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Volume 10 • Number 2

Fall 2003


 

 

Banality Triumphant: Iconographic Use of
Beethoven's
Ninth Symphony in Recent Films


by James Wierzbicki

 

The sublime and the ridiculous
are often so nearly related,
that it is difficult to class
them separately. One step
above the sublime makes the
ridiculous, and one step above
the ridiculous makes the sublime
again.
—Thomas Paine, Age of Reason

Although various works by Beethoven are represented in the two principal anthologies of film-accompaniment music that have survived from the days of the "silent movie," the Ninth Symphony is not among them. This does not mean, of course, that arrangements of the Ninth Symphony were never heard by the audiences of such films. Max Winkler, the enterprising clerk at the Carl Fischer music publishing company who in 1912 conceived the idea of providing theatrical music directors with a list of suggested cues in advance of a film's public exhibition, recalled that in order to keep up with demand he and his colleagues turned to crime. "We began to dismember the great masters. We murdered the works of Beethoven, . . . [et al.]—everything that wasn't protected by copyright from our pilfering." The Ninth Symphony certainly was in the public domain, and it is hard to imagine that film accompanists, somewhere along the line, did not make use of it. But performances of public domain music in the context of "silent" film are ephemeral, and even the rare, documented usage resists analysis. Likewise resistant, largely because of their similarity to needles that only possibly exist in a very large haystack, are references to the Ninth in any of the 6,000 or so feature films produced in Hollywood during the first decade of the "sound era"; although one supposes such references exist, they have yet to come to this writer's attention.

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