Typically Buster Keaton gave no indication as to what he wanted for his films musically. There are three musical cue sheets in existence (film-distributor’s suggestions of musical passages) to two of his features, but The General is not among them. Therefore unlike Chaplin, who was a meticulous composer for his own films, we as musicians are left to our own devices when it comes to Keaton.
I had decided from the outset that, although there was a wealth of authentic Civil War music available, I wanted to compose a completely new score entirely based on original material. In my native US, many Civil War songs conjure up pre-existing images, none of which I wanted to combat, or worse, exploit. I therefore chose to compose an assortment of Northern and Southern anthems inspired from original archival sheet music from the time period (1861-1869). Further, as this film is a comedy, the anthems are presented as how I imagine they might have been in 1926, in a series of orchestral settings including Fox-trots, Two-steps and waltzes. And given the fact that nearly half of the film in devoted to 2 major train-chase sequences (one north, the other south), there is plenty of work to do by all sections of the orchestra.
As music restorer for the Chaplin family, and being well-acquainted with hundreds of scores from this era of film, it has always been my aim to work under the strict confines of the period composer. This itself is evident through not only compositional technique, but equally important is the orchestration and performance practices long-forgotten by today’s modern orchestras and orchestrators. As contemporary musicians, we had been more than discouraged by our teachers to play as our predecessors did, omtting the ornamental and stylistic choices so elemental to the era of the 1920’s and 30’s. In this score I chose to clearly re-institute many period performance practices vital to its success, by way of looking backwards, not forwards, and getting a firm grasp on what I may have done if I were composing music in 1926, and if I were fortunate enough to work for Buster Keaton.
Written during the summer and fall months of 2005 in Bologna, Italy, The General is scored for:
piccolo, 2 flutes, oboe, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass-clarinet, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percusionists, banjo, piano, celeste, harp and strings.