The Michael Obst Musical Score for the Silent “Nosferatu”

“Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” is a 1922 German silent film, directed by F.P. Murnau.  It is basically a retelling of the Dracula story, not authorized by the heirs of Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula”.  After the film was released (the story line basically the same, with some changed details and all changed names), the Stoker heirs sued and the court ruled for the heirs and ordered all copies of the film destroyed.  Most were, but one remained (I am not sure why or how this happened) and we are today able to see what is now a classic early horror film.

The film is not particularly enjoyable to watch in 2014, except for its historical interest.  The version I saw Monday night at the Goethe Institute in Washington had English subtitles and a musical score written about ten years ago by German composer Michael Obst.  Obst was at the showing, and spoke a bit about the art of creating a musical score for a silent film to the crowd (OK, not really a crowd; there were only about 20 in the theater).

I don’t know how (or if) the Obst score was reviewed when it was first heard, but I think that the composer completely nailed it.  It was a perfect accompaniment for the film.  And his explanation of how he went about writing the music was interesting.  If I remember closely enough, he said that there were three things he needed to accomplish:  first, he needed to portray the general atmosphere of the film; second, he needed to react to particular moments of drama – a fight, a flight, etc; and third, he had to go beyond what the actors were saying (or mouthing) and reflect what their characters would have been thinking.  In other words, he said, and I paraphrase, “the dramaturgy of the music must match the dramaturgy of the film”.

I had never thought of musical scores in this way.  Obst opened my eyes.


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