Art: The sound of silents

Glossy new prints of classic silent movies have provided Carl Davis with the opportunity to compose sumptuous new scores for them. His latest work is for Ernst Lubitsch's Old Heidelberg - and tonight he conducts it live for the first time.
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The Independent Culture
I don't know if Edward VIII got out to the cinema much, but I suspect some princely adviser or other should have tried a little harder to point him in the direction of Ernst Lubitsch's 1927 silent classic, Old Heidelberg. Set in a storybook German principality at the turn of the century, this dark romance explores the impossible love between a crown prince and a barmaid. Essential viewing for would-be kings and consorts everywhere, this poignant tale of passion and obligation gets a fresh airing at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday - the first time in over 70 years.

Old Heidelberg is the latest silent to get the Photoplay treatment - burnished up in a spanking new print to the live accompaniment of the London Philharmonic Orchestra as Carl Davis conducts the UK premiere of his luscious new score in an all-encompassing rush of strings and smouldering celluloid charisma.

It's nearly 20 years since Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill teamed up with Carl Davis to restore Abel Gance's split-screen epic, Napoleon. Since then they've created a pioneering repertoire of over 30 films: tracking down lost scenes, and editing back missing sequences, correcting film speeds, and commissioning potent new scores, to reinvigorate the most stunning movies of the silent era - from Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, to Valentino's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Old Heidelberg may not be in quite the same tempestuous super-league, but Lubitsch (who later went on to direct Garbo in Ninotchka) transforms an off-the-peg love story into a far subtler dilemma, suggesting you can never go back and recapture the past. Under the "Lubitsch touch", the normally over-mannered Norma Shearer achieves a twinkly spontaneity, weaving through the beer-gardens with an armful of brimming steinlagers, while the Latin matinee idol, "Ravishing" Ramon Novarro, creates a haunting figure of trapped isolation in servitude to the State in a film of outstandingly sophisticated, fluid cinematography. As Billy Wilder noted, Ernst Lubitsch "could do more with a closed door than most of today's directors can do with an open fly".

Based on Romberg's Broadway-smash operetta, The Student Prince, Lubitsch's version was banned from using either the original title or the original music. "It's a fabulous score," says Carl Davis, "so I thought I'd call the estate and see if they'd agree to let us use it in our revival." The Rombergians, however, were no happier about the idea the second time around. "I started looking carefully at the film and found the titles were pervaded with musical references to other fabulous German songs - folk songs, drinking songs, university songs and duelling songs - so I decided that was the way in," he explains.

European film-makers such as Eisenstein issued their films with specific scores, but Hollywood was a lot more free and easy with its musical accompaniments, usually allowing cinema orchestra leaders to rifle through volumes of mood music to pick suitable matches to a sheet of cues. Carl Davis composes his sumptuous scores with the same spirit of free-ranging gusto. "We're quite emphatic that we're not a museum - we try to bring the films to life," he says. "For Old Heidelberg, you should feel you're in the lighter movements of a Mahler symphony. It's late German Romantic music - lush and gorgeous."

Davis, who composed the music for the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, and is currently scoring Mike Leigh's new Gilbert & Sullivan biopic, is untroubled by critics waving the word "pastiche". "It's the name of the game," he says. "It's like working with theatre or ballet, you'll always incorporate a broader world of music into your vocabulary. I was thinking recently about Tchaikovsky - in Swan Lake he had to write a Polonaise, a mazurka, a waltz, a Hungarian dance, a Spanish dance, all to the strict requirements of a choreographer. Of course, you can still be yourself writing an Arab dance, or music for a low dance-hall scene. If you felt it was a strain, you simply wouldn't do it. My view is that the music is there to push the whole thing forward and make the film more effective. Personally, I think it's quite a lot of fun."

`Old Heidelberg', tonight, 7.30pm, RFH, South Bank, London SE1. Carl Davis gives a free pre-concert talk, `The Magical Sound of Silents' at 6.15pm (0171-960 4242). A season celebrating the centenary of Ramon Novarro continues at the NFT until 25 February (0171-928 3232)