Follow the Lieder

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Last month’s release of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows featured a movie with not one but two major classical moments: A Parisian production of Don Giovanni and the recurring theme of Schubert’s lied “Die Forelle,” or “The Trout.”

The Don Giovanni sequence is great blockbuster fun, with a potently percussive underscore courtesy of Hans Zimmer that takes us through the opera’s finale and a grand explosion across the street from Garnier’s delectable opera house. But the psychological intrigue of Conan Doyle and the mental mechanics of this brainiac popcorn flick lies in Schubert, a composer whose three operas pale in comparison to his 600+ lieder penned before his death at 31. The lied, a version by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake warped and digitally reconstructed to unsettling and unadorned effect, is played throughout the film, including a torture scene that has Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes impaled on a human-sized fish hook.

As adversary Dr. Moriarty explains, the story of “The Trout” is of a fisherman who is unable to catch a fish on a day when the waters are clear. The fish sees his own Moriarty on the riverbank, who muddies the water leaving the fish confused and taken by surprise when the fisherman finally, and successfully, strikes. Schubert’s text, taken from a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, uses this as a metaphor for women being swept away by men. Moriarty poses it as a question to Holmes: Who, in their scenario, is the fisherman and who is the trout?

With so many of Schubert’s lieder to choose from—Naxos recently released a 38-CD box set of his complete songs—and so many potential metaphors to pull from each one, that this work in particular was used is a testament to the attentiveness of the filmmakers (according to Zimmer, Downey himself insisted that both Mozart and Schubert were used to the extent that they are). Opera in film often adds dramatic dimensions, with overt conflicts mirroring those faced by the likes of Julia Roberts and Orson Welles. But something about the standalone lied gives it an ability to both reflect a plot and, like a mirror against a candle, be illuminated in turn by the film. Given Schubert’s prolific output, it’s no surprise that he factors so heavily in this equation.

Ave Maria has its considerable place in the cinematic canon—you can hear it in everything from The Bride of Frankenstein to South Park—and Schubert’s instrumental works are equally omnipresent. Schubert’s combination of secular words and music, however, are a class unto themselves. Unsurprisingly, both Die Erlkönig and Winterreise have been adapted into dreamy films.

Marlene Dietrich sang “Heidenröslein” in the 1933 film Song of Songs, a song that was also used in the 2001 Hilary Swank flick The Affair of the Necklace. This particular lied, based on Goethe, tells of a boy who picks a rose, despite the rose’s futile threats that it will prick the boy’s finger and make it bleed. It’s an apt metaphor for the sexual allure of Dietrich, but also the titular necklace in Swank’s case—the item in question is stolen by a fallen aristo in pre-Revolutionary France.

The gloom of Winterreise is also well-suited to shooter dramedy In Bruges, which places two hit men in Christmastime Belgium and emphasizes the similar tortured themes between Schubert’s winter wanderer and Colin Farrell’s character. It’s easy to see similar personal parallels between the lost love in “Sei mir gegrußt” and unrequited paramours in The Remains of the Day.

Curiously, however, it’s Schubert’s lieder cycles like Winterreise—along with Schwanengesang and Die Schöne Mullerin—that are among music department favorites when it comes to expressing intimate intricacies on the big screen. The creepiness of Schwanengesang’s “Der Doppelgänger” makes for the perfect atmosphere in 2001 thriller Hotel, which despite being a box office bomb struck musical gold. More effective on all levels was the incorporation of the same cycle’s “Ständchen” in royal biopic The Young Victoria. As Albert plays the piece for the future queen, you see the pleading in his eyes and interpretation just as much as you would hear it in the textual pleading.

Covering just as large a swath of genres is Die Schöne Mullerin, a wanderer's tale from the first joyful pangs of love to suicidal despair. Perhaps it’s this balance that makes for such variances; Lensky in the Ralph Fiennes version of Onegin sings “Mein!” in an ardent off-key rendition through picturesque Russian woods—a song that is tragically foreshadowing for all its happiness and perfect for both the ironies in the Goethe and Pushkin texts. There are less tragic and more pastoral implications in the cycle’s second song, “Wohin?” which factors into the equally lighter Woody Allen sexcapade, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.  

None of these examples quite match the gleeful sadism of “Die Forelle”’s incorporation into Sherlock Holmes (a solid pairing with the merciless Moriarty), but with such a juicy box set now out there’s plenty of material to work with. And A Game of Shadows leaves us wide open to a sequel.

What are your thoughts on the use of Schubert in the new Sherlock Holmes? Are there any particular favorite uses of Schubert you've seen on film? Leave your comments below.