Column: Slicing Score: The Mephisto Waltz/The Other (1971; 1972)

By Maria Mitchell

The Mephisto Waltz/The Other (1971; 1972). Composer: Jerry Goldsmith.

If you can find substantial portions of two good scores in one soundtrack, consider yourself lucky. Strings can be brutal and the strings are a pleasure to be found in The Mephisto Waltz’s score. Piano music is scattered harshly around the tracks, but the strings form trenches in the soundscape. Those auditory trenches contain the darkest musical pressure points. The sound is raw. While I like the score to The Omen, The Mephisto Waltz has a harsh and rough edge that makes it a neat forebear to The Omen’s more famous Satanic-themed horror. The Waltz also brings up a musical point of interest: the musical quote. Goldsmith enlisted the aid of Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz for dramatic support in this score, since the main character of the film is a pianist-turned-journalist, and Goldsmith “quoted” many of the musical sentences in the piece. The film may be about devil-worship, but the piano is pure white magick.

Its classical roots do not make every part of this score great. I’m not a fan of Dies Irae, which is musically evoked in this score. Score reviewer Jon Burlingame writes in detail about this evocation in his liner notes. It’s a plainsong often referenced in horror-themed entertainment, in order to conjure images of wrath. (In Gaston Leroux’s novel, Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom papers the borders of his home’s walls with sheets of the notes to Dies Irae. That sounds odd but not necessarily scary.) To me, the Dies Irae is one of those ancient pieces of music that is immortal because it feels bland, and blandness, like inertia, doesn’t go away easily.

The score to The Other is an entirely different case. This soundtrack does not separate individual musical cues from the film. It melds them together in a twenty-odd minute suite. At the beginning of the 1970s, actor Thomas Tryon decided to devote himself to novel writing and this novel, his first work, was among his most memorable. This is the story of twin brothers who can and will do just about anything to be like one another and remain together. Sounds innocuous enough, but think twice. The book (which Tryon adapted to screenplay format) contains a more complete history of Holland than the film relates to the audience. Holland was basically born dead, an important detail left out of the film: “…Holland was a child of the earth: still, guarded, bound within himself, fettered by secrets unshared. Craving love but not able to give it; so mysteriously withdrawn. Holland’s very birth – his body struggling, rending the womb, emerging dead. Slapped into angry life by the doctor” (58).

I got this book second-hand (ISBN: 0-394-46744-2) about nine years ago from a bookstore in Sonoma – Reader’s Books – who ordered it for me because I had seen the film on AMC and I wanted to read the book.This book has fallen out of circulation, so it was elusive.

The film depends heavily on its score to create a tone of childhood innocence. The music tempers malice with sweetness. This brings to my mind the Thomas Middleton quote: “by all the sweets that ever darkness tasted” (The Changeling, Act 3.4, ln.146). I can’t think of a more applicable quote in describing this score. Both The Changeling and The Other have a protagonist that is harassed, stalked and tortured by a shadow. The shadow becomes the monster that engulfs its prey. Poe’s tales of “William Wilson” and”The Fall of the House of Usher” are good parallels to consider while experiencing this story. I cannot stress enough how interesting it is to experience these three forms of The Other: the book, the film, and the score. All its textual evils and beauties twist from medium to medium in a way that is thrilling.

By the time the film begins, it is too late for Niles to put his shadow to rest. There is a photo contained in the CD notes of this soundtrack which depicts Niles in front of a large, shadowy profile of Holland. This image indicates to the viewer which mind is the stronger one, or rather, the negative space that is draining Niles of his identity. Nevertheless, his notes are worth reading. I’ve been wanting to read more about The Other’s music for a long time, so I’m happy Amazon had this CD in stock this summer.

I regret that I couldn’t find any articles detailing Thomas Tryon’s opinion about Goldsmith’s score. That doesn’t mean such articles do not exist; it just means I couldn’t find them. I would love to have read about whether or not he sensed his own word’s meaning in the music or if the music felt unfamiliar to him.

Niles Perry, unfortunately, wanted his twin to be with him forever and Niles got what he thought he wanted. Jerry Goldsmith’s score will let you hear the memory of Holland Perry. You’ve been warned.

The Mephisto Waltz/The Other soundtrack is available through Amazon.com.