An Interview with Rolf Wilhelm by Ralf Schuder
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Rolf Wilhelm was born in Munich in 1927. He got his musical education in Vienna and finished it in Munich after a two year’s break caused by the War. From 1945 until 1954 he wrote the music tor approximately 350 radio plays for the “Bayerischer Rundfunk” (Bavarian Radio). After the foundation of the German television broadcast stations, he worked intensively for telefilms. In the sixties he composed incidental music for the feature, DIE NIBELUNGEN. A soundtrack album was released in 1981 to surprisingly high sales, resulting in albums of other Wilhelm scores to be released in Germany.
Your musical style in DIE NIBELUNGEN has been compared to that of Miklós Rózsa. Is it difficult for a composer to draw a line between style and plagiarism?
The first part of this question, although perhaps a veiled compliment (Miklós Rózsa is one of the best film composers), calls for a general rectification. The style of film music depends in the first place on the story; i.e. genre, time and scene of action. It is clear that a humorous comedy with the scene laid in New York of the present time requires another style than a Romeo and Juliet film shot in Verona at original locations in which you will find elements of Italian Renaissance music, Western films, Oriental fairytale material, local-color films, historical themes; each subject matter has its setting, traced out by the history of civilization, within which the music will logically range, apart from all personal modifications. A certain historical accuracy of style will in any case also enrich the atmosphere of the film and will remain unavoidable. But if the scene of a film is laid in a time which is indifferent as regards music, such as either early epochs or far future, the matter becomes more difficult and the composer will have to think of a plausible style in order not to fail the film.
DIE NIBELUNGEN belongs to that line of films; historically they belong in the years around 450 A.D. The writing down of the legend began approximately around 1250. Music of those times has hardly been retained: apart from the early hymns at church, there were only the ballads of the minstrels left. So a suitable style must be found which goes with the film story. And here, probably every composer who wants to write dramatic music for a large orchestra is especially subject to the influence of the development of orchestral diction with coincides with the beginning of the opera and reaches a zenith with the programme music of Liszt, Berlioz, and Strauss. The sum of this development – we may perhaps call it musical-dramatic achievements, archetypal sound patterns – will in some way or other often unconsciously influence his message and he will arrive at similar issues as a colleague proceeding from identical considerations. Hence the similarity of style with Rózsa observed by you. The masters of the past have coined, after all, the musical language also of our days.
Plagiarism is something deliberately raised from someone else’s intellectual property and, hence, mere theft. Now, it is no secret that occasionally film composers are, bluntly, put up to plagiarism – to write an “interpretation” of a successful sound pattern as instructed by doubtful directors, producers, agencies or publishers. The world-renowned ‘Harry Lime Theme’, the River Kwai March (both successful title trailer themes, above all) were classic examples of such patterns which appeared again and again in the meetings and often made it difficult for the composer to turn down this unfair demand and to tackle it effectively with a conception of his own.
And while we’re on the topic, there is still another aspect: the quotation – the utilization of a strange theme or motif. With that you can score marvellous literary and burlesque allusions, comment on parallels with a humorous twinkling and elicit a smile from the connoisseur. I very much like to play such jokes where they are appropriate and ironical.
Do you have paragons in the soundtrack scenes?
Potentially, all film music is interesting to me and gives impulses, positive as well as negative ones, since how you must not do it has also to be demonstrated. And then there are, of course, ever memorable impressions such as F. Doelle’s AMPHITRION, many a music by Disney’s private composer Paul Smith with their incredible, almost over-perfect synchronization, Mancini’s sounds and songs, Tiomkin, Rózsa, Goldsmith, but also Franz Grothe’s WIRTSHAUS IM SPESSART (Spessart Inn), again and again particularly successful works in the movies and in TV. Perhaps we should not mention names at all, in order not to limit the number of colleagues working ideally.