July 8, 2012

Did Dorothy and the Wizard rip off Zoltán Kodály??

Illustration by Denslow from "The Wizard of Oz"
Pop quiz: who wrote the songs for the great MGM classic The Wizard of Oz?

Yeah, that was a little too easy - most of you said "Harold Arlen" without even having to think about it.  Gosh, but you're a culturally literate bunch, the lot of you.

Okay, smarties: then who wrote the musical score?  Hmmm?  Nope - not Arlen; he merely set Edgar Yipsel Harburg's lyrics to music.  I'm talking about the extensive orchestral underscoring, not the songs like "Over the Rainbow" and such.

Give up?  Ha - gotcha!  The bulk of the musical soundtrack was composed by Herbert Stothart, a Wisconsin native who won an Oscar for his Oz efforts.

Some of the underscoring has obvious quotations from the world of Classical music; for instance, Toto's scurryings are usually accompanied by Mendelssohn's Scherzo in E Minor. Other passages are based on Arlen's songs in Hollywood's version of Wagnerian leit-motifs.

But there are moments in the soundtrack of this film which I think are traceable to a source generally unrecognized.  Would you believe Zoltán Kodály's opera Háry János?

Didn't see that one coming, did you?  Not only do I hear "borrowings" from Kodály in The Wizard of Oz, I have what I think is a decent theory about why Stothart may have been inspired to use this material. Now all I have to do is convince you I'm right. 

First, read Kodály's own commentary on his opera and see if any of his descriptions bring to bear on the movie. "Háry is a peasant," writes the composer, "a veteran soldier who day after day sits at the tavern spinning yarns about his heroic exploits... the stories released by his imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naivety, of comic humour and pathos. Though superficially he appears to be merely a braggart, essentially he is a natural visionary and poet. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world."

Okay, let's think about this. As a simple Kansas farm girl, isn't Dorothy a peasant?  Check.

Aren't the adventures of Dorothy and her three sidekicks a mixture of comic humor and pathos?  Check.

Doesn't the character of the wizard, both as the Kansas con-man and the figure encountered in Oz, contain both the elements of the braggart and, later on, the visionary/poet? Check.

Doesn't Dorothy's lively imagination create a beautiful dream world? Double check!

Consider also: Kodály's opera premiered in 1926, with the famous orchestral suite taken from it appearing one year later.  As we all know, The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, meaning that the Kodály work had been out in ample time for Stothart to become familiar with it, yet not so long ago that the themes didn't still sound fresh, new and contemporary.

All in all, it seems an entirely reasonable theory that Stothart, once assigned the gig of composing the film score, might have cast about looking for a classical model with colorful orchestration, lively tunes and a comparable zeitgeist and found it in the themes of Háry János. 

And what of the music itself? What are these musical similarities that have made such an impression on me?  You be the judge.

For your convenience, I provide a link to the orchestral suite from the opera.  It's twenty minutes in length and a great piece of music; but if you'd like to cut to the Oz-chase, here are the moments you should listen to:

1) At 3:44, the start of the second movement called "Viennese Musical Clock"

2) At 10:04, the start of the fourth movement, "The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon".

3) At 11:30, a brief passage for percussion and low brass.  And finally,

4) At 17:21, the start of the finale, "Entrance of the Emperor and His Court"

Those of you who hear what I heard may need no further explanation, and you may be smiling in recognition.  But for the record, here are the connections I'm making:
  • Passage No. 1 (3:44) is similar to the march tune heard in Munchkinland as Dorothy meets all the Munchkins.  Listen to the tune in her description of how she happened to kill the Wicked Witch of the East upon her arrival at 0:53 of this clip of the scene.  The Munchkins take up the tune.  Is it a direct quote?  Almost!  The resemblance is strong.
  • Passage No. 2 (10:04) is similar to the march-tune heard at various points in the movie, notably in the scene of the Wizard's departure from Oz back to Kansas when he presents medals to Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the rest.  Simply replace Kodály's modal harmony with diatonic major tonality and voila: Háry morphs into a Wonderful Wizard.
  • For passage No. 3 (11:30), I ask for a bit of latitude.  Notice the ominous beat of percussion and chant-like growls of brass.  Could this not have been part of the inspiration for the March of the Winkies, otherwise known as the scary soldiers guarding the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West as they chant "oh WEE oh, oh-WEEEEEE-oh"?  Maybe, maybe...
  • And the final excerpt again puts me in mind of both Oz-like marches and a style of orchestration that screams MGM.  In fact, the orchestration throughout serves as a model of what the estimable Mr. Stothart was aiming for in his underscoring.
Do you hear it?  Do you agree with any or all of the above, or am I way over-thinking this whole deal?  Leave me your opinion as a comment below.  I'll be interested to see if you hear the seeds of a great film score in a neglected Hungarian folk opera!

Just remember... if you don't agree it's too bad for you, because I'm right and you're wrong.  Nyah nyah nyah.

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online
at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.

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