Shore’s new leitmotiv

Erika & I watched A Dangerous Method (2011) tonight. Have you seen it? It’s a fascinating film directed by David Cronenberg starring Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender & Keira Knightley, all three in fine form portraying, respectively, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein.

I wrote about it back in 2012 when it was still fairly new, keeping my focus on Howard Shore’s film score, that adds layers of subtext to the already dense two hours with his paraphrases of Wagner inserted into the film for diegetic & non-diegetic cues.

Watching it tonight I noticed something new, or at least something I missed last time. Shore takes a small passage in Act II of Siegfried, using it at least twice that I noticed.

In the passage being quoted, Mime has led Siegfried to the lair of the dragon Fafner. As he exits the stage, Mime will express his heart-felt wish that Siegfried & Fafner should kill one another in the upcoming battle:

Fafner und Siegfried Fafner and Siegfried
Siegfried und Fafner
Siegfried and Fafner
Oh! Brächte Beide sich um !
Oh if they could kill each other!

You can hear it on this video, which should start at 29:10, and goes for less than half a minute, coming a little bit before the beginning of the musical passage known as the “Forest Murmurs”.

The relevant orchestral passage that Shore will use comes before Mime begins singing, as the orchestra is picking up on a theme associated with Mime.

The important phrase is that pattern music in the right hand, eighth notes gradually shifting harmony downwards.

Howard Shore grabs this little bit of music at least twice that I noticed in the film. Each time, there’s an encounter between Freud & Jung going on. Isn’t it intriguing that Shore should put this passage, where the dwarf is muttering about the two epic figures about to fight..? There’s a calmness on the surface, belying the war that’s about to explode between the two.

The first time we hear this music, we’re with Freud & Jung on an ocean liner traveling to America for a conference, still ostensibly on friendly terms although there is tension simmering under the surface, as they spar politely. Shore expands the passage considerably, much more than the six bars of the original, the pattern of modulation downward continuing on.

The second time is one of the last times they are seen together, as their antipathy grows until they break off their relationship altogether.

For me it becomes a new theme an altogether new leitmotiv if we look at what that music was originally signifying, as Wagner wrote it. That repeated note pattern is an off-shoot of the music associated with the Nibelungen dwarves, and represents Mime. But I don’t think Shore means the theme to suggest Mime –the observer—rather than the two epic combatants (Siegfried & Fafner), as this is simply an opportunity to call subtle attention to the simmering conflict. In each of the passages Shore is changing Wagner slightly, while still alluding to this moment before the big battle.

I am of course ever the nerd, happily riding out the cold of February & the social distancing of the pandemic, via the escapism of film. The Wagner adds additional depths to the film whether or not one picks up on associated leitmotivs. I don’t think Shore was just picking any old Wagner at random, given how many possible themes he had to choose from..

As often happens I find myself wanting to go back and see/hear it again, to see what else I might discover. The film is first & foremost a study of human motivation, probing beneath the surface of polite society. There is an enormous amount going on under the surface between the principals, and that’s amplified in Shore’s gentle allusions to the relationships in the Wagner music dramas.

Morning after addendum:
As Erika & I sat over breakfast, we recalled the film, discussing impressions. The film has a deep impact. Erika does not perceive the Wagner the same way as I do (given that I immersed myself in the music as a nerdy teen, and respond to the mythology in a manner not unlike Jung & Spielrein, who both made deeply personal connections with the operas, both the music & the stories). I remembered that one thing that Shore accomplished with his use of the Mime motif (an incessant repeated phrase that you can see in the musical sample above) was to remind us of one of the contemporary readings of the music & the character: Mime being decoded as a subservient sneaky Jew by an anti-semitic audience. And so, add that layer to the Freud-Jung jousting, that the older man was always going to be disrespected by some, possibly by Jung himself. Freud reminds us in the film, in a chat with Spielrein, that in the end both of them are Jews whereas Jung is aryan, the master race. While this is long before Hitler rears his ugly head, the anti-semitism is there in the normal behaviour of the culture. We discover it in the story of Mahler, who converts to Christianity, at least as a way to advance his career. It’s troubling stuff. Erika spoke of how shocking the final graphics are, giving us as epilog the outcome of each protagonist’s life. Freud flees the Nazis, dying of cancer in London in 1939. Spielrein who was living in Russia, dies with two daughters, murdered by Nazis. Jung lives to a ripe old age, dying in the early 1960s. Needless to say: we will watch the film again. We both felt that neither Cronenberg nor his actors, especially Keira Knightley, get proper credit for their work in this film because it is disturbing, and perhaps people don’t want to be disturbed. Cronenberg seems to enjoy provoking a response. I’m grateful as I sit in my safe home hiding from the pandemic & winter’s blast, that I have a few of Cronenberg’s films to disturb me and get me thinking. At the very least it makes it easier to find gratitude instead of seasonal affect disorder: speaking of psychology…I have to pull out my Freud & Jung books…. and perhaps look for something by Spielrein.

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