New music contextualizes ‘Sunrise’ film for 2020 audience

Poster for “Sunrise.” Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Composer Jeff Beal (“House of Cards” and “Carnivàle”) has created new music for the Oscar-winning silent movie “Sunrise: A Song For Two Humans,” directed by German expressionist F.W. Murnau in 1927. The original film has little dialogue and lots of music. 

This Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, “Sunrise” will screen as the Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Beal’s new score. More event info here. 

Beal tells Press Play, “Every once in a while, you get this crazy idea to put a score where there wasn't one. But silent movies are really perfect for these kind of concert vehicles. They're paced in a certain way that's really open. … It's just a beautiful sort of allegorical visual story.” 

He adds, “Being a composer, whether I'm writing for the concert hall or for the screen or ballet or whatever, it's like I'm always a storyteller. ... So the idea of a visual context through which to really create a concert piece, it's kind of an opera of sorts, in a way that the film is almost the libretto. … And around that, we frame this new musical creation that sort of contextualizes the film for a 2020 audience.”


Jeff Beal conducting. Courtesy of Los Angeles Master Chorale.

“Sunrise” is about a nameless married couple, and the husband has an affair with a city woman. 

“This woman from the city … is a liberated woman. She smokes. She dresses sexy. She's kind of cool, actually. And she's out to have a good time,” Beal says. “And she obviously has a romantic liaison with this husband. And in the first act of the film, they hatch a plot to run away together. And one of the preconditions that she's given him is ... he has to drown his wife in the lake, which is, you know, him being so madly in love, somehow he's going to carry out this act.”


A scene from “Sunrise.” Courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

Music conveying terror

In one scene, the couple is on a long boat ride, and the husband is contemplating how he’ll drown his wife. Beal says his wife helped him think of the music for it.

“My wife, who helped set the words to this music, we had a long talk about this movie and this scene. And one [of the] things that was very important to make real for the audience is the terror that someone small feels in the presence of someone big that can actually do them harm,” he says. 

Beal notes that Janet Gaynor, who won an Academy Award for her performance as the wife, clearly conveys through body language that she knows the ride won’t end well. “She's seen him run out to see this other woman. She knows things are on the rocks, right? … You start to see the fear in her face,” he says. 

During this scene, a song plays with German lyrics. Those lyrics are based on a poem. “It is a very famous poem that's basically about love, and death, and the river, and going under the water, and all these ways in which so many German myths about love … they walk this thin line between violence, and passion, and those things that are in all of us,” Beal says.  

He adds, “And that's what I think is so cool about this film is that … this film does not shy away from the dark side of who we are as people, and I love that.”  

Celebrating romantic love, even if it doesn’t end well

“Something in this movie, as dark as it is, also was about what's beautiful about togetherness and a relationship. And I love that. Because the film also celebrates the romantic ideal of love,” Beal says. 

He says that everything is out in the open with this current generation, whereas the film shows the more mysterious part of people coming together. “It’s just a sense of romanticism about this time, and the way in which relationships were portrayed, which I just thought was kind of sophisticated and beautiful.” 

The concert hall as a movie theater 

“A concert hall and a film together is a magical thing. And part of what makes it work for a silent movie is the fact that obviously there's a lot more space sonically for the music to really live, and be there in a really present way. … I like the idea that the balance between what's happening on the stage and the screen is a little more maybe skewed, or at least balanced between the two. And I think this particular type of the pairing makes for a really nice thing that can only happen in a concert hall,” Beal says. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson