The use of harp in film scores has gained a number of clichéd uses over the years. It can be seen as the most typical of ways to introduce dream sequences, even in more adventurous visual forms of dreams such as in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1954) (score by Miklós Rózsa) or can be used as a leitmotif for harmony, paradise and utopia which also handily connects it to its use in dreams. There is another use which, though is a little tricky to find, has been used in some of the most appreciated films of the 20th century and by arguably the biggest film composers of the age.
The visual quality of snow is undeniable; no matter what is happening in the narrative of a film, the added difficulty of setting a scene in a snowbound area adds a beauty and a grasp towards nostalgia for both the characters and the viewers. Not every film that has a snowy landscape uses the techniques about to be discussed but there is definitely a pattern in how the harp is used in the musical scores of these films.
The first film to look at sets the tone for when this use occurs. It appears to be a link that was made during the golden age of Hollywood and, judging by its lack of presence in modern films, that is where is has stayed. Citizen Kane (1941) is not a film that is particularly about a snowy vista. In fact it spends most of its time darting between offices and Xanadu; the huge but soulless property of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. Choosing the film’s best moment is extremely difficult with it often being cited as the greatest film of all time (until very recently when it was supplanted by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the Sight & Sound poll) but this writer’s favourite scene is also the one that is to be discussed in relation to snow and the use of harp in musical scores.
It is a segment often labelled as Boyhood; this is the youngest we’ll see Kane in the film, when he is at a time of youth and freedom. This scene is approached through flashback from a dark room where his past is being dissected in order to find the truth behind Kane’s mysterious final words “Rosebud”. To switch to the Boyhood scene without some form of softening would have been jarring and potentially have clipped the rhythm of the film. Instead Bernard Herrmann gradually brings the scene in through the most luscious of string arrangements full of romance and longing for one’s past youth.
Young Kane is found playing the snow, throwing snowballs and falling about. The musical score that segues the scene already hinted at this moment reflecting a happier time at least to begin with. However with the arpeggio strings that begins the scenario, the scene is already set for a snowy encounter. Herrmann goes further though and as Kane’s snowball hits the house, a harp glissando trills away on its own. It had no doubt been there in the mix hidden under the strings but as the character falls the harp is given a sole presence. This hints at another more typical use of the harp; the use of a more whimsical physical movement. Here it is more induced by the presence of snow but there are other examples that are more unclear.
Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) has various moments of snow filled joy and sorrow. The harp does play some role in its narrative with guardian angels and Christmas being themes that often allow more excessive use of the instrument. However its connection with Citizen Kane’s “snow and movement” moment can be found in one particular snowy scene towards the latter end of the film. George Bailey is at the bridge and the snow is drifting down upon him. The urge to add a more prominent harp to the score can be clearly felt as the scene embraces all the beauty and splendour that snow can bring in a classical Hollywood film. Dimitri Tiomkin instead resists until the very moment where Clarence jumps in, encouraging George to follow. Clarence’s dive is highlighted by a very similar harp glissando to Herrmann’s; both occur during the physical fall of a character and in the presence of snowfall.
This all perhaps hints that the harp is indeed being used for the fall rather than the snow. However another film of Capra’s (again with a Tiomkin score) weighs in favour of the snow leitmotif argument. Lost Horizon (1937) presents us with a polar opposite of Xanadu; a paradise found only by the journey through the treacherous snowy mountains of the east. There seems little point in relating the full narrative of Lost Horizon as its use of harp and snow is pretty self-explanatory as well fleeting. When the hijacked plane that carries our characters finally does make a bumpy landing, its location in the snow covered mountains is marked strongly by a harp lead array of music, highlighted best by the “Wireless Montage” track on the film’s soundtrack album.
This isn’t just a trait present in the classical films of America. Another great example can be found in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952). As Mr Watanabe sits on the swing at the end, content with the acceptance of death, the song which has followed him throughout the film is repeated. The snow is falling on the playground that he has fought to be made and he is swaying gently on the playground’s swing whilst singing. However, unlike past moments in the film, the arrangement of the song has been changed to include a harp in its melody.
There could be a number of reasons for this change within Fumio Hayasaka’s music. The character is close to death, perhaps even now a ghost and the harp has strong associations with death and the sound of the afterlife. However this is quite a crass reading and so the presence of snow is a better reason for the musical choice. The harp is playing a slow arpeggio rather than a fast glissando as in the previous films. This adds melancholy to the scene in a very obvious way but also highlights the snow falling as in the films of the west.
Unlike rain, snow has very little, if no sound at all when it is present. It is a very visual but very silent form of weather. This has no doubt lead to filmmakers filling in the aural gap that is left by a desire for accuracy. It may seem like a strange aesthetic to achieve yet looking at the quality of the scenes and films presented, it is clearly an association that may not be explored much in modern cinema but worked extremely well in heyday of celluloid’s reign.