Sunday, September 02, 2012

Edward Ward's The Phantom of the Opera

This is, of course, the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera normally referred to as the "Claude Rains version" (which you can watch on YouTube). You could also call this the Nelson Eddy version or the Susanna Foster version, because they are also featured actors (and terrific singers).

What I loved most about it was the use of lavishly-orchestrated music by Chopin for a faux-opera. It makes a double whammy because the Chopin pieces (his best-known hits) would certainly have been familiar to 1943 audiences, and because it makes a reference to the friendship between Pauline Viardot and Frederick Chopin. Viardot, who was a huge international opera star during the middle part of the 19th century, worked with Chopin on French vocal settings of 12 of his Mazurkas. I believe that Edward Ward, who won an academy award for his Phantom score in 1944, made the best of all musical choices with using Chopin here, because Chopin never wrote any vocal music, and his presence would have been well-felt in Paris during the time the movie was set. (When Martha , translated appropriately into French for this movie, was a brand new hit!). Liszt is also featured in the film, complete with his priest's collar (which is hard to see here).

For the grand finale opera of the film (what a repertoire and what resources this fictional opera company had!), Edward Ward and librettist George Waggner used themes from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, for an opera that they sang, naturally, in Russian.

Some of the music was original: the main theme of the movie, Ward's own "Lullaby of the Bells," bears occasional (and highly appropriate) homage to Camille Saint-Saens.

The only thing that I object to in this movie is its use of a fictionalized version of Ignaz Pleyel as a publisher who refused to even consider publishing the piano concerto (that features the "Lullaby of the Bells" as its main theme) written by the man who would become the phantom. They used Pleyel's name because Pleyel was a well-known Parisian publisher, but they clearly knew little about him.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Chopin wrote some songs. At least some Chopin scholars think that he would have eventually written an opera. See, for example, Jonathan Bellman's Chopin's Polish Ballade, an utterly fascinating study.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks Lisa! I didn't know about this study.

Paul Verona said...

I wonder . . .
Had Chopin lived, which route would he have taken? The High Road with the Schumanns; or the higher road with the Liszts and the Wagners? There lies the real story. Now THAT would make a great movie, Chopin's opera of the Polish mythological gods!

Elaine Fine said...


I remember someone mentioning that if Mozart had lived, he and Chopin would probably known one another. Talk about alternate realities! We could call that movie "If They Had Lived."

I always wondered how Mozart would have weathered the Reign of Terror, but if he were able to weather it and come out whole, imagine what his music would have sounded like! And he would have known the mature Beethoven.