Since long before the advent of the cinema, music has been used to accompany dramatic works on the stage. By Shakespeare’s time, “incidental music” was used not only to connect different scenes in a play but also to help drive the plot.
In “The Tempest,” for instance, music and song are used to invoke the supernatural, most prominently in the form of the spirit Ariel; settings of songs for the original performances were composed by English lutenist Robert Johnson and performed by members of the theater company.
A few years ago, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra performed incidental music written for “The Tempest” in 1861 by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame). Much more frequently, the YSO has performed music composed for film, including programs in recent years dedicated entirely to film scores by John Williams and to music from the seven Harry Potter films, as well as a concert with music written by 20th-century composer Dmitri Shostakovich for a Soviet film version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” during which short clips of the film were shown.
This Saturday at The Capitol Theatre, for the first time, the YSO will present a complete motion picture accompanied by live orchestra: the classic “Frankenstein,” featuring Boris Karloff as “the monster.”
Based on the novel written by Mary Shelley almost a century earlier, Frankenstein was first produced for the cinema by Thomas Edison as a silent film in 1910; the 1931 version to be screened Saturday was the first created after “talkies” became commercially viable. Previously, live musicians were commonly hired to accompany silent movies. Sometimes original new music was composed for the pianist, organist or small theater orchestra to play, and scores were sent with the film to each theater. (The first such score was written by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1908 for “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.”)
Just as often, a lone keyboard player improvised the music in real time based on the action on the screen. This music was intended to set the tone and accent the dramatic arc of the story, but perhaps just as importantly to help mask the annoying clatter of the projection machines.
With the newfound ability to synchronize sound to the visual element of films, filmmakers initially had to scale back their use of music to just occasional on-screen usage — music that was actually part of the storyline itself (such as a singer in a club), perhaps some music under the titles at the beginning and end — since synchronizing an entire film score was still logistically problematic until “King Kong” in 1933.
The 1931 “Frankenstein” was created under these limitations — music appears only very sparingly in the film itself — and so in 2002, composer Michael Shapiro set out to create the kind of musical accompaniment that audiences in the 1930s would have heard if the technology had allowed for it. It is this score, composed specifically for “Frankenstein” in the tradition begun by Saint-Saëns, that will accompany the showing of this iconic horror film Saturday night.
• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.