It’s not often you’ll hear their personal stories crescendo above the din of tabloid-fuelled fears about immigration, or be invited to celebrate and more clearly understand the music and culture that refugees bring to this island. But such are the aims of Refugee Week, a national programme of educational events, concerts, screenings and workshops that will explore the art, design, theatre, film and music that have flourished in the UK and overseas as a result of those seeking refuge abroad.
Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, will be able to see a wide range of exhibitions, from the work of designers who fled Nazi Europe, to the music and film of the Saharawi people who were forced out of their home in the Western Sarahara and into settlements in Algeria. But it’s the V&A’s screening of Casablanca – Michael Curtiz’s Romantic classic, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, with a score by Austrian emigrée Max Steiner – that has nostalgically caught my ear.
Steiner’s score is a masterpiece of understatement, setting the scene for a tale of refuge – both from war and the past – in French-ruled Africa during the second world war. It adds colour to the story of how Rick Blaine (Bogart), an exiled American and former freedom fighter in Spain and Ethiopia, is reunited in transit with his long-lost love, Ilsa (Bergman), when she arrives in Casablanca with her Resistance-leader husband, Victor Laszlo (Henreid). Casablanca is Ilsa and Victor’s escape route to America, but only Rick can help them.
Throughout, there are tender moments in which Steiner gets to the nostalgic heart of the romance, skillfully working Herman Hupfeld’s song, As Time Goes By, first performed by Sam (Dooley Wilson) in Rick’s Café, into the fabric of his score. It’s Steiner’s flashback music that transports us with Rick to his past with Ilsa in Paris, and sets the geographical scene during the opening credits – that blast of exotic-sounding percussion and brass providing a shorthand reminder that, to Casablanca’s characters, these are far-off foreign lands.
Curtiz’s depiction of America, as both promised land and a home, would have resonated with Steiner, who, like many of the great composers of the 20th-century – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok and Rachmaninov among them – lived in exile there. Born in Austria, into a family that was successful in the production of operetta, Steiner learned piano with Brahms and composition with Mahler before emigrating via London during the first world war, bringing his knowledge of theatre first to Broadway, and then to Los Angeles in 1929.
Steiner would establish the style and techniques of film scoring that would define Hollywood’s golden age of film music: his breakthrough score, King Kong (1933), shows his daring use of dissonance on screen, and skilful handling of leitmotifs, intertwining monster and romance themes as Kong falls for the heroine played by Fay Ray. Together with that of German-born Franz Waxman and Austro-Hungarian Erich Korngold, his music is a living reminder that the classic Hollywood sound was not homegrown in America, but imported by those seeking refuge from abroad.
Enjoy a short playlist inspired by the event at:http://blog.sinfinimusic.com/play-it-again-sam-and-max/ – This ‘refugee playlist’ includes the music of Steiner and other great 20th century composers who took exile in America.