Playing the live musical accompaniment to silent films is a peculiarly demanding assignment, but Chaplin movies fully repay the effort.
I feel fairly confident that I am speaking for most of my orchestra colleagues when I say that providing on-the-spot, live music during the showing of a silent movie is not a favorite activity. There are certain hardships involved, even when the score is unquestionably great (I’m thinking in particular of Shostakovitch’s compelling New Babylon; excerpts from an excellent recording can be heard on ArkivMusic.com), and the rewards are much more difficult to come by than with a symphonic work or an opera. These curiosities are presented from time to time because they are historically interesting and create exciting events for the audiences; the difficulties entailed are challenges to be met and overcome by the musicians.
Chaplin movies in a class by themselves
Reading or listening to the news of the moment as well as reflecting upon various highlights of a season coming to its close must inevitably bring Modern Times of 1936 to mind, directed, produced, scored by and starring one Mr. Charles Chaplin. After collaborating in several performances of said work, it was impossible to stop marveling at its brilliance. It seems as if every genre and masterpiece of Western music is somehow referred to therein, either in parody or serious homage, linked together and developed in the most logical, satisfying fashion imaginable while following the same dramatic arc as the story unfolding on the screen.
One might fear that this very well-known material had become somewhat dated and tiresome, but I am pleased to announce the happy surprise that that is not the case. There is, of course, no question of watching the film when one is required to play constantly (for a total of 90 minutes — that’s a 57-page part for the first violins). However, there are several brief interludes when a soundtrack emanates from the movie itself, and during one of these, I caught a glimpse of such grace, such physical eloquence that I simply could not stop thinking about it. The added delight of the nonsensical lyrics in this particular scene makes it almost unbearably wonderful. See, hear, and admire below.
Chaplin movies will always be modern
Without really delving into the problems of such rarefied performance, I will just conclude by remarking that it was a joy to discover that the gifts received from this experience far outweighed the burdens. It is always a thrill to notice genius passing by.