Sunday, August 17, 2008

On Dangerous Ground: the Viola d'amore in the movies

Imagine my surprise last night when the opening credits of this 1951 Ida Lupino-Robert Ryan Film Noir Michael brought home read "Music by Bernard Herrmann--Viola d'Amour played by Virginia Majewski." I have to admit that I spent the first "act" of On Dangerous Ground, because of my own particular musical orientation, waiting to hear what Herrmann did with the viola d'amore, and waiting for the appearance of Ida Lupino. I was intrigued and impressed by both when they finally appeared together. Hermann does not use the viola d'amore as a harmonic or polyphonic instrument, but he takes advantage of the instrument's range and colors in each of its distinct registers. To the unsuspecting ear it sounds like a viola much of the time, with exciting escapes to the high register and surprising forays into the low register.

Majewski (1907-1995), who I know from chamber music recordings that she made with Heifetz and Primrose, and from a 1990 interview by Roland Kato in the newsletter of the Viola d'Amore Society of America (Volume 19/2, 1995) was a very active studio musician in Los Angeles. She came to Los Angeles in 1938 as the principal violist of the MGM Studio Orchestra, and was involved with the viola d'amore in the 1930s, during its first 20th-century "Renaissance." Majewski was never sure why Hermann wrote this music for the viola d'amore. She apparently recorded this score on a borrowed instrument: on the morning that she got the call to do the recording session, she found that when she opened her case, her viola d'amore had split its scroll (one of the dangerous consequences of keeping an 18th-century instrument at modern pitch). That she could play so beautifully on a borrowed instrument without any notice (she was probably sight reading) is quite a feat. Herrmann insisted that Majewski get solo billing in the credits for her performance, sharing his "card" with her.

3 comments:

Robert Gable said...

Hmm, I like Herrmann, Lupino film noir and maybe even Robert Ryan. But hadn't heard of this movie. Thanks for pointing it out.

j said...

I ordered this- hope to see it soon. Love all the background you provided.

violinhunter said...

Herrmann's generosity is exceptional. I know of many back room studio (production) composers who contributed to major movie soundtracks and never got credited. To have a studio musician credited is indeed unusual.