, in cases where the music was provided by live in-house musicians, wouldn't necessarily be the same in each movie theater that was screening the film. Different studios and production teams took different approaches to musical accompaniment, but it wasn't until the late 1920s and early 1930s with the advent of commercially viable sound synchronization processes (the "talkies") that film scores as we know them today became even theoretically possible.

Looking at these dates, it should come as no surprise that many of the giants of early film scores were Jewish composers fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Austria and Germany. Some of these composers, like Franz Waxman (who fled to America in 1934 after being severely beaten by Nazi sympathizers), had already been active in the burgeoning German film industry, while others, like Erich Korngold didn't start scoring films until they were over here, but Hollywood was a powerful draw for composers arriving in a strange new country in the thick of the Great Depression — it was one of the few places hiring. (Some composers really took to film scoring and others felt considerably more ambivalent about it. Tantalizingly, Schoenberg himself almost scored a Hollywood film, but he wanted far too much creative control, and contract negotiations fell apart.)

It also probably didn't hurt that, in addition to Jewish individuals involved in many other aspects of production, several Jewish composers were already hard at work revolutionizing the movie scoring scene. Alfred Newman (practically the only early Hollywood composer of note born in the United States) had followed Irving Berlin to Los Angeles in 1930, and Max Steiner (whose score for the 1933 version of King Kong was the first full-length orchestral movie score) had made his way across the Atlantic in the tumult of the First World War, but many other composers followed after, most of whom did not achieve a similar level of fame. (Among those in this category, I have to give a shout out to Ernst Toch, a fascinating composer remembered today primarily for his whimsical "Geographical Fugue". [YouTube]) Even composers who didn't wind up working directly on movie scores had an impact on the development of the genre — both Waxman and Steiner, among many others, studied with Schoenberg after he arrived in the area, and his German Expressionism would later be melded with Jazz to create the iconic soundworld of film noir.

The above litany barely scratches the surface, but it gives some idea of the scope of the influence of the Jewish diaspora. (Two other giants of the era, Dimitri Tiomkin and Miklós Rózsa, both also had Jewish heritage, tho neither came over as a direct result of the Nazis' rise to power.) While the result was a unique and easily distinguished musical language, it was a language deeply influenced by Austrian and German late Romanticism, in particular by the operas — irony of ironies! — of the notoriously anti-Semitic Richard Wagner. The unique language of Hollywood film scores that developed in the 1930s and 40s would not have developed as it did without the influx of Jewish composers fleeing Nazi persecution at just that historical juncture.

Given this history, the score to The Woman in Gold is a fascinating text to analyze. The primary plot concerns the lingering contemporary effects of the Nazis' approach to art, and it's being told in a medium deeply shaped by the history it's covering. It folds over on itself: The real-world content is partly responsible for shaping the container that's holding that content. It would seem to be fertile ground for allusion, rife with opportunities to reference great film scores of the past. 

It doesn't take advantage of them. As described above, it's a curiously reserved score, one that has little interest in explicitly engaging with iconic film score tropes of the past. And sure, it's not that kind of movie: There aren't any lurid romances or giant apes on top of skyscrapers, and perhaps music made to accompany such spectacles would be out of place here. But there is still drama. There are still impassioned pleas for Justice, epic multi-generational intercontinental struggles, frantic attempts to flee from literal Nazis. Surely somewhere the stakes are high enough for a tip of the hat to Steiner.

And yet.

There is, ultimately, a quote from Schoenberg in the score. On one of his trips to Vienna, Randy impulsively stops to take in a chamber concert featuring his grandfather's Verklärte Nacht[5][Spotify]. Unlike in the other scenes in the film with diegetic music, however, and despite the fact that we see the string sextet on screen, this music is not treated diegetically by the score. We get a seamless transition into and out of this brief pocket of Schoenberg, such that we don't hear it more as belonging to the extra-diegetic world of the soundtrack than to the internal world of the film itself.

And this suggests a striking, much deeper way that the score to this film interacts with the history of Hollywood film scores. What Steiner, Waxman, and the like were doing was creating something entirely new. They were creating full-length original symphonic scores specifically and closely tied to the action unfolding on the screen, where before films had mostly been accompanied (if at all) by pastiches of pre-existing works cut to fit a cinematic context. Unlike operatic or symphonic composers, they were working in a genre without strong, pre-existing conventions, and could build those representational traditions from the ground up, using the building blocks of Romanticism, Jazz, and, yes, just a hint of Schoenberg. To write a pastiche score shot thru with references to this earlier era would, in some ways, be to revert back to the era before these great Jewish film scorers transformed the genre; it would be to ignore the very transformations that they wrought. By creating a new, (largely) original symphonic score, Zimmer is carrying on their tradition, even if (or perhaps especially if?) his musical language is far divorced from theirs.

The film supports this reading. Maria Altmann spends much of the film torn between losing herself in the nostalgic pull of her pre-Anschluss past and abandoning that past entirely without regard for its ghosts and unrighted wrongs. The film doesn't harp on this emphatically, but by the end she seems to have found some degree of resolution to this tension: We cannot live forever in the past, but sometimes we need to visit to take care of unfinished business and provide what justice and closure we can. Music has no direct equivalent to returning plundered paintings to their rightful owners; we cannot restore the careers these composers would have had had it not been for Hitler's rise to power. We can, however, honor their legacy by carrying on their work. In this case, that means by writing film scores that are perpetually inventive, perpetually new.

[1] "Neutral" as in "not marked specifically as Jewish". While there are specific ways in the Western musical tradition of coding music as Jewish — often by drawing (with varying degrees of authenticity and respect) on musical traditions created and maintained by Jewish communities — there is a great deal of music by Jewish composers that is emphatically not so coded, even at times music that is explicitly about their religious convictions. There are no sounds or hidden stylistic markers that pervade all music written by Jewish composers, any more than there are for female, queer, or white composers. (For proof of this, one need only compare the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Felix Mendelssohn, and Steve Reich, especially when paired with Anton Webern, Louis Spohr, and John Adams, respectively.) 

[2] While researching this post, I came across this quote from Erich Wolfgang Korngold that I think pretty poignantly sums up the situation: "We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish."

[3] Of course, to let this music be forever tainted is, in some ways, to let Hitler have a posthumous victory — why should we let his vision of what this music means be the one that trumps all others? At the same time, the ease with which this music was taken up and repurposed for white-supremacist ends might still give one pause. Certainly, it should destroy any argument that listening to this music and valuing it highly somehow makes a person or a culture superior, and uneasiness regarding its ability to be put to such ends had a lingering effect on many trends in the subsequent history of twentieth-century composition.

[4] I don't mean to imply that I think Hans Zimmer himself is unaware of this history, merely that the surface of the score itself doesn't reflect this history, doesn't seem to be aware of the fact that it's a film score in the way that, for example, Mahler's fifth symphony is very aware of being a fifth symphony in the age after Beethoven.

[5] Fittingly enough, this is the composition that would have landed Schoenberg a film contract if he hadn't been so uncompromising.