Charlie Chaplin – Composer

Although Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) is remembered as one of the greatest and most iconic comedians of the silver screen, it is not common knowledge that he was an accomplished composer, scoring the films he starred in. This is hardly surprising, though, since the fact that he was a true auteur – writing, directing and editing his movies – is also largely overlooked.

He was a peerless film scorer – maybe the most melodic film composer ever; or at least of the first half of the 20th century. A self-taught musician who never learned to read or write notation, Chaplin had a prodigious grasp of mood, character and situation – introducing another dimension to films he made in the silent movie era almost a hundred years ago. He seemed to effortlessly evoke pathos, irony, romance, abandon, delight, mischievousness or trouble.

Chaplin’s colorful melodies ascend and descend, hop along, jump and dive in a lively and ornate style uniquely Chaplinesque. His leitmotifs could tell the entire emotional side of his stories without the images. He could write waltzes and tangos, marches and ballads with sublime, haunting and indelible melodies often harkening back to his vaudevillian roots.

One example is the song “Smile”, which was taken from his score for “Modern Times” and supplied with lyrics. It has become a standard sung by countless performers, such as Michael Jackson, yet its authorship would come as a surprise to most. Other famous melodies include the theme from “Limelight” or “This Is My Song”, famously sung by Petula Clark (also featuring in Chaplin’s “The Countess from Hong Kong”).

And far from being predictable and just complementing or illustrating the moving images, Chaplin would create irony by countering the action with a different mood. A great example is the iconic scene in “The Gold Rush”, where Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, after being stranded in the Klondike, is forced to eat his shoe out of starvation. Instead of underscoring the humor and absurdity of the situation with a quirky, off-beat tune, Chaplin supplies us with a charming little waltz; pointing instead to what the Tramp is fantasizing about instead of reality.

At the end of the day, Charlie Chaplin was a great composer of music, whether accompanying a film or not. He’s my favorite composer, hands down. It has been suggested that greatness is best measured by the number of great melodies a composer wrote and how ubiquitous they have become. And Chaplin is one of the most melodic… Still, he is simply not as well remembered as a king of melody like Tchaikovsky. It’s undoubtedly because this immense talent of Chaplin’s was overshadowed by his many other talents…

Some other music to check out:

Suite from “The Kid”

A waltz from “The Kid”

“Bitter Tango” from “Monsieur Verdoux”

Music from “Pay Day”

A tune from “City Lights”

Secondary Dominants – part 2

A great example of an effective application of the secondary dominant – and of masterful songcraft in general – is the perennial Latin classic, “Perfidia” by Alberto Domínguez (1911–1975). It has been performed by some of the most renowned entertainers, like Nat King Cole (above), but versions by Trio Los Panchos as well as Xavier Cugat’s legendary orchestra serve our musical purpose better here. The chord progression for the section discussed is as follows:

Dm, D7, Gm, A7, Dm

D7____, Gm, E7,  A7

After a brief introduction, the song proper commences with a wistful melody over the tonic D minor chord, which then transforms into the corresponding D7 secondary dominant. This pulls the melody nicely into the ‘away’ feel of the subdominant G minor, D7′s tonic. It’s far more poignant than a simple Dm, Gm progression would have been. The phrase ends with a perfect A7, Dm cadence.

The melody then repeats, but now it commences already on the D7, intensifying this part of the phrase even more. And then, also, the cadence is modified by inserting the secondary dominant, E7, which resolves to the primary dominant, A7. This again adds a pleasant tang to the melody and shifts the harmony back a step so that the phrase now ends on the A7 instead of Dm.

A7 then takes the song into the parallel D major chord (and key) for the exquisite ostinato accompaniment of the chorus…

In part 1, I mentioned the possibility of using a series of dominants in a cascade of perfect cadences, often for the main melody of a song. This is the case with Elvis Presley’s “Today, Tomorrow and Forever”, where he sings a captivating duet with Ann-Margret (the melody is actually taken from Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat”).

The progression (originally in C# major) is as follows: C, E, A7, D7, G9, C. All but the first chord are part of a sequence of perfect cadences – E, A7, and D7 being nondiatonic secondary dominants (E could have a 7 but doesn’t need one to function as a dominant).

Another, less prominent application of this same idea is found at the beginning of the B part in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. Here, there is a truncated, descending version of the main motif over F#7, B7, E7, A7, D7, G… all dominants of dominants down to tonic G.

Obviously, the examples aren’t derived from contemporary music and this reflects a general shift away from this harmonic device in favor of different (eg. plagal) sounds and cadences.