The Bride of Frankenstein Finds a Mahlerian Voice

Ben Winters
Ben Winters

In 1931, Universal Pictures released James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein,’ a horror film whose music score is confined to its credits, featuring a monster denied the power of speech. By 1935 — with Hollywood having embraced the almost wall-to-wall scoring procedures of Maximilian Raoul Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold — James Whale’s follow-up ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ calls upon the resources of Franz Waxman’s music to lend the Monster a voice: a voice that, in turn, seems to awaken the character’s ability to communicate.

Consequently, Dr Septimus Pretorius announces in response to Henry Frankenstein’s evident confusion at the Monster’s dialogue that “there have been developments.” Beyond precipitating the character change evident in these two films, though, what else might this musical “envoicing” have contributed to the artistic ambitions of the movie? It is a question that many might consider redundant, especially as Theodor W. Adorno’s all-too-familiar attack on the culturally bankrupt art of film scoring virtually dismisses the idea that a “mainstream” Hollywood score from this period could be capable of fulfilling a critical role; that it could call into question its status as the tool of a nefarious “Culture Industry,” or act as a beacon for issues of social justice1.

Bride of Frankenstein
Bride of Frankenstein Official Poster

Did Theodor W. Adorno’s prejudicial blindness in the case of popular culture prevent him from identifying modernist qualities of resistance in a film score? Can the score ‘Bride of Frankenstein,’ which is commonly described as a melodramatic comedy classic, two possibly have suggested anything of profound value to a 1930s audience? In this article, I want to suggest that, firstly, the film offers us a critique of Nazi Germany — and its fear of the cultural outsider — partly as a result of its score invoking the modernist musical language and techniques of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911); and, secondly, that such a critique is in direct violation of the prevailing censorship practices in Hollywood, suggesting that film scores not be always the culturally bankrupt items they may first appear to be.

Although the musical language Franz Waxman employs in this film could be said to allude to a number of different composers — including Richard Georg Strauss, Paul Abraham Dukas, Achille-Claude Debussy, and Franz Liszt — the references to a Mahlerian dialect are arguably the most striking. The score is full of typically Mahlerian surface features — including funeral marches; waltzes; dances macabre; long pedals; and major triads turning to minor — and we might even find specific allusions to Gustav Mahler’s works. The rising string trills of the film’s opening, for example, shares much with the opening of the finale of the 6th Symphony; the Monster’s theme seems a slower version of the 5th Symphony’s opening fanfare2; whereas the wide leaps of the Bride’s music seem to parallel moments in the 10th Symphony’s Adagio, the 3rd symphony , or perhaps most strikingly the Des Knaben Wunderhorn song ‘Das irdische Leben.’ (“The Earthly Life”)3.

These simple, anachronistic musical allusions may not seem particularly significant in themselves; however, given Theodor W. Adorno’s later lionising of Gustav Mahler as a pioneering force for critical resistance to oppression4, they reveal the score’s resonances with many of the qualities that both Theodor W. Adorno and (from an alternative perspective) Nazi-era critics such as Winfried Otto Schumann and Karl Michael Blessinger identified in Gustav Mahler’s fragmented language. As Leon Botstein has pointed out, these commentators recognised that “[Gustav] Mahler threatened the very basis of the Nazi aesthetic project of an antimodern renewal5.” And while Pamela M. Potter suggests that no such anti-modern project existed with anything like the sense of unity that we might imagine6, Winfried Otto Schumann and Karl Michael Blessinger were certainly all too aware of the composer’s ability (even as late as the 1930s) to threaten established practices, to resist oppression, and to convey “the truth of a disturbed individual within a corrupt, conflict-ridden, fragmented world7.”

Gustav Mahler achieved this by foregrounding formal discontinuities, countering expectations, and presenting what some would later interpret as a postmodern fragmentation of a variety of popular styles. Without the off-putting dissonances of Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg, his music represented to these Nazi critics an alluring camouflaged danger, what Leon Botstein terms “the aesthetic analogue of the assimilated Jew.” It is my contention that Franz Waxman’s score offers a similar threat to Nazi ideology, successfully camouflaged in the relatively youthful language of the Hollywood film score. After exploring the musical characterisation of the film’s characters — characterisations that, like Gustav Mahler’s music, suggest an affinity with society’s outsiders — I will highlight the score’s deeper resonances with aspects of Mahlerian structure, and particularly with Theodor W. Adorno’s concept of “breakthrough” in further articles.

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