“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time,” reads the first intertitle of F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Almost a century after its initial release, Sunrise gets a new score for modern audiences. Award-winning composer Jeff Beal (“House of Cards”) and the L.A. Master Chorale led by Grant Gershon bring this key piece of film history into the 21st century with a reinvented score for choir and chamber orchestra that puts its universality to the fore. Sunrise will premiere on January 26th at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Sunrise is neither a love story nor a crime drama. It’s an expressionist tale about the complexity of relationships and a rekindled true love that echoes timelessly. When the Man (George O’Brien) is seduced by the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) and lured by the promise of an electrifying new life in the city, he plans the murder of his young Wife (Janet Gaynor). The Man takes her on a boat ride (leaving their newborn baby at home) but doesn’t muster the courage to throw her off the boat. The Wife escapes. The Man runs after her all the way from the countryside to the bustling city, trying to appease her. It’s there that the couple rediscovers their love before another tragedy almost cuts their newfound happiness short.
After his first chorale work and first collaboration with Grant Gershon and the L.A. Master Chorale for The Salvage Man in 2015, Jeff Beal wanted to create a choir-focused score for a classic silent movie. “It was kind of a revelation. I had never written a purely choral work like that. The choir and the voices were intoxicating to me. I wanted to do more,” says Beal. His interest in German expressionism led him to Sunrise. Being a love story told by a German director taking place in America made Sunrise a perfect fit for a brand new choral score.
Gershon was intrigued by Beal’s idea and the opportunity to work on a fable about love, betrayal, and redemption. “It’s a bold choice to have the voices rather than orchestra carry the weight of this score. Joan Beal [Jeff’s wife] created a libretto of poetry from a variety of sources which amplifies and ‘complectifies’ the emotional track of the film. This marriage of voices and poetry with silent film creates an intensely evocative new form.”
“I’ve been married for 35 years, and I was just fascinated by the way a relationship can contain darkness, passion, devotion. All those emotions that can be wrapped up in a love story are really beautifully stated in Sunrise. Even though the film is still a product of its time, it can still exist outside of its time and speak to a modern audience about certain things that resonate about relationships,” explains Beal.
Filmed at the beginning of the 20th century, when psychology was just starting to be theorized by Freud and Jung, Beal notes the allegorical power of the film. “These three characters all represent different aspects of one person that we all have in ourselves: the part that wants to be free and sexual, the part that wants to be devoted, the one which is angry and loses his way. I was trying to highlight what I thought was universal and would speak to a modern audience.”
Despite the film’s universality, creating a new soundtrack for a hundred-year-old film is not devoid of challenges, none the least sounding anachronistic or veering too far off the intentions of its creators. With no possibility to talk to the filmmaker, Beal dove deep into the historical period and Murnau’s life to try to understand Sunrise better. “As I’m writing, I’m really looking at it bit by bit, trying to understand what the layers of the scene might be and try to get inside the head of the filmmaker,” notes Beal. “And when you start to do this, I found that the film starts to reveal itself to you. You have a context that you think you understand, but then you start to put music in you’re starting to notice different things. I started to notice the actor’s performances and different things that weren’t there before.”
Beal and Gershon wanted to revisit the score without simply restoring or being influenced by the initial soundtrack. Inspired by jazz, opera, Wagner and the Viennese school, Beal’s goal was to create an adaptation rather than a historical document. It was about giving the film a new life. “A lot of people haven’t seen [the film]. Even among silent movies, as much as it is revered it, hasn’t been seen as much as maybe Nosferatu or Metropolis. It was a chance to bring this part of our history forward.” There was a bit of personal history, too: Beal’s grandmother (who gave him his first Miles Davis record and sparked his interest in jazz), was a pianist for silent films in Boise, Idaho in the early 1900s. “Doing this sort of felt like I was connecting with my own personal roots. This love of movies, storytelling. Part of why I love writing music is that I love to tell stories. I love the way stories can move us, inspire us, and make us escape and grow,” Beal continued.
Gershon, who has led the L.A. Master Chorale for soundtracks including Star Wars: The Last Jedi, related the excitement of interpreting a soundtrack from a different time period. “I love the collision between the art of two very different eras. In a sense, it’s not unlike when a theatre or opera director brings a contemporary treatment to a classic work. The idea is to honor the source material while framing it in a way that brings fresh illumination to the subject,” stated Gershon.
The idea for a live-to-film experience further contributes to anchoring the film in the present and making it known to a wider audience. Like other forms of event cinema, the popularity of live-to-film events has soared in the last few years. “I find that it’s easier to access the emotional content of a film score in concert, primarily because you’re able to ‘put all the pieces’ together and create a musical narrative that amplifies the film’s impact. By contrast, in the studio you’re normally dealing with two to three-minute cues, so you live intensely in those moments but don’t necessarily get a sense of the whole arc,” explains Gershon. “I think this is why live-to-film musical events have become so popular in the last few years. It’s such a rush to feel the power and scale of the musical forces behind a great film recreated in real-time!”