An Interview with Ernest Gold by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Ernest Gold, who we had the pleasure of interviewing at length in our 10th issue, recently composed an excellent score for the television mini-series, WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY, which was broadcast over two evenings in April, 1985. Gold, who has said he prefers to score films dealing with personalities and emotions rather than action and sheer spectacle, was an appropriate choice and his music lent an important emotional undercurrent that tied the characters and their experiences in WALLENBERG together. Interviewed in June, 1985, Gold expressed his pleasure in working on WALLENBERG and described in detail his approach to scoring the picture.
How did you become involved with this mini-series?
I saw an announcement in the trade paper about Dick Berg, for whom I had done a movie of the week many years ago, FOOTSTEPS (1972), who was producing a mini-series called WALLENBERG, with a brief description of what the story was about. I also noticed that my former neighbor and friend, Lamont Johnson, was directing the picture. I got very excited, and I wrote a note to Dick Berg telling him I was very interested in doing the score, and then I promptly forgot all about it. A few weeks later I received a telephone call from Dick Berg asking me to come in to discuss with him the possibility of my doing the score, and we agreed that I would do it. That’s how I became involved with it.
I felt that the subject matter, of course, was one that I would be able to do very easily because I had, after all, lived in Austria when Hitler marched in, so I had first hand experience with Nazi’s and the period.
Noting your previous distaste for working in television (see interview), how did you find your experiences working on WALLENBERG?
I find that television is changing somewhat. I’m not interested in doing a series, but I find certain movies made for television and certainly miniseries extremely interesting to do, and I don’t have any prejudices against these at all. I would certainly rather work on something like that than trying to do one of those teenage pictures which require hard rock, which is not my kettle of fish at all. The experience on WALLENBERG, specifically, was without any question one of my happiest and most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in all my years in the film and television business. I felt that I was treated with respect, my opinions were taken seriously, what I did do was greatly appreciated by everybody. When I say “appreciated”, I don’t mean a pat on the back, but people really listening to what I was doing and singling out this or that thing I had done for a laudatory comment. So it was a completely satisfying and happy and marvelous experience, but then again Dick Berg is a marvelous man to work with and so is Lamont Johnson, and all I can say is I hope we work together again real soon.
How long were you given to score the film, and how large of an orchestra was used?
I was given eight weeks to score the film, from the time I got my first timings and a video tape of the picture, until the scoring date. As it turned out, it only took me six weeks, and the last two weeks I rested and was free. But I had plenty of time to do it. The size of the orchestra was thirty-nine men, which I certainly could make do; I would have preferred a few more strings. If I would have had perhaps ten more men it would have been a little easier to do in some respects, but thirty-nine men was certainly adequate. We also used a chorus of sixteen voices.
How would you describe your approach to scoring WALLENBERG? Were there any specific elements within the film that either you or the director wanted to emphasize, musically?
The director told me, primarily, that he didn’t want the obvious kind of approach to Nazis, with the overemphasis on the military with marching rhythms and drums, none of that kind of Hollywood Nazi stuff, like “ve haf meens to mayke you talk” and all that. He wanted Eichmann to come off as a human being, sly and ruthless, with a devastating charm and a devastating anger, and that gave me kind of a clue as to how he saw the whole film. I saw it really as a relationship of personalities rather than stereotypes.
As far as my own approach to the scoring was concerned, I felt, taking my cue from what Lamont Johnson had said, that the best approach would be a psychological approach. I tried not so much to play the physical events, but to play the psychology of the people and how that was influenced by the events. In other words, if something horrible happened, I played the insecurity and the uncertainty of what was going to happen to them, rather than the horror that you saw on the screen already; with, of course, a few necessary exceptions. But, by and large, I tried to make real to the audience, through the score, the feelings and psychological stresses (as well as the good feelings, for instance, between the Baronness and Wallenberg) from a psychological viewpoint.
How did you deal, thematically, with the diverse elements of the film and its characters?
The way I see it is like this: when you have a broad canvas, such as a mini-series gives you, I feel a good way to approach, and this was certainly the case in WALLENBERG, would be like a playwright. You have your starring parts, you have your supporting parts, you have your bit parts. So there were starring themes, supporting themes and thematic material that would be the equivalent of a bit part, that showed up once, twice, maybe three times in the picture and was gone.
The central character, of course, was Wallenberg. For Wallenberg, I used two themes, one was his characteristic of being a Swede, of being a European as opposed to, for instance, the two-fistedness of a John Wayne, which made him a somewhat more gentle and more sensitive kind of hero. That’s why, for Wallenberg, I used 3/4 time, both for his own theme and also for the Sweden theme, so it wouldn’t be martial. It wouldn’t be strutting in any sense, which he was not. And then I used his emotional side, that become the love theme with the Baronness, but it was also used when he says farewell to his mother in Sweden. So I have two themes that were closely related for Wallenberg, both as I say, in triple time; the theme for the Swedish hero on one side, and then the private man and, in a psychological sense, his feminine side, his feeling side, his nurturing side, which came out in his relationship with his mother and, of course, mostly with the Baronness.
For the Nazi’s, I wanted to get away, as I mentioned, from the martial, so I put a theme for them in 5/4 time, and I discovered, quite by accident, that the theme itself was also a five-bar theme, which makes it uncanny. You can’t march to it, it’s like you have an extra leg, and that makes it difficult to cope with, which is just what I wanted for the Nazi’s. It’s an unbalancing, unnatural meter, because, after all, our bodies have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, everything that the body is, is in twos; we march, one-two, one-two, so suddenly having one-two one-three, one-two one-three to make up the five meters, in a philosophical sense, sounds contrary to nature, and of course that was the Nazi’s big specialty, running contrary to nature.
I had a theme for the little boy, which was sort of Russian-Jewish-Lithuanian in character, and it became symbolic of the whole Jewish faith. It is introduced in little bits; the first time we hear the theme in its completion is when he is dead, it plays once through and then we’re done with it. Those were the main ingredients, although there were many more themes; there was a theme for the young couple which was a very subordinate theme, mostly because there was no room to use it any more than that; it was a theme of simplicity and a certain naiveté and warmth among all that rubble. There were a total of six major themes, but when I say “major” I mean that they had different ranks but they were themes, as opposed to connecting material that may have been invented as I went along, used once or twice, and then were never heard again.
How closely did you work with the director and producer in scoring the film? What kind of input did they have?
I’m always a little cautious when the word “input” is used, because it’s a loaded word for me. “Input” implies that unless you put something in the composer from the outside, nothing will come out; at least that is the way I experience it. I don’t like input. I like to see the picture, I like to discuss the director’s ideas on the picture, not his musical ideas, and then I like to put on my thinking cap and just live with the picture and let my creative ideas flow, stimulated by the picture itself. That’s the only input that, to me, is really worth much, not what people say but what the picture does to me. The one specific input that came from Dick Berg, first over the objections from Lamont Johnson and I, though later on we saw what he meant, was the use of voices as an unspoken outcry of the suppressed and oppressed people. That idea was definitely a bit of input from Dick Berg, but he was not specific of what he wanted done with them, he just felt that voices would add something, and from then on it was my decision on how I used them. I used the voices in the most simple way, mostly one sustained note, like a hum that was in the air. It was as if the pain and the suffering of these people lay over the land like a miasma, and that one note, that keeps going and sometimes splits into dissonance and then comes together again, is like the layer of smoke from the crematoriums.
How did the film’s period and locale affect your scoring?
It didn’t cause any restrictions, because the period is not that far away that I couldn’t use almost the entire gamut of musical invention. There’s very little that has been invented in music that is really new since the 40’s, except the use of synthesizers.
(I did use a synthesizer player with a whole bank of synthesizers, but not in order to be electronic, which I thought would be quite wrong for the period, but rather to give me colors which were not available by acoustical instruments. The synthesist and I spent three full days together, I made a list of fifty colors that I simply invented sitting at my desk while putting together ideas, and then we worked together to realize those colors. As it turned out, of the fifty, only about fifteen were really practicable, and of the fifteen I actually used perhaps only ten; there was no chance to use the others. But I came up with all kinds of unusual things, for example, a piccolo-oboe that would be an oboe sound in the piccolo register, a color which I call “corpse”, which is a color like something that is decaying, and you cannot do this with anything but a synthesizer! So I used these colors in conjunction with the acoustical orchestra as part of my pallet of colors.)
In any case, I did score for locale and period a great deal. For instance, the chardesh when they are in the restaurant in Budapest, is certainly 30’s and 40’s Hungary; the restaurant music in the cafe in Sweden is certainly the sort of thing you would have heard there; the Wallenberg themes, both of them, have definite Scandinavian harmonic turns in them; the theme for the little boy has definite East European or even Russian melodic and harmonic turns in it; and the Nazi’s theme is quite Germanic, though the harmonic procedures are perhaps more World War II than specifically Germanic.
Were you involved with the few period songs that we used as source music?
Yes, I was. I helped pick them, as far as those that weren’t already selected or recorded at the time; for instance, Stormy Weather was recorded on location, and the film was made before I’d been engaged, so I’d had nothing to do with that, and Fools Rush In occurred in the dialog so that was de rigueur, as they say in France. But I picked the other songs, and then I wrote a great deal myself, for instance the big waltz number at the reception, and the long fox trot in the club after Stormy Weather, which I wrote for the picture. I certainly recorded all of it except for Stormy Weather, which already existed, and the Hungarian gypsy music in the early parts of the picture, which had been recorded on location when the picture was shot. Incidentally, the whole picture was shot in and around Zagreb, Yugoslavia, except for the opening in the Grove of Remembrance, which was actually shot in Israel.
Any other comments on your experience scoring WALLENBERG?
I would say that the most important thing was that, again, I had the great luxury that I had on EXODUS, that is I was engaged early. Dick Berg and I came to a definite understanding that I would do the picture early in November , but I did not get any timings or a video cassette until right after Christmas, so I had better than six weeks to sketch musical ideas, to think about the exact combination of the orchestra, to try various things and see how they worked out. For instance I used the basset horn, which is very rarely used nowadays, an instrument that had a great vogue in Mozart’s day, which is halfway between the clarinet and the bass clarinet; I felt the bass clarinet was too glibly colorful and the clarinet was not necessarily the right register. I wanted something that had a melancholy alto sound, and of course the basset horn is perfect for that.
But these things are all very time consuming things, in addition to the simple act of just composing; for instance, I spent almost a week and a half on the Wallenberg theme. If you only have a day or two to get everything together, you can not spend the thought and the time to keep working on little spots here and there until it’s perfect; so that was a very important thing, the fact that I was not rushed during the composition. I had the luxury of not having to work after dinner every day, I had the luxury of knocking off if I was very tired in the afternoon and letting it go until the next day. Not that I didn’t work hard, it was somewhat over an hour of music that I had to write, but I could work like an artist not like a scared rabbit!
That is the most important thing to me, because things that are written, as they say, under the gun, at least for me, do not produce the best kind of work. Now there are many composers, and I’ve often discussed this with my colleagues, who are procrastinators and when the moment comes that they have to sit down and do it because the deadline is coming, that gives them the necessary incentive and they buckle down and they produce good work. I don’t function that way. I’m a eager beaver and a quick starter, and I go out of the starting gate like a race horse when the bell rings and then I like to gradually taper off and end very calmly and in a relaxed manner so that I approach the recording session with a free mind and not in a state of exhaustion and green around the gills.
The kind of a working relationship that I had on Wallenberg was also very important. I was a part of the team and a creative equal rather than some musical amanuensis who is more or less told precisely what is wanted and fills it in, in a hurried fashion, records it and then boom, next job. I like to take pains. I’m a very severe critic of my own work, and I like to have the luxury of re-writing something two or three times if necessary until it is right and does for the picture what it should. I’m so pleased that you’re going to do this piece about the score, because I’ve had marvelous reports from all over the country, from other publications as well as a measure of fan mail from people about the score.