The word is in my head after The Death of Stalin. Iannucci’s film takes music and uses it in new ways. Whether we’re talking about John Hughes, Stanley Kubrick or your organist at church, the re-use of an existing piece of music is the oldest trick in the book.
Re-purposing is a new word for an old process.
The cue sheets used in silent film and melodrama are lists of instructions, usually prescribing the use of a composition that had an earlier context than the one in that melodrama or film. Last year, in the wake of Charlottesville I played a church postlude, re-purposing an existing piece of music because it seemed to fit that Sunday.
Ideally a composer can make something new that matches the required situation, whether it’s a play or an opera, or a church service. The employer may prefer something pre-existing even if there’s an available composer. At weddings and funerals we select music that’s apt for the occasion, to express love or sorrow. The recognition in hearing something we’ve heard before is part of the magic. It may jar us a bit at first, even though upon closer examination it works in its new context.
In Death of Stalin there’s a scene showing Russians lining up to pay their respects to their dead leader, Stalin lying in state while thousands upon thousands filed past to pay their respects. The choice to play a selection from Tchaikovsky was a bit unexpected, yet instantly invoked a passionate Slavic angst. I was shocked at how it grabbed me involuntarily.
Earlier in the day, I had another sort of encounter with re-purposing. I have a Mendelssohn piano book out from the library, that I chased down after hearing the piece on the radio earlier this week, his Spinning Song. It’s a much happier piece than the one we know from Schubert, Gretchen am Spinnrade. This one is in the sunny key of C, a joyful romp really, so long as you keep it light and don’t let it spook you. At the very least it’s joyful for the listener.
However I first knew the piece not at the piano but through its re-purposed incarnation, rather than the original (which is why I was so thrilled to hear the original on the radio). As I think I’ve probably mentioned a few times, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummernight’s Dream is one of my favourite films, especially for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s brilliant adaptations of Mendelssohn throughout: not just his well-known music meant for the Shakespeare play, but other Mendelssohn as well. By putting so many other Mendelssohn pieces into the film, re-purposed for the film of course, he gives his score a curious sort of integrity, similar in spirit to what I heard in the more recent Stalin film. Here’s what Korngold did with that piano spinning song, followed by another tasty bit of Mendelssohn from one of his symphonies. Korngold then segues into a series of variations / sendups of that overdone wedding march, but in a series of playful versions leading up to the climax as Oberon captures the faery boy, now neglected by the infatuated Titania. Even Mendelssohn sounds new in Korngold’s adaptation.
Notice how the gossamer lightness of the music seems to be manifest in the spinning we see before our eyes. One wonders: did Korngold play the tune on the piano for Reinhardt, and suggest he use this music for this purpose? Which came first, I wonder.
We’ll likely never know.
Later, when Bottom & Titania are about to sleep, we hear a lullaby from Titania, as she sings “sleep thou”. As the tune proceeds, Bottom sings backup, a lovely series of perfectly in tune “hee haw” accompaniment phrases, possibly sung by James Cagney himself. I don’t think Anita Louise (Titania) actually sang the lullaby, some of the prettiest singing in the whole film (and sorry but I can’t find it in a short excerpt anywhere to illustrate; it’s in the complete film of course). Imagine my surprise, playing through my Mendelssohn book when I stumbled upon the piece –minus the lovely singer & her donkey backup singer— but now in its original piano solo. It’s a gentle Venetian Boat Song.
Everything old is new again if you find a place to re-use / re-purpose.