Häxan: About the Music

Häxan had its world premiere in Stockholm, on September 18, 1922. The score that accompanied the film was compiled from preexisting compositions, the names of which have unfortunately been lost. But, thanks to a published list, we do know what music was used for the Copenhagen premiere in November, and it is from this list (compiled by musical director Jacob Gade) that our version has been prepared. There is a good chance that it was the same music as that from Stockholm—the compositions for the most part were well known, and would have been readily available in both cities.

In an interview published shortly after the Stockholm premiere, director Benjamin Christensen spoke enthusiastically about that score:

“I would…like to take the opportunity to offer my warmest praise for the musical arrangement done for the picture by the conductor Rudolf Sahlberg. It is simply ideal. At first, I myself wanted to have the film run without music, but Mr. Sahlberg has made the music follow the images in a masterly fashion. It is quite simply the best musical arrangement I have ever heard for a film!”(Filmjournalen, 8 Oct. 1922)

If Christensen liked the accompaniment in Stockholm so much, it seems logical to assume that he would have requested that it be used when the film was screened in other theaters.

Still, we can only conjecture that the accompaniment for Häxan was the same in Stockholm and Copenhagen. “Conjecture,” in fact, is the key word for almost everything about the musical reconstruction used here. The only thing we know for sure is the list of pieces. We do not know in what order they were used, whether they were used more than once, whether some pieces were used but not printed in the list, what part of each piece was used, which editions of the music were used, or with which part of the film the music was paired. We assumed that the order of the music was that published in the program, and when we set the music to the picture, we found that this assumption could be made to work.

In Copenhagen, Häxan was accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra. We have used an 11-piece ensemble, simply because it was more economical. However, such smaller-scale ensembles would have played these arrangements in many theaters, so it can be justified historically.

We have learned several things by re-marrying the original accompaniment with Häxan. The first, quite simply, is that the music works very well with the film. The witches on broomsticks take off successfully to Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, for example, and the mad nun dances wildly to the Slave Dance from Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

Secondly, there seems to have been some gratuitous anti-semitism in the choice of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei.” This melody is the most sacred of the Jewish liturgical year, and its use would have been (and still is) offensive in the context of a film about satanic possession. However, the chant works for dramatic reasons—it fits the devil’s mass, and its ancient profundity ties the disparate parts of the scene together, while also creating a strange emotional counterpoint to what is on the screen. (This counterpoint becomes important when it is tied into the end of the film.) Still, Jews were falsely regarded as devil-worshippers, and someone undoubtedly had this association when he chose Bruch’s arrangement. Who had this association becomes a critical question, particularly if Christensen really did have something to do with the choice of the music.

If we had not tried to put the original music back with the picture, we might not have confronted this association. More generally, we would not have known how consistently and well the accompaniment could work, nor how it might change our perception of the film itself.

The music constantly refers to something deeper, not yet understood, something not explained on the screen. It creates a sort of deep pity in preparation for the ending of the film. This musical/emotional counterpoint accompanies the first six sections and then surfaces and releases its tension in the seventh section with the intense serenity and indescribably moving pathos of Beethoven. We understand that there was a reason for having to watch the brutality of the witchcraft craze. Both the persecutors and the accused witches were to be pitied because they did not understand what we do today about hysteria and emotional disturbance. The images of scientific explanation do not transcend the brutal violence we’ve seen up to that point. The transcendence comes with the music, which has prepared us for this resolution.

I find it difficult to believe that the music was constructed without a serious conversation between Christensen and the musical directors in Stockholm and Copenhagen. And if the attempted re-marriage of music and image does nothing else, I hope it will raise questions about the relationship between these three artistic forces. The music suggests that a superior musical intelligence (either Sahlberg or Gade) made the choices, but moreover, it sounds like it came from the same period as the images. Together they pull you back in time. They sound authentic together. The original chemistry and balance of the picture are restored (however hypothetically) and allow us to both understand Christensen’s work more profoundly and to raise further questions.

The writer would like to thank: Richard Schwegel and The Balaban and Katz Theatre Orchestra Collection of the Chicago Public Library Music Division; Wayne Shirley and Ruth Foss of the Library of Congress Music Division; Jim Luke (for help with the selection of the position of the pieces) and Homer Rudolf (for help with the parts). Thanks to Casper Tybjerg for providing the Filmjournalen quote and translation.

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