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The Music of Modern Times

The music of Modern Times by Timothy Brock

November, December 1935: The 89-minute musical score to Modern Times takes its final form within the confines of the UA-leased Fox recording studios under the supervision of its composer, Charles Chaplin. A lengthy four-week-long session, unheard of by studio standards, during which Chaplin experimented both successfully and unsuccessfully, and each musician (and conductor) was at the whim of the meticulous composer.

During the writing of his City Lights score (1930-31) Chaplin had inevitably caught the film-composing bug which he endured the remainder of his natural life. After the completion of his next score, Modern Times he was to compose the scores for the initial releases of all of his remaining sound films: The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

From 1942-1976 he composed scores to the re-releases of his earlier silent features The Gold Rush (1942), The Circus (1968), The Kid (1971) and A Woman of Paris (1976), as well as the “featurettes” A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim, all composed in 1959 under the re-issue title The Chaplin Revue. His scores to Sunnyside, A Day’s Pleasure, The Idle Class and Pay Day were all composed between the years 1971 and 1976.

However the pinnacle of his composing career is most assuredly the complex and innovative score to Modern Times (1935-36). It marks a vast mental and practical leap from his previous score to City Lights made up of primarily dance-band forces of fewer than 30 musicians, to the symphonic proportions of 64 players as required by Modern Times. This decision was not so much due to many a composer’s inherent taste for ego-driven sound power, as is so often is the case for new composers who, upon hearing their work for the first time, are allured by the mere numbers, but rather it was a conscious choice warranted by the film itself. The thematic imagery of Modern Times would provide a complex array of symphonic ideas to any composer, but no more so than to the man who created them in the first place.

Not a stranger to composing music for public consumption, Chaplin had successes in several popular songs and the occasional film theme before he tackled the full 87-minute score to City Lights.

Both parents belonging to the English music-hall profession, Chaplin had made his debut on stage at the mere age of five, until his formal show-business initiation came as a clog-dancer with the province-touring Eight Lancashire Lads in 1898 at the tender age of eight. He took up the violin as early as 1907 and had taught himself to play, with aptitude by most accounts, but only left-handed, having a special violin that was strung backwards and had a reversed sound-post. By 1915, a year after his film debut, he had established the Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company who had released the moderate Chaplin hits: “Oh! That Cello”, “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget” and “The Peace Patrol”. In 1925 he composed and conducted Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra in a recording of his lively fox-trot “With You, Dear, In Bombay”.

Chaplin also oversaw the compilation scores to A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush and The Circus for their initial releases in 1923, 1925 and 1928, respectively. City Lights was Chaplin’s first experience with a self-composed score for film, and for added pressure, it was to be permanently imprinted on a “sound” film that would be seen and heard by millions throughout the world, far outreaching any printed sheet music or Brunswick record.

Like City Lights, Modern Times was released as a sound picture with only the recorded music and occasional sound effects. However unlike his previous effort, Modern Times does contain occasional lines of dialogue scattered over the course of the nearly 90-minute film. But even then the dialogue is used strictly as a sound effect, i.e. factory television monitors and loudspeakers, the prison warden’s radio and the mechanical salesman (record player). The major exception comes in the form of Chaplin’s rendition of the popular Léo Daniderff song Titina, sung by Chaplin near the end of the picture. It is also a song which, much more significantly, marks the universal birth of the little tramp’s voice.

The score to City Lights was, and still is in every way, a success. The music came out of his love for song, dance and tragedy, all elements that permeate the rhythm of the film and read like a storybook in the score.

For Modern Times however, the approach warranted a far different musical direction.

As with all of his film scores, Chaplin was aided by what he termed as a “musical associate.” This was a person who, with each film and to varying degrees of participation, helped with the notation and orchestration of his musical compositions. Chaplin played both the violin and piano by ear, but, like many of the great popular composers of any era, was unable to transcribe the notes on paper. The amount of undivided time and attention he would have needed to learn how to read and notate his own compositions, considering the musical level he was already at, would have taken many years.

However constrained in his ability to notate his work, nearly every score within its bar lines has the indelible Chaplin mark. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is the degree of Chaplin’s involvement in nearly every step of the musical process: no matter who the associate, the musical structure and approach remains distinctively his own. The term “Chaplinesque” is more and more frequently used by musicologists as a point of reference to his chordal and melodic structures, and it is certainly not by accident that every Chaplin film both looks, and sounds, like Chaplin.

As a director Chaplin was known for acting out personally, for the benefit of his actors, all of the parts during shooting in order to demonstrate the exact quality he sought in their performance. Equally, his ability to translate the characters motives through music is clearly displayed throughout Modern Times.

The Gamin music is a speed-driven and impulsive display of energetic youth, while her unemployed father’s is a dark downward string motif ultimately resulting in the bleakest of chords. Charlie’s murderous and burly cell mate is introduced menacingly by the lower strings and bassoon, only to be mercurially transformed by a light gavotte as he suddenly takes up his delicate needlepoint. The prison preacher’s wife tune is a simple yet clumsy affair, in 6/8 time, which he used to evoke the feeling of two-step propriety with a syncopated bassoon “hiccup” on up-beats 3 and 6. The angry mob of the city’s unemployed is characterized by five violent orchestral chords, underlined by the concert bass-drum at fortissimo, culminating in the shrill and expertly written orchestral “scream” of the Gamin upon seeing her dead father in the street in the aftermath of the uprising.

These are but a few of the many examples in which the composer Chaplin clearly identifies his characters through music, but it was through his musical associates he was able to achieve it on paper.

Three key figures in assisting Chaplin for the mammoth score of Modern Times were the conductor/composer Alfred Newman, arranger Edward Powell, and the then 23-year-old David Raksin. Raksin had been recently hired by Broadway’s Harms/Chappell upon the recommendation of composer George Gershwin, and had been invited by Chaplin to Hollywood as his personal assistant for the score.

The Modern Times score calls for 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 5 clarinets, bass-clarinet, contrabass-clarinet, soprano saxophone, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 trumpets (with 9 different mutes each), tenor trombone, bass-trombone, Tuba, 4 percussionists (snare drum, bass drum, large cymbals, suspended cymbal, choke cymbal, Turkish and Greek finger cymbals, gong, drum kit, 2 xylophones, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, chimes, 3 sets of tuned anvils, temple blocks, woodblocks, castanets, triangle and timpani), harp, piano, celesta, male vocal quartet, 8 first violins, 8 second violins, 6 violas, 4 ‘cellos and 2 contrabasses.

His extravagant meticulousness as displayed in other areas of his film-making practices is more than evident in the Modern Times score. And Chaplin’s film directorial tendency to achieve perfection by means of repetition until realization, this too he afforded to the recording stage. Upon conclusion of a composing/orchestration session with Chaplin, Raksin would proceed to write out the full score in order for the copyist to make the individual players’ parts ready for the next morning’s recording. At these recordings, Chaplin (ironically) used the fully orchestrated score to notate his displeasure with various passages by marking an offending section with heavy red pencil. Comments like “brighter here,” “no oboe” or “add melody for cello here” riddled many of the late drafts, and were ultimately corrected in the final drafts nearly without exception.

Despite the brilliant performance of Alfred Newman and the orchestra, what we are able to hear in that 1936 recording is vastly short of what is actually being played by the musicians. On paper the score displays such multi-leveled fastidiousness and intricacy on the part of the composer and arrangers that all but a few who survive those sessions had yet to hear the full scope of the composition. We as listeners, at the mercy of 1936 recording equipment, had up to now been hearing only the mere surface of a great score; a score to a film that I, personally, have been in love with for 30 of my 40 years.

In January of 1998 I was asked by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Association Chaplin to go to Paris and have a look at the score and parts manuscripts in order to gauge the difficulty of the restoration and to see what documents I needed shipped to America where I was to carry out the work.

The pencil-written manuscript of the fully orchestrated score, containing both accepted and unaccepted extended passages of music, stood nearly half a meter in height. There were five archival boxes of just players’ parts alone, the conductor’s score (a reduced or two-stave “short score” version of the full 32-stave score) as well as some of the original sketches made by Raksin of Chaplin’s original formulaic ideas. The Association Chaplin was kind enough to deliver the lot, giving me access to the time-weathered and faded details crucial to any score restoration.

During the course of 14 months, it was not only my task to prepare the score for live accompaniment, but I felt compelled also to document any discrepancies or changes made between what was recorded and what was on paper. These discrepancies came up nearly every take, and by careful study of the documents and auditory comparison to the written score I was able to identify the offending lines or passages.

The most useful documents from the archives were the players’ individual parts. There were literally hundreds of minor changes dictated verbally by either Newman or Chaplin throughout the recording sessions. Unfortunately none of these changes were notated in the full score once the parts had been extracted, and Newman, who had an impeccable memory, wrote down very little in his conductor’s score. However it was by the players’ parts that I was able to achieve the most accurate account of Chaplin’s demands. Within the column margins or the reverse sides of their parts were player-transcribed changes of either just a handful of new notes or completely new extended passages. I found various odd scraps of paper, including several on the back of musician’s pay receipts, which contained many amended passages.

For discrepancies that emerged between the recording and the score, but neither notated in the parts, I was left to carefully study of the recording in order to transcribe the changes by strictly auditory means. Harder yet, there were nearly eight combined minutes of the musical soundtrack completely missing on paper. Auditory dictation of a large orchestral performance is, for the restorer, the most slow-going and time consuming, and all in all I was able to restore an average of 20 seconds of music per day of a 130,000 measure score.

The most expansive array of sonorities spent by Chaplin is located in the first three reels of Modern Times Chaplin from the very start utilized all of the previously listed instrumentation with the exception of the vocal quartet.

The three-note assembly line “tune” is overtly simple, linear and always staccato. This ingeniously allows accompanying piccolo and bass-clarinet trills, anvil strikes, and rapid-fire 16th-note string figures (just to name a few) to emerge cleanly and precisely. Untypical of most early film scores, here Chaplin exposes the intricate and ornate textures of his instruments without the competition of an overstated or over indulgent “theme.”

The assembly-line music is complex yet light, and ironically remains so throughout the sequence. Even while Charlie slips into his crazed, yet faun-like rampage throughout the factory, the music remains blissful and energetic as though somehow he had suddenly and miraculously regained his youthful boyhood. Further on in the score the assembly line tempo grows to such a kinetic frenzy that much of the culminating section is nearly unplayable by humans. This merciless metronome mark intentionally set by Chaplin is so fragile, so on-the-very-edge-of-collapse, that the listener is compelled to identify with the frantic Charlie on the verge of his mental breakdown.

Music for Chaplin films serves many functions besides mere accompaniment to image, as it also serves as sound itself. The music accompanying the image of the passing construction truck that inadvertently drops its red warning flag, Chaplin (the composer) employs an extremely soft muted version of the old tune “Halleluiah, I’m a Bum” at a distant dynamic level of piano. As Charlie waves the red flag in attempt to alert the passing driver of his mishap, the orchestra grows louder and louder in volume and more martial in form, and is at the full dynamic of forte just as the communist demonstration is appears directly behind him. This music serves the image not only by merely reflecting the emotional content of a scene, but by using its properties simultaneously as a film effect: the orchestra becomes, like ballet, the fluid line between emotion and practical response.

Most early film music scores, especially compilation scores, did not attempt to narrate the specific action-movement on screen. Rather, most early film music (in particular generic “stock” film music) was a reflection of the general overall emotional content of a particular scene, without going into details musically about any specific action on screen. If there was a love scene, the music was generally romantic (e.g.Francis Delille’s Amoroso Appassionato), whereas a hurricane or other inclement catastrophes would require a boisterous overture (e.g. Domenico Savino’s Storm Music) and comedies would usually warrant a light fare (e.g. Hugo Riesenfeld’s Pizzacato Caprice).

However Chaplin’s writing was so moment-specific, so tightly synchronized, that one can nearly follow a Chaplin film by only hearing its score without the benefit of the image. The precision demonstrated by conductor Alfred Newman exposes the Modern Times score’s elaborate timing, timing which Chaplin valued nearly as much as the music itself. The fluidity of one musical idea to another flourishes under careful writing.

In reel two, as Charlie is drawn into the cogs of the assembly-line’s gears, the score (in word form) reads as such:

Measures 743-744: Leggiero 6/8 in 2 at 52 bpm (beats per minute): “CC in machine”
Measures 745-746: “CC tightens nuts 1 - 2”
Measure 747: Andante con moto 2/4 in 2 at 72 bpm: “foreman reverses gears”
Measures 748-749: “CC in reverse”
Measures 750-751: “feet at 9:00”
Measures 752-753: “CC out”
Measure 754: “Big Bill shocked”
Measure 755: “CC sits up, turns”
Measures 756-757: Tempo rubato in 2: “CC tightens B. Bill 1 - 2” (stop)
Measures 758-761: Allegro 2/4 at 152 beats per minute: “tightens nuts 1 - 2 - 3- 4 - 5”
Measure 762: in 3/4: “tightens foreman’s nose”
Measures 763-766: Tempo di Waltz 3/8 in 1 at 60 bpm:
“tightens worker’s nose” (stop)
Measures 767-771: “B Bill’s nose”
Measure 772: “CC sees girl, donkey ears rise”
Measures 773-780: “CC pursues girl, around corner, corridor”
Measure 781: “stops, runs again”
Measures 782-783: “exterior of factory”
Measures 784-787: “stops, sees hydrant”
Measures 788-789: Allegro 4/4 in 4 at 144 bpm: “tightens bolts 1 - 2 - 3 - 4”

This sequence contains 14 tempo changes, 9 meter changes, 27 synch points (places where the music sharply mimics the precise movement of the actors or their actions) all within the span of 68 seconds. Each of these 27 synch points had been meticulously laid out to not only narrate the action, but by the benefit of linear musical construction, every shot flowed with a natural consequence.

Before the above sequence begins the orchestra was at full-speed and at fortissimo. As CC is pulled into the machine’s cogs (m. 743), Chaplin offers a slow dreamlike state of mind as though being pulled through some blissful portal, as represented by the celesta, glockenspiel and piccolo. The foreman, soberly characterized by the stern trombones and horns (m. 747) reverses the machine’s gears. The reverse triplet figures, now aided by heavy brass and percussion (m. 748), accompanies CC as he is mechanically re-deposited back through the cogs. CC, delirious, notices Big Bill (m. 755) and playfully tweaks his nipples and nose with his wrenches, painfully mirrored by two sharp chords by the harp, celesta and strings. As Bill retreats in pain, CC playfully continues to tighten the remaining five bolts down the line (m. 758), represented by five descending diminished staccato chords in the high winds and violin pizzicato. The fuming foreman re-enters as CC proceeds to tweak him(m. 762) and a co-worker (m. 763), then a smooth yet rapid ascension by the strings and harp occur until a high sustained string chord is intensely held when he sees the factory secretary. At which point he suggestively points his two wrenches (m. 772) in mid-air stemming from each ear, as denoted by a short “Hee” of the muted trumpet and a sustained “-haw” from the low register of the muted horn. CC slowly, at first, creeps towards the girl (m. 773) as the high winds slowly and downwardly mimic his steps until, ultimately, he finds himself outside of the factory (m. 782) where the strings take over, and begins to tighten the bolts of the fireplug (m. 788), as echoed by staccato chords of the brass, winds, woodblocks and xylophone.

This poses obvious questions as to the difficulty in conducting Modern Times live in performance. The live synchronization of symphonic orchestral music to film is one of excruciatingly high concentration, and with Modern Times memorization of the both the film and the score is a minimum requirement. As for the 1936 recording session, Newman was aided by having only to conduct the newly written score in one or two-minute sections. However, under the scrutiny of the star/director/producer/writer/composer, the pressure on a conductor to consistently hit his marks precisely would certainly have been more than great. And as Chaplin was unable to read his own compositions, he relied and insisted upon these musicians’ expertise to realize its perfection. A demand that he, as with every other aspect of his disciplines, would have unquestionably put on himself.

For the 2000 restoration, the decision by the Chaplins to keep their father’s rendition of Titina intact, just as it has appeared for 65 years, was the right one. Before his onstage entrance as a singing waiter in the Red Moon Cafe, the original 1936 orchestra, under the baton of Newman, provides a trumpet fanfare that suddenly emanates from the screen. Up to this time the orchestra (in front of the screen) has been accompanying Charlie for over 80 minutes, and this lively introduction to his solo number comes as a point of reference, and deference. The “live” orchestra sits silently as Titina comes in as a cadenza to a visual concerto, and the art of Chaplin’s onscreen performance secures a formidable connection between he and the audience without the impediment of outsiders. This moment in the film needs no musical restoration.

Before Modern Times the world was regulated to 22 years of speculation as to the sound of the tramp’s voice, and Chaplin offers a whimsical burlesque tune unfettered by the modern age. Eight years after the introduction of sound films Chaplin finally speaks his own language, that of a musical one, not restricted by words, just as he has done throughout his career as a composer.

As a frequent conductor of Chaplin scores I am sometimes confronted by individuals who enjoy pointing out the seemingly deficient, non-academic approach Chaplin took to composition, even to the extent of questioning his actual involvement in the composition and his title as composer in general. The unfortunate quote Chaplin made about “la-la-ing” his tunes to an arranger, who, in turn, made music out of it, stills plagues any conversation about Chaplin as composer.

It is true that late in his life the aging Chaplin became less involved with the infinite depths of orchestration, noting that 75 percent of other composers for film, then and now, do not orchestrate their own work. His musical content and direction did indeed soften with the advancing years, as 7 of his film scores were composed after the age of 80, and one must assume that a composer has the right to reflect upon his life in any way he chooses, in either a more reflective sentimental fashion or otherwise.

Regardless, Modern Times was written at a time in which his creative musical energies were at their peak. A peak that lasted over twenty years. Chaplin never thought of himself as a “serious” composer, and yet he achieved a miracle with his score to Modern Times. As for my historically small part, it was more than gratifying to help bring this monumental score to life again, so that we can finally hear his score, we hope, as Chaplin may have heard and envisioned it, during those winter weeks of 1936.

© Timothy Brock

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