WSO injects new blood into classic tale of ancient vampire

Orchestra scores F.W. Murnau’s legendary horror film Nosferatu


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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra will be turning back the clock a week early tonight.

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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra will be turning back the clock a week early tonight.

But it will be dialing it back 100 years, not just one hour, when it takes the stage at the Burton Cummings Theatre and performs the music and sound effects for a screening of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, a 1922 silent film considered to be the prototype for many horror films, especially ones focused on vampires.

Nosferatu, which was directed by F.W. Murnau, was a low-budget film by 1920s standards, but it used spooky sets and lighting — which became a hallmark of German expressionist cinema — to draw audiences in Germany and around the world, many of whom remained traumatized by the after-effects of the First World War.

The movie’s score, initially composed by Hans Erdmann, comes to the fore when performed by an orchestra, says Naomi Woo, the WSO’s assistant conductor, who will lead the symphony in tonight’s event.

“The music is in a whole variety of styles. A lot of the music we hear during the film is really creepy, very chromatic. It’s music that constantly makes you feel on edge,” she says. “It’s very early film music, but you already hear a lot of tropes that have become familiar in film.”

Woo says the score uses various forms of percussion, including piano, celeste, harmonium and xylophone; a triangle is used to mimic the sound of a ticking clock.

“The way the music either guides you in what you’re seeing on stage, but sometimes the music is there to let you know what kind of mood you want to feel,” she says.

Nosferatu’s link with the novel Dracula, by English author Bram Stoker, creates the film’s backstory. Nosferatu is similar to Dracula, except the setting is Germany, rather than England, and its main character is vampire Count Orlok, played by a ghoulish-looking Max Schreck, not Count Dracula.

Stoker’s estate successfully sued Nosferatu’s producers for copyright infringement shortly after it was released, and nearly all copies of the film were destroyed as part of the ruling.

Only a few reels of Nosferatu survived, which adds another level of difficulty to performing its score with the movie, Woo says. Many different versions were created for the film since it was first released, because a fully intact version of the score has yet to be found.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Naomi Woo is an assistant conductor with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The one the WSO will use contains a good portion of Erdmann’s original work.

“The score is cobbled together with pieces that were inserted by various other people. It incorporates a little bit of Brahms and other music,” Woo says.

The film’s score also includes an overture from an opera about vampires by 19th-century German composer Heinrich Marschner, who became renowned in Europe starting in the 1830s, when Nosferatu is set. The WSO will perform the piece prior to the movie.

Performing movie music and sound effects is old hat for the WSO. It’s in the midst of performing all eight films in the Harry Potter canon and it provided the sound for Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush earlier this season.

What’s different this time is the setting, the Burton Cummings Theatre, which was built in 1907. It’s easy to imagine the historic auditorium, which has its own haunted-house story, showed Nosferatu once or twice when it was a moviehouse called the Walker Theatre or the Odeon Cinema.

The WSO rarely performs at the Burt, but it did provide the musical backdrop for a similarly scary silent film, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney in the title role, at the historic theatre in 2005.

Woo, who is a fan of the 2018 horror film Hereditary starring Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, has spent hours studying Nosferatu, with and without music, to prepare for tonight’s show, as well as rehearsing with the orchestra to know the precise second to give her cues to the musicians in time with the film.

Kino International Max Schreck stars as Count Orlock in the 1922 horror classic Nosferatu.

“I think it will be an opportunity, as music and art always is, for audiences to transport themselves into a different world, as well as to transport themselves 100 years into the past, to imagine 1922 and experience the film for the first time.”

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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