• Jeff Beal
  • The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (2020)

  • St. Rose Music Publishing (World)

Commissioned by Bundesjazzorchester / German National Youth Jazz Orchestra

A license from the Murnau Foundation is needed to show the film.

  • ch; 2asx(II:fl).2tsx(I:cl,ssx.II:cl).barsx/
  • SATB chorus
  • 1 hr 15 min
  • Else Lasker-Schüler and Erich Mühsam
  • German
    • 19th November 2022, Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Halle, Halle, Germany
    • 20th November 2022, Jüdisches Museum, Berlin, Germany
    View all

Programme Note

100 years after the silent film’s release, Jeff Beal composed a new soundtrack for live performances to accompany The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the famous German expressionist horror film directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The German National Youth Jazz Orchestra gave the premiere in August 2021 as part of the nationwide 2021 Jewish Life in Germany festival.

Composer note
My new score for Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the latest in a series of works I’ve been creating in tandem with classic films from the silent era. Caligari is my second of these focusing on the German expressionist school; the first being my score for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1926). Sunrise was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and premiered in Disney Hall January 2020.

I received the commission for Caligari in April 2020 as the covid pandemic was racing around the globe. At that same time in the U.S. a political firestorm was enveloping the country, driven by a leader who used hatred, fear, and tribalism to fuel a political base. It was impossible not to see a direct link between the heavy clouds of anxiety and uncertainty which permeate this film and our current state of affairs. As I put the finishing touches on my orchestration in January of 2021, political unrest in the U.S. reached an absurd crescendo as misguided and informed “patriots” stormed the U.S. Capital, seeking to undo a legally elected president. The capacity for evil, manipulation, madness, tragic fantasies Caligari explored so powerfully in 1920 had become tragically apparent.

These human dramas are timeless. My goal was to compose a score to Caligari which would serve the eternal, visceral themes of the film, while delivering the emotion, and catharsis a great suspense film is capable of. I freely drew on several sources of inspiration for my materials: Jazz, Second Viennese School extended harmony, a bit of Kurt Weill sensibility, and my own sense of what I might call a theatrical, operatic film-music oratorio. For the choir, I set text from two German Jewish poets, Else Lasker-Schüler & Erich Mühsam.

The shadow of both Freud and Jung seem to loom large over the story and metaphors in Caligari. Their new approach of understanding the mind as a universe unto its own seem at the very heart of the story — in the score, I strove to give the audience a curiosity and enjoyment in the discovery of these archetypal characters. Even Caligari himself, is at times relatable in his deviousness.

I found much of the dramatic power in the story to be in the passive characters: Cesare the sleepwalker, Jane, an object of affection, and danger, and Francis the observer with a tragic secret of his own. Their helplessness gives us the sense we are all watching a dream unfold in a horrible way, but as in a dream we can’t move or interact with the horror of it all. As Cesare emerges from his cabinet, we hear the choir sing an agonizing song of loss set to these words from Schüler:

Es ist ein Weinen in der Welt,
Als ob der liebe Gott gestorben wär,
Und der bleierne Schatten, der niederfällt,
Lastet grabesschwer.
(There is a weeping in the world
as though our dear God had died.
And the leaden shadow falling
weighs as heavy as a grave.)
Komm, wir wollen uns näher verbergen…
Das Leben liegt in aller Herzen
Wie in Särgen.
(Come on, we will hide down closer…
Life is laid out in all hearts
like in a casket.)

This commission was part of a larger celebration of 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany — I had no idea before I began this work how long this rich history was — the first evidence of a Jewish presence in Germany dates back to the year 321 AD. Both of the poems I chose for the work are from German Jews of the early 20th century (the same time period in which the film was created). The film’s director Robert Wiene and writer Carl Mayer were also German Jews.

These poems served as great text for the choir, but also as a testament, along with Caligari itself, to the crucial importance of Jewish artists in Germany cultural life, one which reached an stunning artistic zenith in the Weimar period.

— Jeff Beal