I’m Charles Foster Kane!

“You buy a bag of peanuts in this town, you get a song written about you”… This week Brit considers the musical legacy of Orson Welles’  masterpiece Citizen Kane

The gloriously awful singer Florence Foster Jenkins, as featured in Mahlerman’s post about unserious music, put me in mind of the opera scene in Citizen Kane: poor Sara Alexander floundering, well out of her musical depth, in front of a packed and sniggering house. But whereas FloFoJen (as I expect she’s widely known) performs in blissful ignorance, Sara – bulldozed into the limelight by her domineering patron Kane – is all too aware of the shortcomings now so nightmarishly exposed in public.

It is a great scene, comic and horrible: the horror created by Orson Welles’ masterful direction – see how tiny Sara is on stage! – the comedy supplied in no small part by composer Bernard Hermann. The Aria from Salammbô was entirely Hermann’s creation, an all too authentic-sounding piece of fake opera deliberately placed in a key to stretch a soprano to breaking point and climaxing with a high D well out of the reach of the amateurish would-be diva…

With the aria, Herrmann’s stated aim was to give us “a terrified girl floundering in the quicksand of a powerful orchestra”. The vocals for actress Dorothy Comingore were supplied by soprano Jean Forward. She was deliberately, expertly bad, but here’s an interesting video. Kiri Te Kanawa, indisputably one of the all-time greats, sings the Aria from Salammbô straight, hitting the notes and revealing Hermann’s ‘fake’ music to be really rather wonderful…

Citizen Kane was Bernard Hermann’s first motion picture score. A Jewish New Yorker of Russian descent, he was an old friend of Welles and had worked with him on radio, including the notorious 1938 War of the Worlds hoax. Hermann brought his “radio style” of scoring to the cinema, in the process changing film music forever. Rather than the full orchestra playing virtually non-stop music, as was standard, he used five or ten-second bursts as musical ‘cues’ to help the narrative, create tension or hint at emotional undertones. Observe the “Breakfast Montage” scene with its ever-darkening mood. Welles later credited Hermann’s score as being “fifty percent responsible” for the film’s success, and Hermann once observed: “I was fortunate to start my career with a film like Citizen Kane, it’s been a downhill run ever since.”

This was transparent false modesty. The Citizen Kane score was beaten for the Academy Award by his own All That Money Can Buy soundtrack, and Hermann’s best work was for Hitchcock, and the remarkable run of films including Vertigo and North by Northwest and most famously, of course, Psycho. Played here by the BBC Concert Orchestra, the sheer unprecedented ferocity of the string-only composition (just before the 6 minute mark for the famous string stabs) is even more starkly obvious than when shown over the shower scene…

Finally, something a little different: Jack White’s superlative rock duo The White Stripes. From the White Blood Cells album (2003), The Union Forever is an impenetrably weird song, until you twig that the lyric is composed of quotes from Citizen Kane, including a middle section that lifts, virtually in its entirety, the Charlie Kane-glorifying song-and-dance number (airily dismissed by its subject thus: “You buy a bag of peanuts in this town, you get a song written about you.” In this video, a clever chap has synchronised Jack’s music with Orson’s pictures… Enjoy!

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6 thoughts on “I’m Charles Foster Kane!

  1. wormstir@gmail.com'
    April 22, 2012 at 09:20

    Can you get this sort of wonderfully wide ranging and educational stuff elsewhere – I don’t think so! Wonderful stuff Brit – I was listening to various Hermann Hitchcock stuff on Radio 3 this week as they seemed to be featuring him in some capacity related to Hitchcock I think.

  2. leopoldgreen@mac.com'
    April 22, 2012 at 12:15

    good article! one small point Kane was released in 1941 (and made in 1940) not 1948

  3. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    April 22, 2012 at 12:30

    Sunday entertainment indeed, no Sunday bloody Sunday today, ten minutes of chortle over Rodders video on Stilton followed by twenty minutes of pure brit-ishness. It is difficult to convey the atmosphere in the cinema when Psycho was first shown, spine tingling, hair raising maybe, undoubtedly mostly down to Hermann’s edgy, jarring score.

    As ever with Welles there are wheels within wheels within wheels and yet more wheels. Kane, based upon Hearst, an avid collector who went bust. A cute Scot, Wm Burrell, scooped up shed loads of the goodies at the San Simeon auction, hoarded it in Hutton castle in the Scottish borders, giving it to Glasgow council providing they housed it properly, took them forty years, well, it is the soviet socialist west coast republic, most of the collection can be viewed at the museum in Pollok Park including the Randolph Hearst goodies.
    Burrell made his money by flogging, at a premium, his merchant fleet to HMG during the first world war then buying it back, after the war, for peanuts. Welles would have been impressed.

    • bugbrit@live.com'
      April 23, 2012 at 18:19

      I have to say though malty, having seen the anniversary print of Psycho on the (fairly) big screen a few years back its about the only film I know that looks better on TV. Its being made almost as a side project from Alfred Hitchcock Presents its production values are very much those of TV and the cinema screen doesnt reveal anything much new but it does magnify every shaky set and unusually clunky edit. The same years Peeping Tom is a better movie anyway. Except for the score of course.

      (Ducks to avoid thrown bricks)

  4. Brit
    April 22, 2012 at 13:54

    Thanks all (and thanks for typo-spot, Leopold).

  5. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    April 22, 2012 at 16:34

    A wonderful Sunday treat, Brit. The post brought home the relative neglect of film music in my listening habits. But it’s clear, and Herrmann’s scores point it up, just how massively influential the finest composers are in the enhancement of film; of turning a potential Up Pompeii into Quo Vadis: Walton in Olivier’s Henry V; RVW in Scott of the Antarctic; Britten, on a small scale, in Night Mail; the underrated William Alwyn in Odd Man Out.Then what of Korngold, Shostakovich, Tiomkin, Legrand, Williams? Is Herrmann the greatest of them all? David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film thinks so:

    ‘He knew how to make music that came not just from the action we are seeing or the characters, not just from the heart of a film or the incoherent dream of its director, but from the unique marriage of a particular film and the large medium. Herrmann knew how lovely the dark should be, and he was at his best in rites of dismay, dark dreams, introspection, and the gloomy romance of loneliness. No one else would have dared or known to make the score for Taxi Driver such a lament for impossible love. Try that film without the music and the violence is nearly unbearable. Yet the score for Taxi Driver is universally cinematic: it speaks to sitting in the dark, full of dread and desire, watching.’

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