Published in conjunction with the screening of The Merry Widow at SFSFF 2023
When Dutch composer and pianist Maud Nelissen was commissioned to write accompaniment for Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow, the first thing she did was look for the original score. But the music by William Axt and David Mendoza, who also composed for La Bohème, The Big Parade, and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, was nowhere to be found. Instead, Nelissen decided to go back to the beginning: the original 1905 operetta by Franz Lehár. A graduate of the venerable Utrechts Conservatorium she certainly had the classical chops to adapt it—and the composer’s estate agreed. Now with their blessing, she had to figure out how to reconcile the lighter tone of the operetta with the famously gimlet-eyed view of the film’s director, who had taken broad liberties with the story. When she spotted an accordion player during one of the film’s Balkan inn scenes, she hit on her solution. The accordion, she says, “has big possibilities, it can go really low and really dark”—so she used it to weave in some Romani songs as well as composed modern sound clusters that she has called “the black icing on a sweet cake” of Lehár’s music. Since then she’s accompanied the film over the years with both chamber and large orchestras, and Nelissen says she’s excited to return to the roots of her composition and present it again with a small ensemble, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
How did you go from graduating with honors in classical piano to accompanying silent films?
I was asked to jump in for another pianist at the Amsterdam archive and I really enjoyed it. My teacher at the conservatory was against it; he said it was too obscure. But I had been mesmerized by the images and the possibilities for sound accompaniment and it stayed in the back of my mind as something I could do. For my own benefit I used to spend time trying to understand Charlie Chaplin’s film scores, staying up late working out the orchestral arrangement on the piano. It was just luck years later when I was asked to play for a week-long program in Italy with Eric James, who was Chaplin’s last arranger. He was really surprised when I could play The Kid on the piano:
“Who is this lady from Holland?!” It changed my life really. He was the musician I wanted to be. That older generation, they were so versatile. They could play a Bach toccata as easily as they could play ragtime. To them there was not a big difference between light music and classical music—they played everything. It took a while for me to get out of the fenced-in mode of a classical pianist, but I got addicted to silents. I was happy that it was in the dark and that it’s not all about me. I get totally taken away by the poetry of the images.
Can you talk a bit about how you’ll play for The Merry Widow?
I’ll be playing piano and conducting Mont Alto, with five added musicians. I heard Mont Alto play at SFSFF in 2016 and was struck by their wonderful music. You can really feel the bond they have with each other, like one of those long, good marriages.
Did you stick to the time period when composing or did you think about how this music has accumulated meaning in the years since, especially the waltz?
I stuck to the time period. The music is sixty percent Lehár, forty percent my own, but I really honored Lehár. I had a very old record of the operetta, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing, and was totally taken away by its lyricism. The waltz is still such a beautiful waltz. Makes me cry, always.
You’ll also play for The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral.
Yes. It’s not like The Merry Widow at all! I first played for the film last year in the Czech Republic. It’s a strange film, a horror film in some ways but at the same time a love story. Some unbelievable things happen, like would happen in a dime-store novel, but the movie has an Expressionist feel, so you don’t mind the unbelievable parts. There is a lot of suspense, especially at the beginning, so I’ll keep the music to a minimum there. I quote some late Romantic composers, including a Scriabin sonata. The atmosphere of the film, how it depicts Prague, the old streets at night in the mist, drew me back to classical composers.
The Czechs loved the screening so much that I played for it again at Smetana’s Litomyšl festival in June. My goal in life is to make these kinds of connections to other art forms, encourage more crossover. This is a good film for that. So is The Merry Widow; it would fit nicely into a classical music festival.
Can you tell me about your ensemble The Sprockets?
We have percussion, a brass section, banjo, mandolin. We’re a project orchestra and play for comedies, smaller films, a lot of women’s films, most recently in Switzerland for It with Clara Bow. We’re like Mont Alto in that we’ve been together a long time. I am a big believer in playing with the same musicians. If you use the same people, there is something extra, an energy. We’re seven musicians so we’re expensive, but I prefer to play less and play together.
Do you have an overriding philosophy for accompanying silent films?
Whether it’s composing, performing, or even in daily life, I believe you have to find a certain intensity in everything. It’s actually the way Stroheim makes his films, giving off these intense vibrations, in a good way though, otherwise you’re stressed. [Laughs.] I also look for human proportions in everything. Everything else comes after those two things: intensity and humanity. A sense of humor also doesn’t hurt. It’s like what Chaplin said about humor being very close to drama. You are on that razor’s edge and have to be able to change very quickly between the two.