Faust Master Class

lecture about the compositional decisions made in preparing the film score for the silent film Faust”

-The shortest Straw Leonpolka

Hello everybody we are Gatto Marte. Nino Cotone, Giuseppe Brancaccio, Maximilian Brooks and Pietro Lusvardi.

We all are originally from Como, a city in the north of Italy. We all have a classical music background and we all have our degrees from Como music Conservatory, apart from Max who is self taught and has also studied Jazz. Gatto Marte began in 1991 playing standard jazz. It was only later that we started to compose our own original music. From the beginning our music has been very descriptive. Whenever we composed a piece there was always a story behind it. The reason why we have been playing and are still playing together is because we are very close friends. We are four friends who can also play musical instruments. If I think back to 1992, the year when we started to compose our music, I remember our three, sometimes four rehearsals a week. We started at 9pm and finished after midnight. It was as if we were on a mission, “music for music’s sake”. It was only later in 1997 that we recorded our first disc “Danae”.

Before we start to talk about the compositional decisions made in preparing the film score of the silent film 1926 Faust, we will introduce the historical context of the period.


At the end of the First World War, Germany had a flourishing film industry. Before the rise to power of Nazism, the film industry in Germany was second only to Hollywood, in its size, technical innovations and influence on the worldwide film industry.

The first film which can be called Expressionist was The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari by Robert Wiene. Its originality made it an immediate success. The critics argued that Expressionism had reached the cinema. It had already been expressed in other art forms, such as painting and theatre, since 1908. Many artistic movements were based on realism and on the perception of things, such as French Impressionism. On the other hand, Expressionism represented a reaction to realism: it was an attempt to express reality in a distorted way, to express the most real and deep emotions hidden under the surface of reality. The example of Caligari showed how the reconstruction in a studio could become closer to the stylisation of expressionist painting. After this film many others were made following its example. In classic movies, the human figure is the most expressive element on the set, the costumes and light are all subordinated to this. In expressionist cinema the human figure is closely related to every element of the scene (the large use of shadows, for example).

Everything in the scene is important and consequently the action slows down in order that the spectator can register everything. Stylized surfaces were often used as well as symmetrical and distorted forms and often they were put over other similar ones; this way of proceeding permitted directors to relate different elements of the mise en scene. The use of symmetrical forms offered various opportunities to combine actors, costumes and set designs and give shape to the whole composition. Also the use of distorted and exaggerated forms which transform objects was applied extensively.

Even if the principal aspects of the expressionist style were based on the mise en scene, it is also possible to recognize other techniques in movie making. Normally the editing is simple, the use of the camera is more functional than spectacular, so it is rare to see angular shots and the lens is mostly on a perpendicular line, more or less at eyes height or breast level.

Among the greatest Expressionist films there are: Nosferatu by Murnau 1922, Tatuff still by Murnau 1925, Doctor Mabuse by Fritz Lang 1922. After 1924 only two expressionist films were made: Faust, which was the greatest expressionist film ever made and Metropolis by Fritz Lang.

The end of Expressionism was mainly due to the high cost of the last films and, above all, to the departure of some German film directors to Hollywood. Friedrich Murnau was one of those who went to Hollywood, where he shot few films; the most famous one was Aurora, with which he won two Oscar awards. Murnau died in 1931 in a car accident.

Murnau was one of the main exponents of Expressionism. Most of his films have been lost and few of them can be seen today.

Plot of Faust (1926)

God and Satan are at war over earth; to settle things, they wager on the soul of Faust, a learned and prayerful alchemist. During a plague, Faust despairs and burns his books after failing to stop death; Satan sends Mephisto to tempt Faust, first with insight into treating the plague and then with a day's return to youth. Mephisto is clever, timing the end of this 24 hours as Faust embraces the beautiful Duchess of Parma. Faust trades his soul for youth. Some time later, he's bored, and demands on Easter Sunday that Mephisto take him home. Faust promptly sees and falls in love with the beautiful Gretchen, whose liaison with him brings her dishonour. Is there redemption? Who wins the wager?

How do we compose a piece?

We have two different approaches to composition: the first looks very like the relationship between a classical composer and the players. One of us composes and arranges the entire piece for all the four instruments. For example Quadretto n. 2 from Leolombrico.

-Quadretto n.2

In the second approach all of us create the composition. In the case of Cantus Firmus (a Faust piece) the double bass freely (ad libitum), with double stopping and harmonics, repeats the Gregorian chant sequence "Victimae pascalis laudes” recreating the atmosphere of monks singing. The violin counterpoints the melody with the intent of creating a multiplicity of singing voices. The wind drum and didgeridoo in the background recall a gothic Cathedral. The violin and the bass interact to produce an improvised duet while the other instruments fill in the tonal colours around them.

-Cantus Firmus

Another example of group composition where all the parts are completely improvised is “Walking Mephisto” . The bass plays a walking bass line in an open key of G area and the hang , piano and bassoon improvise using material from other Faust themes.

-Walking Mephisto

When we play this piece with the images there is a lot of interaction involved.

How we composed the music for the silent film Faust:

The first thing we did, as you can imagine, was to watch the film, but without listening to the original sound track, so as not be influenced by it. We tried to grasp the general atmosphere and we tried to see if there were scenes where a theme was needed or, if it was better to comment it with a sound effect.

Then before starting to work on the film, we needed a moment when we thought of the general atmosphere of the film or on a certain scene which we particularly remembered.

At this point we had an individual creative process which led to the creation of pieces or simple themes very different from each other in style and intention.

These ideas started to take shape when we started to work on the images and we all gave our opinions on the various choices.

(In this phase, we are very methodical and we wrote down everything. We didn’t necessarily follow the order of the film; if there was an idea on a particular scene, we tried it directly. In the creation of the program, we tried to highlight the various moments, leaving empty spaces, where we haven’t chosen the music yet. For arranged parts, it is necessary to improve the pieces, rehearsing them separately from the film, when they become mature, they will be adapted to the images. For improvised pieces, we have to rehearse them exclusively on the scenes, because they are absolutely linked to them. In the meantime, we take in consideration the use of possible sound effects or other instruments, which could better comment the scenes (Tibetan bell, hang, spring drum, digeridoo, home made instruments).

Even if we reach a definitive version of the soundtrack, this is constantly subject to changes; this is due to a natural maturation of the pieces and to the free approach of many parts).

The main atmosphere of the film Faust is dramatic, but there is a moment, more or less in the middle of the film, which it becomes almost comic and immediately after, very romantic, so we tried to enhance these moments by changing atmosphere drastically. Then the film becomes even more dramatic than before, and anguish and sadness become the leit-motifs till the end. Here an example of the comic moments.

-Variazioni sul tema

For the final scene, I took inspiration from the In Paradiso from Faurè’s Requiem and composed “A kiss in the fire” which accompanies the elevation of Faust and Gretchen to heaven and consequently the loss of the wager of evil with good.

-A kiss in the fire

The use of our instrument in the score

Piano. For this film I have decided to use the piano in a traditional way, in order to be more clear in proposing themes and highlight the different moments.

Violin. Though my way of playing the violin has been based on classical studies, I have developed an attitude towards the effects (whistles, glissati, scratches…). The violin is very suitable for creating musical effects that can comment on the scenes. It can play sounds with a high timbre and comic effect (example chaplin The Lone prospector) or to create sneaky and dirty sounds to describe anguish and pain (example coda Pirata e pappagallo)

Bassoon. Why the bassoon with Gatto Marte?

I have to thank Pietro when he asked me at the Conservatory to start playing with Gatto Marte. The idea was to have a wind instrument capable of supporting rhythm and harmony and at the same time of being a soloist. The bassoon responds to these characteristics having an extension of three octaves and a half.

The repertoire for solo bassoon is very small, this is due to the fact that it had a slow mechanical evolution and that among wind instruments it has many uncomfortable positions on the keys (it is the only wind instruments where you use all ten fingers).

I’d like now to explain how I compose with Gatto Marte.

The main idea is to use all the extension of the instrument and to enhance the value of the extreme sounds (the high and deep range). Modern soundtrack composers use the bassoon too much in a classical way. The main solos are always given to the oboe, to the sax or to the violin and when there is a part of the bassoon it is always in its medium range.

I try to be original and innovative both in accompaniment and in a solo. I don’t stop at the first rhythmical or harmonic solution but I try other solutions. (example of accompaniment)

The rhythmical and musical point of view is a subject which I’m very careful of.

Commenting on a scene of a film it also means to choose a certain sound colour.

For example in Faust:

(Pandora) I use a deep timbre, a round sound, it is a meditative moment.

(Hang bello) I alternate high and low range with an open sound, then there is the vibrato.

The vibrato is very important in Faust to highlight the various dramatic moments and as in romantic music I have to be very expressive.

In this sense my way of playing with Gatto Marte is very classical, like being in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble. Then there are the so called polyphonic sound, which can be made by using particular positions on the bassoon. They are often used by contemporary composers. I use them with moderation (The flight). I use also “false” sounds with a particular timbre, like a note out of tune.

Improvising is linked to a personal sensibility, to taste and to the fact that we have played together for a long time. The images of a film help very much in developing musical ideas as an impromptu. When you improvise it is very important not to play too much. It is often enough to play a few notes or a particular effect to characterize a musical piece.

Didgeridoo. The didgeridoo is a natural wind instrument, not man-built but dug by termite. It comes originally from North Australia and it is the sacred instrument of Aborigines. It is believed that it is 2000 years old. The traditional didgeridoo are made of eucalyptus, decorated with aboriginal totemic motifs. Nowadays you can find didgeridoos made of various materials such as teak, plastic, metal and ceramics The name didgeridoo is an onomatopoeic interpretation given by English colonists who heard the rhythmical sound “did-ge-ridoo” coming from the hollow branches of eucalyptus played by the Aborigines.

To play the didgeridoo requires circular breathing. This technique allows the player to breath air from the nose while the air is exhaled from the mouth generating a continuous sound.

The use of didjeridoo in Faust

I use the didjeridoo in the scenes where the devil shows himself in the most destructive and negative form: the plague, the evocation and death.

I managed to render this demoniacal atmosphere in various solutions:

Playing the basic note creating sound clashes.

Stopping the sound with sudden rhythmical effects produced by throat and tongue hits.

Making sounds inside the instrument, like shouting “Faust” to represent the call of the devil

Using dynamics – sudden crescendo and diminuendo.

In other scenes (Cantus Firmus) I use the didjeridoo as contrast to the melodies played by the violin and the double bass.

The sonic tube. The sonic tube enters in the category of “musical effects”.

It is a simple curved tube of the kind used for keeping electric wires.

When you blow inside, a very high sound is produced and it can be modified by the intensity of the blow and the pressure and speed of air.

In Faust it is used in the scene with the elephants and in many improvisations. It gives a sensation of something that comes from far away, of a lament sometimes which is sometimes sinister.

Condor. It was bought in a small market in Paris. It is an invented instrument.

It has the form of a straight flute with a small bell at the end and a mouthpiece like a clarinet. It is tuned on a kind of d minor scale.

It is an instrument which recalls oriental atmospheres.

It is very useful in atmospheres full of mystery (the pact scene of the devil).

Hang. The hang is a melodic percussion invented in Bern (Switzerland) ten years ago. It can be built using many kinds of scales since it has seven notes. The hang is a mixture of sounds of different origins, like the Caribbean steel drum, of the udu and darabuka (all the three examples will be accompanied by a very short demonstration). This variety of sounds leads the instrument to be both a good soloist and a percussion instrument at the same time.

Tibetan Bell. This is the typical Tibetan bell used for meditation. You can have a very good musical effect since it has a sound rich of harmonic (small example)

The spring drum it is an American instrument. It is very simple and very effective: a simple spring connected to a resonant box creates a very threatening wind effect (example). This instrument with an ostinato of the hang and didjeridoo and the improvisation of the double bass has inspired us to translate into music the diabolical atmospheres of the film. (Ossidiana short version)

Double bass. In this score I play many unconventional and original technique. In Variazioni before, I started with a left hand pizzicato and the bow on the up beat.

Tacotaco Kazoo is another example of two rhythm joint together, one with the left hand hiting the strings on the fingerboard to produce the bass and the other tapping on the body of the bass a samba. The kazoo plays the melody.