Settling an Old Score: A Song of Two Humans

February 5, 2020 Updated: February 5, 2020
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LOS ANGELES—Artistic director and conductor of The Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, introduced the world premiere of “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” an original film score for a classic silent film, at The Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 26.

Gershon, who conducted the orchestra, acknowledged that it was a sad day for Los Angeles. Indeed a strange haze seemed to permeate the city, following Kobe Bryant’s shocking death. Yet, by the end of the performance, the restorative and life-affirming power of beautiful music brought the house to their feet in a standing ovation.

“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” is the new soundtrack for choir and chamber orchestra, composed by Jeff Beal. Beal is known for his work in both television and film, with “House of Cards” among his many credits.

As Oscar season has commenced, the evening seemed to be a bridge spanning nearly a decade from the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, when German director, F. W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” won three awards. Murnau had been invited to Hollywood by no less a figure than William Fox, founder of the Fox Film Corporation, to direct a film for his new studio.

In a statement that highlighted the film’s technical breakthroughs, one commentator said, “The motion picture camera, for so long tethered by its bulk had, with Sunrise, finally learned to fly.”

Despite the fact it’s a silent film, there was much about the work that seemed of a latter era, with stunning crossfade and matte effects. Also worth noting was the incredible patience of the filmmakers of old who had to wait to film actual rainstorms rather than add such effects digitally.

Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, the film is an allegorical tale about a man fighting the good and evil within himself. With a wife and small child to care for, he’s in debt, and money lenders are slowly selling off his livestock. Enter a flirtatious city girl who seduces him and convinces him to sell what is left of the farm and run away to live the high life in the city. But first, he must drown his wife in a lake. High drama indeed.

At the last minute, he cannot go through with it, but terrified, his wife wife runs away to the city to escape his evil plan, where they rekindle their love amidst metropolitan jauntiness, activity, and culture.

However, on their journey back across the lake, a great storm blows up and the wife is lost to the tormented waters. In a fit of fury, the farmer almost strangles the city girl before his wife is discovered safe and alive, pulled out of the lake by a fisherman.

The “melodrama” of the silent era is present in all of its kitschy wonder, but so too is the genius of visual story telling without resorting to dialogue, and the film was certainly deemed way ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.

In a year labeled one of the greatest in Hollywood, when silent films had reached their zenith, director Murnau was proclaimed a genius. Ironically, this occurred just before silent films completely vanished, replaced by “talkies.” The famous first “talkie” smash hit, “The Jazz Singer,” was at this point, already making its way to the cinemas.

“Sunrise” won three Oscars at the first ever Oscar ceremony, hosted at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, including “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” a category designed to separate art pieces from the more commercial fair, a category that could possibly use reprising today.

The film’s original soundtrack was combined from many different sources, along with some simple sound effects. It was never given its own original music score until now.

One might imagine that Murnau would be delighted by the results. “Sunrise” has been given a new lease of life almost a century later, and the care taken by Beal gives us a contemporary complexity that probably would not have been envisaged in quite the same way back in the 1920s.

Jeff Beal took almost a year to write the new score, working in close collaboration with his wife Joan Beal as well as Grant Gershon, director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Recognized as the country’s leading professional choir, the Master Chorale has performed in more than 500 concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at both Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and it has toured with the orchestra throughout the United States and in Europe.

This performance was lead by the soaring voices of sopranos Holly Sedillos and Suzanne Waters with Irish tenor Dermot Kiernan singing the male lead.

Joan Beal wrote the libretto, and in a pre-performance talk spoke of her contribution from the “feminine” perspective.

“My husband saw the film as a romance. But, given the terrible threat presented to the female protagonist, I saw it as something of a monster movie,” she said.

Her husband obviously took her observation to heart, and the score reflects an atmosphere of foreboding darkness. To create the voice of the drama, she drew on many classical sources and wrote some original pieces as well. During the pre-concert talk, she expressed that the sentiments in these texts represented our higher or better selves.

IX. The Church
(Original text by Joan Beal and reprise of Hesiod’s Theogony)
Beloved,
We gather, heavy laden Tossed by endless sea. In the presence, boundless, mortal, Finally set free.
Lashed together, Hold fast.
Let go.
Hold fast.
Sing now,
Sing muses, tell the tale.
We who hold the highest mount dance on soft feet.
These things declare to me
Tell how at first gods and earth came to be And the gleaming stars, gloomy night
Sing now, sing muses, tell the tale
Shepherds of wilderness, things of shame Speak false things as though they were true Sing of themselves, both first and last boundless, mortal
Giver of good things
Born of earth
Sunlight and gloomy night Great and wretched, Born of earth.

Jeff Beal’s background as a jazz trumpet player is reflected in the complexity of the work, and at ninety minutes running time, it was certainly a mammoth and impressive undertaking.

As a venue, The Walt Disney Music Hall is of course always impressive, and the performance, film, choir and orchestra, were also astounding. But, most impressive is the notion the whole collaboration presented: a clear statement that art is not a static monolith, that new life could be given to a film made almost a century ago through the dedication and care of present day artisans.