New ‘Dr. Caligari’ Score Applies A Jazzy Patina To Silent Horror Classic

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American composer Jeff Beal wrote a new score for the 1920 silent horror film ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and conducted it at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Joe Sinnott)

NEW YORK – It’s always fun when the fair comes to town! Unless the old guy running the fortune-telling somnambulist act happens to be a psychopath, that is. The 1920 German silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, brilliantly uses that premise as a canvas for post-WWI Expressionist angst. American composer Jeff Beal has created a new score for the film, which had its U.S. premiere screening at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Hall on June 3.

The music was played live by a pick-up group of top-notch jazz musicians, including the terrific pianist Aaron Diehl. The so-called Silver Nitrate Big Band is named after a highly flammable chemical used in making old celluloid. Beal himself conducted the 16 instrumentalists along with a 12-person chorus called Fourth Wall Ensemble, founded in 2023 by Christopher Allen and Johnathan McCullough. The result was a skillfully composed and excellently performed jazz oratorio that sometimes intensified the experience of watching the film, yet sometimes seemed to work against it.

For ease of discussion, here’s a quick synopsis of the story written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer: Franzis and Alan are best friends, both in love with Jane. The two men go to the fair, where a mysterious stranger named Dr. Caligari has set up a tent featuring a somnambulist (sleepwalker) named Cesare, who predicts that Alan will die that night. Alan is, in fact, brutally murdered. Franzis suspects that Caligari is ordering his comatose star to kill, but he can’t prove it, even after a second murder. Another man is caught in the act of attempting a third murder and is arrested for all three. Thus reprieved, Caligari lures the naïve Jane into his tent so Cesare can see her. That night, the somnambulist creeps into her apartment, intending to kill her, but instead abducts her. Caligari is eventually caught. (There is also a framing device and twist ending that the writers were, unfortunately, forced to add.)

Conrad Veidt as Cesare in ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (Kino Lorber)

The text used by Beal for the chorus consisted of poems by two Weimar-era writers, Else Lasker-Schüler and Erich Mühsam (this program was presented as part of Carnegie Hall’s series The Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice). One source of frustration was the impracticality of offering a libretto for the audience to follow while they were also watching a film and reading translations of its hand-painted German text cards. Before the performance, one poem by each of them was shown on the screen, which was helpful but not enough. The texts were dark and focused on death.

This is not the old-fashioned improvised piano or organ silent-movie accompaniment of old, where the musician changed styles to match every scene, every action, every facial expression. Beal’s approach, painting large-scale scenes with musical ideas that recurred in various contexts, is certainly more sophisticated. Yet there were moments when I longed for the eager keyboardist suddenly breaking into lush romanticism when the lovers kiss, only to switch to strident, foreboding chords when the villain appears at the window.

There were plenty of effective moments that directly enhanced the viewing. A relaxed swing style expressed the happy anticipation of the townspeople as the fair was set up. As Caligari enticed viewers to enter the somnambulist’s tent, suffocating half-step motions and clacking of drumsticks on rims (Kendrick Scott) gave a sense of alarm. At the news of Alan’s murder, tenor soloist Matthew Newhouse floated over the sound of snare brushes during a chromatic rise in the chorus and orchestra. Soloist Zoe Allen seared the atmosphere at the top of her range when Cesare opened his eyes in that famous close-up.

With its nuanced use of many styles of jazz against a choral tapestry influenced by the Second Viennese School, Beal’s beautifully crafted score nods as much to 1940 as to 1920. Fourth Wall Ensemble was at ease with the complex syncopation and dissonances, producing a forward, open sound that mutated seamlessly from dense chords to near screaming and hysterical laughter. The chorale-style writing for trombones was especially fine, and Beal occasionally turned on his podium to face the audience and deliver some virtuosic trumpet licks.

Beal played flugelhorn during the performance of his score to ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.’ (Photo by Joe Sinnott)

But does the score represent Caligari? Yes and no. This film is renowned for its surreal design by Hermann WarmWalter Reimann, and Walter Röhrig — sets with no right angles and with light and shadow painted on them in cartoonish streaks. Caligari and Cesare both walk in bizarrely stylized lurches. None of that outward weirdness was reflected in the music. Instead, Beal focuses on the internal madness that is certainly central to the plot. The audience is trapped deep inside an unquiet mind, often without regard to the details occurring onscreen.

It’s worth mentioning the remarkably clear 4K restoration of the film created by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung for this project, complete with monochrome tinting on each frame. This new version will be released soon by Kino Lorber, complete with Beal’s score, which I look forward to hearing on its own.

As an encore, Beal unveiled a new work, written for the 40th wedding anniversary of the composer and his wife Joan, whom he met at age 18 when they were students at Eastman School of Music. Unicorn Dreamer, for big band, trumpet solo, and untexted chorus, is dreamy smooth jazz, largely tonal and atmospheric. It celebrates a kind of love and peace that’s a world away from the twisted trauma of Caligari.