Barber takes Debussy’s Usher sketches as starting-point for his own score, beginning with the very theme that opens the opera, but then diverging into a free fantasy of his own on certain harmonic figures from Debussy, with a few other melodic details thrown in for good measure. The result – only intermittently Debussian – fits the atmosphere of the film to a tee, without really attempting to match it incident by incident, as the original cinema pianist, watching the film while improvising suitable music, would presumably have been expected to do.
Barber’s sixteen players, kept in step by a click track in place of a conductor, clearly relish the dark colourings inspired by Epstein’s morose imagery. The rich sonorities of tuba, trombone and horn dominate, even when the higher woodwind is active; or, when the winds are briefly silent, the cello tends to sing with a particularly melancholy lyricism through the string texture. Barber uses these colour variations, and – less often – tempo variations, to moderate the persistent adagio of the film. Whether one would want to sit and merely listen to this music for an hour might be doubtful. That it enhances the experience of the film is beyond question.
In Barber’s beautifully evoked Usher, however, as in his previous ‘live cinema’ production, the brilliant and vivid Salomé (with Charles Bryant’s 1923 film adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play), the audience remains a full participant. We have the glorious experience of something actually created for the screen rather than a ‘filmed event’, and, at the same time, we watch and listen to live musicians performing a score created in scintillating response. Hence the music forms an ‘alive’ aural juxtaposition to the ‘unchangeable’ celluloid visuals, to borrow further Barber’s words. Clearly, he is re-working the historic practice of live accompaniment to silent film. But I think where Barber most succeeds is in creating a space where the historic and the contemporary genuinely co-exist. And Epstein himself, in a sense, had already gone back in time, to bring his own, highly impressionistic imagination to bear on a long-existing, well-known tale.
Wisely, Barber sticks to instruments rather than voices, maintaining musically as it were the film’s lack of dialogue or vocal sound. In Salomé, his ensemble comprises four percussionists, placed with great dramatic flair on scaffolding around the big screen. In Usher, the score is for a chamber orchestra of sixteen players; all highly gifted young professionals who clearly enjoy Barber’s luscious orchestration – and there is some exquisite writing, especially for brass and woodwind. Arranged in two groups in front and either side of the screen, the effect is different from, say, an onstage music-theatre large ensemble; not least because the orchestra is unconducted, yet performs with fantastic rhythmic precision.