It seems unfair that someone with the abilities of Charlie Chaplin—actor, writer, director—should also have had a seemingly innate talent for composing music. On Friday, March 21, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s CSO at the Movies series showcases Chaplin’s music alongside his other abilities, playing his own score live for a showing of the 1931 movie City Lights.
Chaplin, whose parents were music-hall performers in England, had left school early to perform and picked up the piano, the violin (which he strung backward to play left-handed), and the cello through experimentation and ad-hoc lessons from musicians with which he toured. When he wrote music for his films, he’d collaborate with arrangers and orchestrators, humming or playing melodies to be used as leitmotifs for characters and moods. It was a technique Richard Wagner made famous, although Chaplin’s music is the opposite of what goes by the term Wagnerian.
City Lights was Chaplin’s first score. Talkies had debuted with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, and Chaplin was hesitant to add dialogue to his films because it would limit his audience to English speakers only. Thus City Lights is mostly a silent film, with only a few sound effects and title cards, though Chaplin jumped at the opportunity to control the music more precisely than he could with just cue sheets for theatre organists or chamber groups.
In his My Autobiography, Chaplin writes, “I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension. Musical arrangers rarely understood this. They wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition.”
Richard Kaufman, who will conduct the CSO for City Lights, similarly frames Chaplin’s music as an emotional vehicle. “So many different emotions are captured and displayed in the film,” he says, “and Chaplin captures these emotions in the music as well as any film composer.”
Chaplin modestly called his own music simple. City Lights’s score does have a broad, pure quality, with clear melodic statements obviously influenced by music-hall tunes. There’s not a lot of counterpoint, except the music’s metaphorical counterpoint to the visuals. A master of precision, Chaplin accurately chose his adjective to describe his music: simple, not simplistic.
CSO at the Movies screens and plays City Lights at 8:00 p.m. on March 21. $35–$120. Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. cso.org