Composer Jeff Beal provided new voice to F.W. Murnau’s lyrical silent film “Sunrise” on Sunday, Jan. 26, with a mystical, otherworldly score for chamber orchestra and the 40 voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Emphasizing the mysterious alchemy of romance and love, blending poetry and the human voice, Beal’s score wonderfully captures the emotional quality of the film.
Unlike Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” inspired by the silent film “Joan of Arc,” which he called “Opera With Movie” at the TCM Film Festival a few years ago, Beal’s score is one with the film, underscoring its emotions rather than overshadowing the film as does “Voices of Light.”
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Beal employs the human voice as an additional instrument bringing unique tone, color, and texture to the film, blending it in polyphony with the chamber orchestra. His score blends a modern, transparent dissonance, remaining mostly in a minor key until resolving into a gorgeous harmonic major chord for the “Sunrise” finale. His score is not just about physical movement but the musical, emotional journey of the characters.
Joan Beal, wife of the composer, served as librettist, combining poetic selections from the Bible’s “Song of Solomon,” Hesiod’s “Theogony,” “Towards the Piraeus,” and the operatic “Hansel and Gretel” to emphasize the lyrical, spiritual feeling of the film. The lyrics are more tones than words, evoking feeling rather than being understood as language.
The chorale works in concert and harmony with the chamber group, emphasizing the emotional texture of events. In romantic scenes, Beal’s work reminds of Morton Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” transparent, simple, and revealing. Much of the singing simulates chanting, highlighting emotion, and many scenes end on suspended chords.
In the initial lake crossing by the couple and the tempestuous storm as they return home, basses and baritones add dark, dense undertones to the chamber’s suspenseful music. Margaret Livingston’s City Woman scene seducing the husband features an understated but foreboding jazz beat, while the gorgeous harmony of the strings and sopranos highlight the romantic look back at the couple and the church sequence.
During the carnival and nightclub sequences, Beal emphasizes a jaunty beat, employing a gliding hand and plucks over the piano strings for sound effects. Subtle humor infuses the scenes of George chasing the pig and the man pulling up the woman’s dress straps.
A beautiful tenor stands in for George O’Brien’s husband in some of the sweet courting scenes with Janet Gaynor as his wife. Soprano and alto soloists provide voice for some of Gaynor’s more emotional scenes. Leitmotifs for these characters occur every now and then.
The audience mostly respected the film, only tittering in the scenes were George madly kisses the young child near the beginning of the film and as the German Shepherd jumps in the lake intuiting danger to Gaynor. They found humor in the dress strap sequence, pig chasing scene, and the weary barber in another world as he works on O’Brien.
Beal’s lovely new score added modern contextualization to Murnau’s haunting “Sunrise.”