By Will Messner
Films in the 1920s were accompanied by live music; the music would have been performed by a solo pianist, an organist, or a small orchestra, depending on the venue and the available musicians.
There were collections of pre-composed music, called photoplay music, that could be used typical scenes that would come up over and over again, like music for chases or music for sneaking around or music for death scenes.
Some of the photoplay collections included generic stereotypical music for anything regarded as exotic and non-Western. For example, volume one of the Sam Fox Moving Picture Music (1918), and there were even collections devoted just to exotic stereotypes, like Jacobs’ Piano Folio of Oriental, Spanish, and Indian Music for Racial and National Atmosphere (1917). (See figures 1 and 2 below.)
These stereotypical cues often used the same interval of the augmented second to mark something as generally Middle Eastern or Asian.
German director F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized re-telling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula made nearly a decade before Hollywood cast Bela Legosi in the titular role; Hans Erdmann’s score, which was played live with the film when it was first released, has exotic sounds that trigger an abject feeling that transports us to the land of ghosts.
As Hutter, our protagonist, begins his travels to Count Orlock’s castle early in the movie, a pan-flute like recurrent musical motif begins to play. This motif creates tension due to the repetition and monotony of the exotic sounding melody; this theme gets gradually faster as the speed of the horses increases.
Soon after the men driving the carriage refuse to take Hutter further, the motif stops and is replaced by minor orchestral melodies as Count Orlock (actually the vampire Nosferatu) arrives to drive Hutter the rest of the way up to the castle.
When he and his horses come into the scene, the motif returns with the same instrumentation, although it is nearly double the original tempo. At the end of the scene, Orlock leaves Hutter, and as Orlock and his horses leave, the motif comes back and rapidly trails off until Orlock is out of view. This choice to have the exotic motif leave with the monster is a clever choice of association. The recurrent motif, one utilizing musical markers of exoticism, was meant to be for Nosferatu because he is the monster.
William Messner is a Senior Music Major and Digital Studies Minor at Davidson College who plans on working in the Music Industry after Graduation.