Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922)
Considered the first-ever vampire movie, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror tells the story of a naive real estate agent trapped in a castle in Transylvania after discovering his client, the rich count, is a vampire. Watch this 1922 classic come to life as organist Dennis James provides a chilling soundtrack.
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DENNIS JAMES • ORGAN
Costumes and Sets
Based on the Novel “Dracula” by
FRITZ ARNO WAGNER and GUNTHER KRAMPF
Max Schreck - Graf Orlok
Gustav von Wangenheim - Hutter
Greta Schröder Ellen – Hutter’s wife
Georg H. Schell Harding – a ship owner
Ruth Landshoff Ruth – Harding’s sister
Gustav Botz - Professor Sievers
Alexander Granach - Knock
John Gottowt - Professor Bulwer
Max Nemetz - Captain
Wolfgang Heinz - 1st Sailor
Albert Venohr 2nd Sailor
The Pedals and Pipes series is generously sponsored by Valerie and Barry Hon.
Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”)
DIRECTED BY F.W. MURNAU (1889–1931)
Even hard-core enthusiasts often view silent films as period pieces with the charm of antiques—artworks with a look and style that reflect a bygone time. Nosferatu is something very different. Ranking high among the most famous masterpieces of German Expressionist filmmaking, Nosferatu seems as timeless today as it did in 1921, when it was filmed.
It was the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in another medium and a trailblazer in the history of art—daringly experimental in its use of set design, camera angles and lighting to reflect shifting points of view and the experience of horror in a gothic setting.
F W Murnau, 1920
The dramatic style of early cinema, including closely observed facial expressions and limited use of words, transcends period in Nosferatu. Other techniques innovated by F. W. Murnau, including bizarre camera angles and lighting effects to capture the sensations of mental anguish, continue to influence modern directors.
Some of these have become tropes of the movie industry: the eerie vista of white trees garishly silhouetted against a black sky, or the mobile camera that seems to stumble and waver, making us feel that we’re about to fall down even as we sit spellbound and watch.
We can only wonder how the gantries and gyroscopes of today’s film productions would have struck Murnau, who showed his cameramen how to get the effects he wanted by holding the camera while riding a bicycle, rigging it on clothesline-style pulleys, or strapping it to their waists. According to some critics, the artistry of his early efforts surpassed what’s achieved with expensive modern techniques.
Released in Murnau’s native Germany in 1922, Nosferatu became entailed in continuing lawsuits by Bram Stoker, the remarkable Scottish author who gave the literary Count Dracula to the world. Although the names and location were changed—”nosferatu” is an archaic Hungarian word for vampire, and the film’s bloodthirsty Count Orlok is from Bremen, not London—the film’s origins seem clear.
But its artistic intent seems worlds away: The story’s darkness seemed calibrated to the grim reality of German life between the World Wars, when industrialization and poverty rose at the same time, making everyday life like a nightmare-fantasy.
Among the invented elements in the film’s scenario is the suggestion that the innocent character of Nina could put an end to Orlok’s atrocities by sacrificing herself to him … as if foreseeing the apocalyptic rise of Nazism and the hope of redemptive good in the face of incomprehensible evil.
The man who created this influential masterwork was as improbably gifted and obsessive as the mad scientist in any horror film. Born in Bielefeld, Germany in 1888, Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (the German plumpe is roughly equivalent to “ungainly”), F. W. Murnau was different from the very beginning—tall, brilliant and driven, reading philosophers such as Schopenhauer by age 11. As an adult, his height—6 feet 11 inches, even rarer a century ago than now—set him apart. But even more so, it was his mind.
At age 18 he became a member of the acting troupe led by the great German director Max Reinhardt. Acting in several plays and working as Reinhardt’s assistant gave Murnau intensive training in the most sophisticated dramatic techniques of the day. After serving in the German armed forces in World War I, Murnau worked in Switzerland making propaganda films. Though brief and unambitious, they taught Murnau the language of the camera, enabling him to test techniques and ponder the possibilities that concerned him most greatly:
using the camera subjectively. Rather than providing a window for observing human experience, Murnau sought to use the camera as an instrument to take us inside the minds of his characters.
Nosferatu, the first major work in Murnau’s subjective style, is so grippingly successful that it can’t really be called an experiment; it remains the most effective adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula in cinema history, and the one in which the count’s bloodthirsty alter-ego is repulsive rather than suave.
The film is a psychological study that treats Stoker’s story line as internal fantasy rather than external reality—an approach that classical music enthusiasts can trace to the German composer Richard Wagner, who introduced it in his revolutionary opera Tristan und Isolde, which premiered in 1865.
Musical Accompaniment for Nosferatu
There is an uncanny affinity between cinematic horror and the concert organ. Its epic sound, spiritual and dramatic at once, intensifies the emotions that Nosferatu triggers in us. But there’s also the danger of cliché: Some venerable organ compositions, such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, have become horror-movie tropes.
In the case of Nosferatu, it is up to Dennis James, the pre- eminent exponent of movie accompaniment on the organ, to tread the line between expressiveness and excess. “Silent films were never meant to be presented silently,” notes James. “From the beginning of the motion picture era at the turn of the 20th century, music was an expected element of the presentation, whether supplied by pianist, organist or band.”
Originally, the music accompanying silent films not only served the drama, but also masked noise from the projector or from outside the tent, store or building in which the projector had been placed.
James’ scholarship has shown how the music developed with time. As early silent films progressed in length and complexity from one-reel short subjects to multi-reel presentations involving inventive scripts and artistic cinematography, musical accompaniments grew from parlor or popular favorites to scores integrated into the emotional action in the film.
In their heyday, practitioners of this art had to combine enormous musical skill and flexibility with a sure-footed sense of cinematic drama. Audience expectations were high—and so were the sheer numbers of musicians involved in creating the music that made movies come alive for audiences nationwide.
James cites a 1922 survey of American movie theaters by the industry publication Motion Picture News: Though the data are not ironclad, he estimates that well over 20 percent of the moviegoing audience attended an orchestrally scored film on any given night, with 250 theaters presenting orchestras larger than 10 players.
Well over 1,000 boasted ensembles of six to 10 players. Even those numbers don’t include the large majority of theaters, roughly seven out of 10, that used a theater organ or piano for movie accompaniment.
“Considering that America alone had 15,000 movie theaters, many giving two to four daily programs,” notes James, “it’s clear that the presentation and attendance of films vastly surpassed the presentation and attendance of opera, ballet, and classical music concerts—possibly even church music. Weekly attendance in 1926 was 47 million people, or about half the population.”
The challenges facing the silent film accompanist could faze even the most adept composers in modern Hollywood. These days, a film score’s composer might earn an Academy Award for music written solely to provide an emotional backdrop—enriching a dramatic narrative that is already fully developed on the screen with “constructed” environmental sound.
But in silent film, without the benefit of spoken dialog or the background noises of daily living, it is up to the musical accompaniment to provide every dimension of the sonic experience: the rhythm and pace of the action, the mood of the moment, the tone of that dramatic utterance on the intertitle (the printed frame showing the words or spoken dialog or describing the scenario).
To construct a musical accompaniment, Dennis James reviews scores and sources of the era, preparing detailed cues for use in performance to match the drama’s editorial assembly and emotional pivot points.
Once he has documented every segment is with its intertitles, plot action and cuing opportunities, James begins the process of choosing historically appropriate musical sources from his personal scoring library—the largest such private collection in existence, with contributions from musicians, studios and libraries around the world.
“While assigning each piece,” notes James, “I gauged whether it reflected an overall impression of each scene’s action, location, and/or intended emotional content while calculating when to specifically highlight any specific dramatic events in the film.
I looked for opportunities to give particular identifying themes to major characters, settings or recurring events as the basis for emotive alterations in synchronization with film’s developments. I also looked for indications where the music could be continuous and where I could insert the ‘breath of life’ performance hesitations, pauses, and dramatic silences so prominent in performance practice of the time.”
Thanks to Dennis James’ scholarship and virtuosity, we have the privilege of experiencing this classic silent film in the 21st century with all the vividness of its original musical accompaniment as rendered on a world-class concert organ.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
Dennis James - Organ
Of Dennis James’ silent film scoring Ed Mullins wrote, “James’ accompaniment was one of the finest backgrounds I have ever heard to a silent film. His performance was flawless. Its sensitivity to the action on the screen was an emotional experience bringing lumps to the throat and tears glistening in the eyes of an awestruck audience. It was superb.”
For more than 40 years, James has played a pivotal role in the international revival of silent films with live music. He began professional film accompaniment at Indiana University while he was a music student in the late 1960s.
James now tours under the auspices of the Silent Film Concerts production company, performing to silent films with solo organ, piano and chamber ensemble accompaniments, in addition to presentations with major symphony orchestras throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. James is renowned for providing the most comprehensive selection of authentic silent films with live music presentations available today.
A featured solo performer on the international film festival circuit, James appears regularly at annual Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Philadelphia events, as well as the Pordenone and Rome Festivals Cinema Muto. He may be seen frequently at the National Gallery of Art, Walker Contemporary Art Center, Cleveland Museum of Art, Chicago Art Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art plus the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Palazzo Delle Espisozioni in Rome.
James has performed film programs under the auspices of the American Film Institute, National Film Registry, Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, Pacific Film Archive, George Eastman House, American Federation of the Arts, UCLA Film and Television Archive plus the British Film Institute and Germany’s Goethe-Institut. His solo silent film presentations have been seen throughout Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Italy, England and Canada.
Beginning in 1987, James served as U.S. tour organist for the Film Museum of Munich, West Germany performing his musical scores to such restored German epic silent film classics as Fritz Lang’s 4 1/2-hour Die Nibelungen, the 5-hour Dr. Mabuse saga, the F. W. Murnau silent Faust and Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror.
In 2001, he was commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society to prepare and perform the musical score for the U.S. premiere of the restored Metropolis, and in 2005 he was commissioned to prepare organ-solo traditional score for the U.S. tour of the new restoration of the hitherto lost 1922 silent film Beyond the Rocks, starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino.
James was appointed Hollywood’s International Ambassador of the Silent Film in 1998, bringing silent film programming around the world. Recent appearances include a sellout three-performance series at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, his debut with silent films for the dedication performance of the new Esplanade Concert Hall pipe organ in Singapore plus countrywide silent film tours in England and New Zealand.
In August 2008, he was the premier silent film performer for the new Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul, Korea. James currently serves two additional professional organist appointments, house organist for the Historic Everett Theatre in Everett, Wash., plus theatre organist for the San Diego Symphony demonstrating his dedication both to furthering public interest in pipe organs accompanying silent films and to the continuation of the theatrical traditions of professional organ performance.
Peter Mintun, New York pianist and cultural historian said of James: “Theatre organist Dennis James is one of the only living musicians who understands what is musically, historically, and cinematically appropriate for silent films. Dennis James’ choice of music (some of which is original) subconsciously guides the listener into many moods, tension, bliss, excitement, despair, terror and hilarity.”