[Want to know more about the music of "Casablanca"? Check out my Symphony Preview.]
Everybody knows "As Time Goes By," of course. Originally written by Herman Hupfeld for a 1931 Broadway show "Everybody's Welcome," the song is used in the film in various transformations to represent the ultimately impossible romance between Humphrey Bogart's embittered Rick and Ingrid Bergman's idealistic Ilsa. Major, minor, fully realized or broken and fragmented, it haunts all their scenes and mirrors their thoughts. It was always there in the background when I'd seen the film before, of course, but hearing it performed live made its importance that much clearer.
The same is true of the effective ways Steiner uses the Nazi anthem "Deutschland Über Alles" and the French national anthem "La Marseillaise" to symbolize the battle between the forces of fascism and the values fascists in general and Nazis in particular hated: liberté, egalité, fraternité. The Nazi anthem, in one form or another, inevitably accompanies scenes in which the fascist threat is either on screen in the persona of the smirking Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) or lurking as a presence in the plot. "La Marseillaise" wins in the end, of course, as Rich and Louis (Claude Rains) stride off into the fog to carry on the fight.
And, of course, "La Marseillaise" figures prominently in one of the most famous scenes in the film. A group of Nazi officers in Rick's Café have commandeered the piano and are giving voice to an aggressive version of the 1840s song "Die Wacht Am Rhein" ("Watch on the Rhine"). Sensing the rising anger in the room, Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) signals the band to strike up "La Marseillaise" and the Nazis soon find themselves drowned out and silenced. It's a powerful scene in its own right, but when backed up by the power of a live orchestra, it's simply overwhelming.
Many other moments in "Casablanca" take on added resonance when the music is heard this clearly. American popular music figures prominently in all the scenes in Rick's Café Américain and Patrick Russ's ingenious live performing version of the score often has the live orchestra acting as a kind of back-up ensemble for the on-screen band, giving the music just a bit of extra punch. I was particularly taken with the way the orchestra joined the "call and response" bits during M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl's "Knock on Wood"—great fun.
Conducting for a live showing of a movie is, as I have noted before, a fairly specialized skill. It’s probably not part of the basic training of most classically educated conductors. Nevertheless St. Louis Symphony Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi, aided by podium-mounted screens, did an excellent job and the musicians sounded as fine as always. The expanded percussion battery—including multiple xylophones and marimbas along with piano and celesta—was kept especially busy.
If I have a criticism, it's that the balance between the voice tracks on the film and the live orchestra was rarely ideal, and important bits of dialog often got lost. This seems to be a chronic problem with film events at Powell, either because of issues with the house sound system or hall acoustics, or both. For people like my wife and me who practically have "Casablanca" memorized that probably didn't matter much, but I wonder if some of the younger folks knew what they were missing.
And that's a pity, because the dialog needs to be heard. That's because, in my view, "Casablanca" is a film that still resonates today. Nazi Germany may be a thing of the past, but home-grown fascist movements are flexing their muscles in far too many Western nations these days. They hate liberté, egalité, and fraternité just as much now as they did in 1942. Rod Serling said it best in the epilog to the 1963 "Twilight Zone" episode "He's Alive": "Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare - Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry. He's alive. He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He's alive because through these things we keep him alive."
The regular subscription season returns this weekend as Bernard Labadie conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with soloists Philip Ross (oboe), Andrew Gott (bassoon), Kristin Ahlstrom (violin), and Melissa Brooks (cello) in a program of music by Rameau, Haydn, and Mozart. Performances take place on Friday at 10:30 AM, Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, February 21-23, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.