Please note: this essay presumes you’re familiar with the core story of The Phantom of the Opera.
If it’s all a great big mush, here’s the basic rundown: In love with a pretty opera singer, a disfigured and demented composer eventually ‘escorts’ his beloved to his sewer-laden lair below the Paris Opera House where he attempts to woo her. The masked phantom promises a most awesome tutelage in favour of a platonic luv, but when she strays towards a rival, she’s snatched back from the surface world, and her only salvation is her lover and an angry mob determined to rid Paris of its must-feared Phantom. Oh, and he’s in possession of a dreadful temper.
Now let’s begin a tally of the myriad music scores - pastiches, vintage Vitaphone, and original music – that have graced The Phantom of the Opera and it’s multiple versions. Many facts were gleaned from a number of sources, including audio commentaries, but there’s also some theorizing on my end for aspects that are a little confusing, because POTO has had one of the strangest production histories in cinema. (Also added: bonus footnotes, because to exceed 2000 words is my divine goal, even when writing about the colour of air.)
(For more details on its birthing, rearing, dismembering, reconfiguring with new parts, evisceration and reassembly, transplanted Vitaphone voices, silenced re-issues, and re-scored versions from variants and clones on 16mm and 35mm film, read RM’s November issue.)
First… there were reshoots
It’s not unusual for an iconoclastic silent film to have several music scores written over its ongoing circulation in theatres and home video – witness Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)1– but one would think Universal’s Phantom of the Opera (1925), a “Super Jewel” prestige production, was birthed with at least one definitive musical vision in mind.
As film historian & commentator Scott MacQueen recounts on Milestone’s 2-disc DVD from 2003, Phantom existed in 5 different versions, spanning its pre-release and final sound incarnations, between 1925-1930.2
At its 1925 World Premiere in San Francisco, Phantom reportedly featured an orchestral score by Joseph Carl Breil (best know for Birth of a Nation), of which MacQueen asserts “no record exists.” To that end, neither does POTO’s World Premiere version, since the film was pulled from distribution, and major reshoots were demanded, including a new ending.
According to historian / composer Jon Mirsalis (who provides a commentary on the 2011 Image Blu-ray), the retrofitted version premiered in New York City, and while it was announced to have a score by Gustav Hinrichs, it ultimately featured music by Eugene Conte, after which Universal published the official score with Hinrich’s music, albeit credited to Max (Moe) Winkler.
To make things a bit more confusing, MacQueen asserts when the film went into release in 1925 (often referred to as the General Release version) after the New York premiere, conductors could choose between two live scores: a mostly classical / partially original score assembled by Gustav Hinrichs and Max Winkler; and an optional classical / original / stock music score assembled by Winkler himself, both of which reportedly made use of Gounod’s opera music from “Faust” for the singing sequences.
Current public domain DVD and online editions of POTO are usually accompanied by synth, organ, or classical music, of which the best-known pastiche seems to be a Mozart and Schubert combo, but it’s very repetitive, and in one variant, annoyingly flips between mono/stereo sources.3
After music came… synchronized sound
When the film was reissued in 1929, it featured newly shot 2-strip Technicolor sequences with sound, a score was assembled using classical, stock, and original Main Title + Phantom Unmasking cues by Sam Perry. The music elements were combined with sparse sound effects and bits of dialogue, plus synchronized sound footage for the newly shot dialogue scenes – a version that no longer exists except as partial audio extracts from surviving Vitaphone sound discs, which are archived in a separate gallery on the Milestone set.
Milestone also released the most complete version to date: a hybrid, comprised of the 1930 “silent international version” (or what film historian McQueen confusingly calls ‘the 1930 synchronized sound re-release version’) that was upgraded using 16mm and 35mm footage, including the precious Technicolor ball sequence material from the 1925 silent version, and the colour rooftop sequence (hand-tinted to replicate the lost Technicolor footage).
Produced for restoration by Photoplay Productions – a company co-founded by venerable film historian & preservationist Kevin Brownlow (the man who championed Abel Gance’s Napoleon) – this ‘silent international version’ was scored by Carl Davis in 1996.
Davis faithfully built a score around the Hinrichs / Winkler leitmotif design, wrote original material, and incorporated Perry’s Phantom theme and certain stock cues (such as the ballet music) to create an epic emotional journey with the Phantom and Christine’s impossible ‘musical’ love affair at its centre.
The score begins with a grinding, gothic organ to accentuate the Main Titles, but Davis spares its fierce tones for whenever the Phantom’s influence is at its most malevolent (such as the chandelier crash), and singer Christine’s almost deific stage debut as an angel. The love theme for Christine and the Phantom is perhaps the only musical element that sounds contemporary in style, but it works. A highpoint is the seduction scene on the stairwell, where gentle harp and woodwinds capture the moment when the Phantom touches Christine’s shoulder for the first time. A solo violin accentuates the gentility of their meeting, as well the Phantom’s gradual seduction, which becomes almost mystical as Christine gets tipsy from swirling emotions before she’s whisked off to the Phantom’s lair.
The Milestone set is now out of print, and neither the Photoplay restoration nor Carl Davis’ score are present on the new 2011 Image Blu-ray, but Davis’ score is available on CD via Silva Screen.
Then came… post-sync sound
The Photoplay restoration is the star attraction on Milestone’s 2-disc set, and in addition to the Davis score, there’s a second soundtrack: a mono mix featuring music and sound effects from a 1930 Vitaphone audio track with post-synched dialogue (dialogue that was recorded not for actual picture synchronization, but to play ‘loosely’ over select scenes, like crowd noises). Added to the vintage track by the Photoplay producers are vestiges of the 1929 sync-sound dialogue, mixed in to their corresponding scenes.
The following is my own hypothesis of the sync sound and post-sync sound lineages:
In 1990, film historian David Shepard released POTO on laserdisc via Image Entertainment, featuring the 1925 and the 1929 silent re-release version created by Universal. For the ‘new’ silent version, original silent scenes from the 1925 version replaced the sync sound scenes from 1929, although a few vestiges remained – notably the lantern man who’s clearly addressing the audience right after the Main Title sequence. (The character is only seen behind the Main Titles credits in the 1925 silent version, after which the film cuts to the Paris Opera House scene. In the original 1929 sync sound version, the character actually addresses the audience.)
The Vitaphone audio mix, featuring sound effects and the aforementioned ‘loose’ post-sync dialogue, was created in 1930 when Universal re-released the aforementioned 1929 silent version with a sound mix so Phantom could still compete with sound films.
Shepard dropped the vintage 1930 post-sync sound mix from the 1995 laserdisc and 1997 DVD releases in favour of a new score by Quebec composer Gabriel Thibaudeau (who in 2010 also scored the restored Metropolis).
Thibaudeau’s approach fuses contemporary orchestral and vintage organ elements (plus operatic arias sung by Claudine Cote), and is also present on the 2011 Image Blu-ray. (Note: due to a mastering fubar, early copies of the Blu-ray feature Thibaudeau’s score in mono. This error is supposedly being fixed4, and there ought to be notices regarding a remedy / replacement disc for those currently stuck with the flawed version.)
Getting back to the post-sync soundtrack hybridized by Photoplay with 1929 dialogue bits (still with me?), from the viewer’s perspective, the impression of the vintage sound mix is marginally successful. Because no sync sound film footage exists, the spoken dialogue doesn’t wholly match up to footage of the corresponding scene, but once in a while it kind of clicks, and the results are quite fascinating.
Disc 2 in the Milestone set contains a 16mm black & white copy of the 1925 silent general release version, and is accompanied by Jon C. Mirsalis’ multi-thematic synth score (sadly, in flat mono). Lacking the emotionally epic scope that Davis is able to impart, Mirsalis nevertheless transcends the limitations of his gear and crafted a more intimate score with sometimes Herrmannesque touches.
A prime example is the melancholic harmony applied to the seduction scene where Carlotta finally meets the Phantom on a dark stairwell within the bowels of the opera house. Whereas Davis uses harp, woodwinds, and solo violin, Mirsalis emphasizes the almost mystical devotion between two impossible lovers using solo harp and slight choral emulations, and piano.
Solo organ precedes the unmasking scene, but rather than scoring specific shock beats as done by Davis, he treats the scene with a loose musical statement which is less successful in capturing Carlotta’s utter horror.
Mirsalis’ score – a perfectly fine work – was dropped from the 2011 Image Blu-ray transfer in favour of a classical pastiche performed on piano by Frederick Hodges, but perhaps as a consolation, he was given room for a commentary track on the 1929 version.
The Blu-ray offers the aforementioned 1925 version (mastered from 16mm elements), plus the 1929 version (mastered from 35mm elements) transferred at two speeds: 20 frames per second (closer to its original projection speed) with a new orchestral-synth score by the Alloy Orchestra, and an alternate score: Gaylord Carter’s organ score, recorded in 1974 and premiering in stereo. The 24 fps transfer is supported by the Thibaudeau score, and the Mirsalis commentary track.
And then came Rick Wakeman
Perhaps influenced by Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 retrofitting Metropolis with pop / rock ballads, Rick Wakeman designed his 1990 score as a rock opera, applying songs and sparse instrumental cues to an abbreviated version of the film (which is unique for a Christopher Lee intro, and Lee reading the lines once spoken by the lantern man in the sync sound version).
Wakeman applies organ, keyboards, rock beats, and a full libretto for his score, but his music also realigns one’s sympathy farther away from the Phantom. The stairwell meeting with Christine is covered using an appropriately operatic vocal reflecting Christine’s naïveté, whereas the Phantom gets a tongue-in-cheek song about “evil love.”
Wakeman’s dreamy wordless sections treats their trip towards the Phantom’s lair like a journey into demented love, which sets up the stark contrast in the unmasking scene: the Phantom’s religiously delirious organ fugue is immediately obliterated by thick discord that intensifies as he places his visage distressingly close to Christine’s.
Whereas an instrumental score allows a composer to weave in and out material, the use of complete songs seem to work best as concept piece, because in spite of Wakeman’s careful attention to mood and the emotional states of the character, the transitions between songs and brief cues is sometimes spastic, as though some pieces had to be whittled down to create a timed, wall-to-wall music track. Wakeman’s score shouldn’t be shrugged aside, though, because there’s much to admire in his ballsy approach by challenging audiences with his untraditional approach.
Although the soundtrack album is available digitally and on CD, the Wakeman-scored version isn’t available on home video (but is accessible at present on YouTube), and therein lies the problem with many of the original Phantom scores composed over the past 21 years: depending on label interest, music rights, or a sense of changing audience tastes, only a few versions with original scores are available at any single time, which just shouldn’t be the case.
Among the top MIA are Korla Pandit’s organ score that appeared on Lumivision’s 1990 laserdisc, and more interestingly, a version few have ever heard: an orchestral score by Roy Budd (Get Carter, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), which premiered shortly after the composer’s death in 1993, and has remained locked away for 19 years.
But perhaps his most ambitious project was that completed shortly before his death. His symphonic score for the 1925 silent film classic – Phantom Of The Opera – written for an eighty-piece orchestra, was recorded and will hopefully see the light of day eventually. During an interview with film music writer John Mansell, which took place only weeks before his sudden death, he discussed this project: “There are 82 minutes of music, which is more or less continuous. It was a little strange not having to contend with dialogue and sound effects etc., but saying that, it was quite an experience having to compose nearly 90 minutes of music. I am very proud of this score.”
On being asked by Mansell if he had been influenced by any composers, his reply was guarded: “I don’t think ‘influenced’ is the correct word. I love Wagner and of course I think that Jerry Goldsmith is great – he’s been around for a long time now and he still produces some really magical stuff. I think he’s lasted so long because of his ability to be able to write for a large symphony orchestra, and also he is at home sitting at a keyboard. Jerry Fielding was another great composer, if he had lived I’m sure that he would have been in much demand now, he was very underrated, and of course, he fell foul of the political back- stabbers in Hollywood.”
Undoubtedly there will be more efforts to rescore the film. Not because it needs new music, but due to its allure, POTO is able to inspire composers from various backgrounds to give the film a different musical interpretation, which has given many silent films new lives. Besides POTO, Metropolis, and Nosferatu to name a few key works, there are many silents that have aired on TCM for which new scores were commissioned.
It’s unheard of for sound films because it mandates remixing the music with dialogue and sound effects (plus the idea or rescoring Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or Psycho is nuts)5, but there is something that attracts composers to the blank sonic canvas of a silent film, and undoubtedly as more sound films fall into public domain, composers and sound designers will be able to have fun with films, adding a new dimension to and older film.
While it is impressive to see so many new musical takes on POTO, it’s also a headache when versions remain unavailable on home video, fall out of print, or aren’t upgraded from obsolete formats like laserdiscs or VHS. A fan’s exposure and opportunities to experience a new interpretation therefore becomes limited to what’s in print within the commercial realm – which isn’t ideal.
Note: this interminable overview of POTO’s diverse music scores would’ve been utterly incoherent without the lengthy & detailed reviews at Silentera.com, and Carl Bennett’s articulate sidebar (which is worth reading to get a sense of what may be the most confusing history of a single motion picture). Content, links, and multimedia addendums are a derivation of WKME, a cutting-edge surfing format pioneered at KQEK.com.
- – – Mark R. Hasan (Mondomark.com)
1. Even a cursory history of the Metropolis scores is pretty substantive: Gottfried Huppertz (1927), William Fitzwater & Hugh Davies (1975; BBC), Giorgio Moroder (1984), Peter osbourne (1998), Wetfish (1999), Abel Korzeniowski (2004), Ronnie Cramer (2004), Benjamin Speed (2005), and Gabriel Thibaudeau (2010). [return]
2. This becomes more complex: POTO elements exist on 35mm film and knocked-down 16mm editions, with some variation in takes due to the use of A and B camera negatives (a dual-filming process used to ensure a protection negative in case Bad Things happened to Camera A, and the use of B-camera footage to create foreign release prints). [return]
3. A sampling of what’s out there on budget labels or for free is this version at Archive.org, which also includes a leftover of the 1925 reshoots that were subsequently junked: the ‘happily ever after’ scene that shows the hero & heroine in “A Honeymoon in Viroflay” coda. Blacch! [return]
4. Producer David Shepard posted the following message at Nitrateville.com regarding the defect(s) in the new POTO Blu-ray: “Unfortunately, we found significant problems with the new Image Entertainment Blu-Ray of POTO after some product had already been shipped to resellers. Image has recalled all copies and will fix and re-press the edition. It will be later than announced, but God willing, it will also be the fine edition we intended to produce. If anyone somehow ends up with one of the first printing, which should be rarer than an upside-down airmail stamp, please do not use it to judge the work. We will arrange to replace it with the corrected version – David Shepard” [return]
5. One exception is Sam Peckinpah’s western Major Dundee (1965), which sported a terribly repetitive score by Daniele Amfitheatrof (which Peckinpah reportedly hated). When the film was issued on DVD, it sported both a new score by Christopher Caliendo and the Amfitheatrof mix on a separate track. Tangentially related are films rescored for other exhibition territories because a distributor, producer, director, or rights issues created problems, of which a great example of a dual-scored film is Ridley Scott’s Legend (1986): there’s the Tangerine Dream scored version for North America, and Jerry Goldsmith score for Europe. Of course, that film also exists in multiple cuts, too: the North American edit, the European edit, the TNT TV edit, and the Director’s Cut which graces the DVD and Blu-ray editions. [return]