Friday 15 December 2017

Celebrating silent film's big partner

This is Charlie Chaplin's birthday. Aficionados of the finest classical music may find the reference here bizarre, but the links are very clear.

They stretch to the Victorian music hall. Both parents were performers, and Charlie, born in London in 1899, was exposed to popular song from an early age.

The broadening of his musical tastes came when he joined the touring company run by Fred Karno, the leading impresario of the day. The slapstick deployed by performers like Chaplin and Arthur Jefferson (later known as Stan Laurel) would be juxtaposed for comic effect with the delicate tunes of the drawing rooms of an earlier age.

Chaplin took up the violin, and as he was left-handed, had it strung back to front. He was keen to become a concert artist, or at least be able to play in his own sketches.

He'd take lessons from whoever was conducting the show he was in, and he'd practise for hours every day. He got himself a cello too, but soon realised it wasn't for him.

Still, he had his admirers. The impressionist composer Debussy asked to meet him after seeing him in a performance at the Folies Bergère in Paris.

Rachmaninov was a friend. He got to meet Enrico Caruso, the top tenor of the time, and the violin maestro Jascha Heifetz.

But he also became acquainted with the new art form -- moving pictures. This was silent cinema, and Charlie just got how music could capture the mood of a scene.

He'd recall the impact of a trip to the opera, to see Wagner's Tannhäuser. He came away, as he put it, "limp and emotionally shattered". That night would have a lasting influence on him.

He began to compose for the movies he made, but with no formal musical education, he'd have to either sing the tune, or pick out the melody on a piano, and get an arranger to write out the scores.

Charlie Chaplin was the brain behind 'Smile' (though your heart is aching), which began life as the theme (without lyrics) to his 1936 film Modern Times. He even won an Oscar in 1972 for the sound-track to Limelight, a movie of his that had come out 20 years before.

But his love of classical was never far away, and in retirement in Switzerland he'd entertain his friends from the world of music, and spend his evenings listening to recordings of the greats.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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