This score contains what I like most about Chaplin’s writing. It is so terribly free, and to my ears, one of his deepest and darkest scores. It also speaks volumes about where Chaplin was as a composer in 1942. He had written the score to The Great Dictator two years earlier, and wasn’t composing Mr. Verdoux for another five. One can only assume that without the pressure of looming deadline, to a film composer such time allotment is more than an inducement to detail and finesse. And this score is symptomatic of what a composer can do when given the time.
The original 1925 release of The Gold Rush was 6 years before Chaplin’s attempt to compose his first full-length score, City Lights, and the 1925 score compilation (by Carli Elinor and Chaplin, today preserved at the Chaplin archives in Montreux) was used to accompany the initial run in theatres until the film was no longer in frequent demand after the advent of sound. After being in circulation for only 17 years (and only five during the age of silent-film theatre orchestras), the “sound” version of the film was released with a newly composed score in 1942, however it is this score we associate with The Gold Rush.
Composed with the help of pianist/arranger Max Terr, a staff musician from MGM who is credited for composing the theme to the Metro News, the 1942 score was written to serve as a narrative musical bed to Chaplin’s voice-over dramatization in lieu of intertitles. Originally, of course, the music had never been intended to serve such a high purpose as the only means of aural contact with the audience. But with such careful detail stressed in the music, it was not such a giant leap to consider bringing the score to the forefront by means of live performance.
When Chaplin worked on the piano (as evidenced by the recently discovered private recordings of Chaplin composing: 1952-1969) he focused primarily on melodic structure and chord progression, regardless of meter. To Chaplin the tune came first, meter second. This may be due to that fact as a avid non-conventional composer he freed himself of metronomic servitude, and composed just as he heard in his head. The opening 10 bars of The Gold Rush for example has no less than 4 meter changes in it, yet it flows as naturally as any piece written in 4/4.
As in most Chaplin features, the music serves as a primary function to the success of the image. Chaplin was concerned with music that wasn’t just simply appropriate, but that charged the scene with what the content demanded. Yes, in the score to The Gold Rush there is storm music, fight music, love music, dance-hall music. But there is also meticulously written music for hiccups, hunger, sleep, eating, hallucinating, snowball fights, suspicion, indignity, pride and indifference; all key elements in both the film and his music.
In this score there are the usual Chaplin musical trademarks: The dark and melancholic string passages, colorful oboe and bassoon solos, the omnipresent harp and pure brute force in the brass. But here the writing has more of a free flowing exposition of expression and movement, and mood and character can change at a moments notice.
The scene in reel one where the tramp stumbles upon the cabin in the midst of a storm is a prime example of this kind of writing. It opens with howling winds violently engulfing the tiny cabin with the equally violent outlaw Black Larson inside (storm music). As the tramp-prospector works his way to the door, a patch of collected snow falls from the roof and buries him (orchestral glissando). Startled by the sound (triplet bruscamente), Larson goes to the window to investigate (descending triplets in bassoon and cellos) while the tramp collects himself and searches for the door (descending staccato pattern in winds). Suspecting it may be the law, Larson picks up his shotgun and quickly hides himself behind the door (muted horns, cellos and basses). The tramp enters the room hoping for refuge in an abandoned shack, only to find an abandoned dog laying beneath the bed (here the recurring lonesome string passage makes it’s first entrance). As he sits to wait out the storm, the walls of the flimsy shack begin to buckle from the wind (string trills) until a knothole gives way (woodblock solo) and blows his hat across the room (rapid string pattern, stopped horns) and lands on a pile on snow (piccolo, oboe). Annoyed, he gets up to retrieve it (limping clarinet solo in 6/8) and discovers a leg of meat which he begins to devour instantly (recapitulation of string passage). Larson emerges from behind the door (softened triplet bruscamente) and sees the tramp eating his food, which angers him (cellos, basses). Slamming the door shut (modulated triplet bruscamente), he yells to the tramp (orchestral sforzando), and forcefully asks what he is doing there (staccato triplet figure). The tramp answers (clarinet solo) and Larson orders him to get out (orchestral sforzando). The tramp obliges and tips his hat (piccolo, string pizzicato) and turns to leave.
Over the course of these 2 minutes, the music changes character and meter over 20 times, resulting in a perfectly synchronized narration that seems to flow effortlessly. However it is examples such as these that make Chaplin films scores unique in their subtlety and timing compared to other films. It was Modern Times that first introduced this kind of silent-film composition, but it was The Gold Rush that was the apex of it. Technically it may be more advanced than a typical score that had been written in 1925, but it remains, musically, the same tramp we’ve known since City Lights from 11 years earlier.
There is also a fair amount of quotations in the score, as was the common practice of the time. However most film composers quote music that is somewhat commonly known, in order to register a specific meaning behind the choice i.e. Shostakovich’s use of Jacques Offenbach’s Can-can to signify the degradation and perversity of the Parisian bourgeoisie in Kotsinev and Trauberg’s New Babylon (1929). And Chaplin, too, quotes well known orchestral music from Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and popular tunes such as Comin’ thro the Rye, Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, and For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow, considered the second most popular song in English, next to Happy Birthday.
Yet Chaplin uses to great effect, and most frequently, 12 bars of a short piano miniature by Johannes Brahms from his op. 118 Klavierstücke, the Romanze in F major. Intensely transcribed for strings, he utilizes this passage in both the tramp’s happiest and saddest of moments. It is unclear how he stumbled upon this work, but why he chose it for The Gold Rush is evident. It works beautifully as an emotionally driven passage that is tender and melancholic, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It makes it first significant appearance 30 minutes into the score when the tramp sees Georgia for the first time in the dance hall, her hand lovingly extended toward him, offering a tender greeting. Without a change of musical pace or character, the passage takes on a completely different meaning when the tramp realizes that it is the fellow standing behind him that she is so glad to see, as she walks right past him. Within these 5 bars, the music begins to offer itself as a glowing and warm gesture, and ends in one of rejection and loneliness, transformed by the intent of the characters. A lesser composer would have driven that gag into the ground with perhaps a quirky tin-muted trumpet solo immediately upon the change of the tramp’s facial expression. Yet Chaplin had a keen ear for music that portrayed the poignancy of humor, and that the three final descending chords that conclude the melodic line would bring to that moment exactly what it needed, a tender mistake.
In 1992 the decision to produce a re-creation of the silent version of The Gold Rush was made by the Chaplin estate, and carried out by the very capable Kevin Brownlow and David Gill of Photoplay Productions in London. It was decided then to use the music of 1942 to accompany it, and engaged Carl Davis to make an arrangement of the score to adapt to their re-creation, which up to this time has been the arrangement used for live performance.
Mt thanks the Association Chaplin and the generosity of Kate Guyonvarch, who not only supplied me with all of the original scores and manuscripts from Montreux, but who also provided me with a digitalized reproduction of the original optical soundtrack recording. I was working in earnest on the restoration of The Gold Rush score by the fall of 2006.
As with all of my restorations of the Chaplin films for live performances, it has been my intention to go straight to the source of evidence found in the original manuscripts of the scores and parts. Over the course of 9 months I tried to piece together all of the musical information possible, as there were many changes made, written and un-written, to the music as they recorded it in November, 1941. As usual my best source of information was from the player’s individual parts and not the full score. The full scores were strictly used for parts copyists and had no indications of changes made in performance, as Chaplin actually had not yet heard a note at this stage. In every single cue, in all 8 reels, some kind of change was made by Chaplin or Terr, which were subsequently hand-written in the players parts at the time of recording. These indications are invaluable to achieving the closest estimation of what the score sounded like to Chaplin.
Some of these changes were minor (string bowings) some were not (entire passages cut). In many instances sections of music were so integrally re-orchestrated or re-voiced, that it altered that piece of music to a degree that profoundly changed it’s meaning, and therefore it’s impact. There was also the inclusion of certain instruments that were not indicated on the full score, or the conductor’s score, yet appear on the parts and on the recording. For instance if one opens up the 7th stand violin part in reel 3, on a cue it is written in pencil “take accordion” where the violinist (who apparently can play the accordion) puts down his instrument and plays the passage with the remaining violins on accordion, reading from the piano part which was taped to the back of his violin part. This gave the scene of the dance-hall a definitively more rustic flavor, and adds a uniquely Chaplinesque touch to the proceedings.
In some cases the parts added mystery instead of solving them. In the percussion part there is written two letters, “sp,” on the top margin of a woodblock figure in Reel 5. This was solved when, after intense monitoring of this passage on the optical track of 1942, I had realized that one of the 2 percussionists, ad lib, played a spoons solo to underline the fiddle music accompanying the scene of the two old gents dancing on New Year’s Eve. This gave the music a spry-rickety sound that I could not imagine would have been produced by any other way. This I would not have discovered without the combination of both the pencil-marked parts and the optical track transfer.
The original size of the orchestra was 41 players, made up of Piccolo, 2 Flutes, Oboe, English Horn, 3 Clarinets, Alto Clarinet, Bass-Clarinet, Bassoon, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, 2 Trombones, Tuba, Piano, Celesta, Harp, Accordion, Percussion and Strings. From each part, the full score, the conductor’s score, the recording, and the original Chaplin/Terr early sketches, I hoped to have achieve a score that comes as close to Chaplin’s ear as possible.
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