Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Christening Scene in The Godfather



I've posted before about the use of Bach's organ works -- especially including the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor -- in this much-praised and highly effective scene. A recent anonymous commenter on that post has gotten me thinking about it again.

I'll comment in greater depth later, but for now I wanted to point out a couple of things about this scene that may seem minor to others but I find annoying.

First, this way of using Bach's organ music -- to represent the dark, sinister corners, the twisted recesses, the dripping dungeons of the human heart -- has long been a movie cliche. The first time I played one of them on a tape player for my son Nat - I think he was seven or eight at the time - he said "That's Dracula music!" He had already picked up on the cliche.

Admittedly, the organ work that is usually used for this purpose is not the Passacaglia but a related work, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which Bach wrote shortly before the C Minor. That's the one that the Herbert Lom plays in his sewer lair in the Hammer Films version of The Phantom of the Opera (1962). (Scroll forward to 3:00 below.)



It's also played by Captain Nemo (James Mason) in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea (1954). Here is Nemo, twisted by the loss of his family into a monster with no purpose in life by death and destruction -- perfectly represented by Bach's creepy, sinister music! Right?

Wrong! That's the other annoying thing I wanted to bring up. Bach was about 21 o 22 years old when he wrote these two works and both, to me, are full of the exuberance of youth and love of the magnificent universe God has created. There is nothing sinister or satanic about them. In discussing the C Minor in his magisterial Johan Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of and Era, Karl Geiringer uses words like "dignity," "strength," 'intensity," "power," and "magnificence." He neglects entirely to mention malevolent creepiness.

A far better interpretation of Bach than these other films is embodied in this sequence from Disney's Fantasia. Notice that Satan and his works are far, far away:



I know this might sound like an odd thing to mention as a criticism of The Godfather, rather like criticizing a Bond car chase scene for promoting unsafe driving practices. It seems like an extraneous consideration, somehow. But I think that, if a work of art contains a gross and actually rather stupid misinterpretation of another work of art, it is at least worth mentioning.

8 comments:

Aeon J. Skoble said...

Lester- I must disagree. The Godfather doesn't misinterpret Bach in the way you suggest. It's not using the music in that scene to evoke the dark recesses of the evil mind, it's _CONTRASTING_ the good and the evil. The music goes with the baptism and the baby; the gunshots go with the assassinations.

Lester Hunt said...

This interpretation makes sense at the beginning of the scene, when the organ sounds like typical church music, but by the time it swells and the priest asks "do you renounce Satan and his works," I think we are in Transylvania.

Aeon J. Skoble said...

Ok, YMMV I guess, but I never took it that way.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Skoble's understanding of the music in the scene is a bit strained. I doubt whether music is so simple as to admit of the sort of unambiguous "misinterpretation" that Lester sees in it. There are pieces of music that could not possibly have accompanied that scene to a remotely similar effect. The plain fact of the matter is that, whatever the music does in its original context taken as a whole, in the Godfather scene it is dark, violent, and disordered music for a dark, violent, and disordered scene. I quite prefer to see the ambiguity of the music as appropriate for a film that makes so much of the ambiguity of human evil, one of the few films that gets evil right by refusing to see it simply as "creepy" and "sinister," but insisting on showing it as the distortion and warping of the good. If that's what the scene does to the music, then it just perfectly accompanies the point at which Michael's fundamental choices are compressed to a point, since his choices do to his life more or less what the scene does to the music.

Or so it seems to me.

Anonymous said...

Agree generally with the last 11.37pm comment. The film doesn't interpret or misinterpret the music, it uses it. Amazingly effectively in this case.

In the film there's substantial editing of the music, so we're already far from simple interpretation. Indeed the soundtrack cuts about so much that I'd like to double check that it is the Passacaglia throughout. Can anyone confirm this?

Lester Hunt said...

Anon,

Yes, there are several pieces used in that scene. According to the Wikipedia page on the Passacaglia, it it also uses a Praeludium and Fugue. I can't remember the BWV number of that one, but it's another of those pieces that can be distortingly misused as Dracula music.

This is hard to figure out, and as far as I know no one has written about this, but the odd musical rests that seem to occur (though not always) randomly in the scene may be gaps between the different pieces -- which aren't all in the same key.

Mathijs Janssen said...

I find it quite surprising that nobody has written about this so far, at least I can't find anything on the internet. Here's what I make of the music:
-4.55-4.21: unidentified, may not be Bach.
-4:21-3:58:Passacaglia, starts half way through the first variation, after the beginning notes of the second variation there is a very smooth transition into
-3:58-3:25: a piece that might be composed for the occasion, considering the smoothness of the transition). I don't recognize the music. There may be another transition at 3:50, but I can't tell for sure.
-3:25-2:41 The passacaglia from the start this time. There appears to be a deliberate glitch at 2:59, adding to the darkness of the scene.
-2:41-1:21 Unidentified. It sounds familiar, but then again, I've watched this scene a couple of times. It may be composed for the film ( it does sound like film music, with relatively little going on).
-1:21-1:13 Unidentified, but I strongly suspect this is Bach. Unfortunately I could not find it though.
-1:13-0:14 This is the final part of the preludium BWV 532. At 0:14 the final chord is given a much darker harmony than the original.
Can anyone fill in the gaps.

Lester Hunt said...

Mathijs,

Thanks -- I haven't checked it out, but your accounting looks pretty convincing at first sight. I've been meaning to blog again about what is going on in that scene. I think it is really quite interesting. Stay tuned!