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Wuthering Heights (1939): How the Soundtrack Influences Our Perception of the Narrative

The music for Wuthering Heights (Wyler, 1939) was led by “arguably the most influential music director in Hollywood”, Alfred Newman (Cooke, 2008, p.  103). He was an American-born composer at a time when the output of film scores was “dominated by European composers” (Cooke, 2008, p. 103). Edward Powell worked as an uncredited orchestrator for Wuthering Heights. Powell and Newman collaborated on many film scores. Throughout their collegial relationship, “Powell’s work for Newman frequently went beyond orchestration, and involved reworking the themes, adding counterpoints or variants, and occasionally bringing in new material of his own” (Jackson, 2011, p. 111). However, Newman, as music director, would have the final “stamp of approval” (p. 122).

Composing in a late nineteenth-century idiom is symptomatic of Hollywood’s golden age, but there are multifaceted explanations for this. One elucidation is posited by Prendergast (1977, p. 39), that when confronted with musico-dramatic issues, film composers looked to operatic and dramatic composers who had “solved almost identical problems in their operas”. Newman’s experience in conducting Broadway musicals certainly would have aided him with developing “an innate sense of what was dramatically expedient” (Jackson, 2011, p. 122).

Some of the commonalities of the classical Hollywood score are outlined by Adorno and Eisler (1947), such as the use of leitmotif, musical illustration, melody, orchestrational conventions. The score for Wuthering Heights reflects these tropes to an extent; however, regarding leitmotif, Newman is more concerned with dramatic themes rather than characters’ themes. There is the ‘Love Theme’, often termed ‘Cathy’s theme’; however, this could be misleading as it is only when Heathcliff and Cathy are together, or their love is spoken of, that it appears. When she is in the Linton household, or being wed to Edgar Linton (Wyler, 1939, 53:11), there is no trace of ‘Cathy’s’ theme’. The ‘Love Theme’ permeates the film as it is the subject for which the film is based, that of the events transpiring between Cathy and Heathcliff. One does not tire of this melody, David Raskin relates Newman’s advice regarding monothematicism noting, “The audience is not bored with the tune if it’s the ‘right’ tune” (Prendergast, 1977, p. 64). The audience may have difficulty retaining tunes explicitly, particularly if only heard once before, but it is the “character of a melody” which is retained, “particularly if that character was unique and the melody first heard in an intense emotional context” (Pisani, 2014, p. 567). The melody is organically developed by diminution, augmentation, reharmonization and tonality. It acts as a template on which to build and manipulate to convey the emotional character of the scene. This usage of motif is typical of Newman and Powell, as discussed by Jackson (2011) on The Song of Bernadette (dir. King, 1943) and other films of that era, “individual ideas often revolved around a particular theme or leitmotif, which could almost automatically be drawn upon” (p. 111).

The ‘Love Theme’ (see Figure 1) is full of delayed gratification through lack of regular cadences and yearning appoggiature. Emotive wide intervallic leaps often use string portamenti to aptly characterise the relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy, that of want, concealed feelings and constraints of class. Cathy marries the reason and stability of Edgar Linton and achieves a form of happiness, but longs for the volatility and untamed passion of Heathcliff, where their swirling theme can manifest itself fully.

Figure 1: The ‘Love Theme’ featured throughout Wuthering Heights

By contrast, Linton’s theme (see ‘Example 2’) is less erratic, in a lower register and has fewer registral extremes. It contains equal phrase lengths, smaller intervallic distances rather than wild leaps – perhaps connoting the reason and rationality of his character. The intervallic jump of a perfect fourth up in bar 1 and down in bar 2, are both filled by diatonic intervals. The instrumentation differs also; clarinets and other members of the woodwind section often play at least the first part of his theme, before strings take over for the second half shown in Figure 2 in the treble clef. The stable timbre of the clarinet at this register aids the depiction of Edgar Linton as a stable man devoid of the carnality and volatility found in Heathcliff. This motif ties in with Linton’s sensible nature, being the rational choice of a suitor for Cathy.

Figure 2: ‘Linton’s Theme’ showing smaller intervallic leaps and even phrase lengths

Scene 1: Cathy’s Pursuit – 44:20-45:50

A stinger begins this scene. Stingers are a common feature of film music, defined by Gorbman (1987, p. 88) as “a musical sforzando used to illustrate sudden dramatic tension”.  It punctuates the moment of Cathy’s move to action, to chase Heathcliff and bring him back. The stinger begins this musical cue and helps create the sudden alteration from tension to action. Jagged, non-diatonic leaps in the strings at a high register along with a dissonant brass accompaniment help create a visceral image of musical and emotional abandon. When Cathy steps outside, a swirling countermelody appears in the violas, emphasising the on-screen wind and rain. A distorted, minor version of the ‘Love Theme’ is played with diminution before the major return of their theme. The theme is once again cut short, this time by another stinger – an orchestral crash – to enhance the thunder. This happens when Cathy breaks away from her servants to pursue Heathcliff. The chromatic strings and prevalent brass are heard during Cathy’s pursuit, first heard in the overture to this film. This time, however, the music does not give way to the ‘Love Theme’ as it does during the overture, but instead the harmony changes, and the music slows and descends. The last throes of Cathy’s energy are depicted through a chromatic alteration and diminution of the ‘Love Theme’. The cellos and double basses take over from the orchestra and are descending, as Cathy tires and finally collapses.

The passionate emotion emphasised by pathetic fallacy during the violent storm is depicted by Newman in a typical, albeit subjectively powerful, fashion. Gorbman (1987, p. 153) outlines a common usage of classical film music, “scenes of rapid action or dramatic tension are paralleled by appropriately fast and tense music”. This typicality may in part stem from common practice of the theatrical melodrama in the nineteenth-century. Pisani (2014) outlines some common aspects of the nineteenth-century melodrama, “the lingua franca of pizzicatos, hurries, and surprise chords … were never entirely abandoned in play production, both professional and amateur” (p. 563). This treatment of action or suspense has a long history which film music, particularly in the ‘Golden age of Hollywood’, continued. Its functionality is noted by Kramer (2014, p. 353) where he outlines the corporeality of film music, it can “give the image a body” by the medium of the listener’s body acting as a “vibratory depth”. Intense music, therefore, can reduce social constraint from the listener’s body, it can induce “the free and even reckless overflow of energy and desire, up to and including gross carnality and the flouting of social order” (p. 357). This is the desired effect of the music on the audience during Cathy’s chase for Heathcliff, Cathy is overwhelmed by remorse for uttering the words which would result in Heathcliff’s departure, “it would degrade me to marry him” (Wyler, 1939, 43:57). Nature echoes the intensity of her feeling; but in so doing, creates an elemental barrier between her and the one she loves.

Scene 2: Mozart at the Ball – 1:08:42-1:10:14

At the Linton ball, there is a ‘musical intermission’ where attendees of the party sit and listen to the third movement of Mozart’s Keyboard Sonata K.331, the famous ‘Rondo Alla Turca’. This diegetic interlude serves many purposes. It serves to create immersion; you are within that room, part of the audience, you are as much of a spectator as they are. Classical music’s presence within the film may also serve to “establish the cultural legitimacy of cinema itself” (Meyer, 2012, p. 101). Herbert Stothart (1938, p. 139) believed that classical music’s involvement in cinema allowed the public to benefit “by the greatest works of the greatest composers, woven into the drama of the screen and giving it new effectiveness, while the drama itself is creating a new sense of music appreciation”. This musical feature also hearkens to the tradition of silent cinema, where classical pieces performed live in the cinema would serve as accompaniment to the picture (Beynon, 1921).

However, the music’s function in this scene is quite different as once more the music is itself not the focus, it is the image on screen. This musical interlude allows us to focus more closely on Heathcliff’s motives. As the music begins, we are shown a perspective of the harpsichord with Cathy in view. The camera angle shifts, that to being situated in Heathcliff’s perspective, Cathy is the centre of the screen, the centre of his focus. We are then shown the person’s gaze we inhabited, Heathcliff; his almost predatory gaze fixed and immovable. Cathy’s countenance changes as she sees Heathcliff and her inner turmoil plays out through her expression, accompanied with more obvious breathing. Her gaze shifts between her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton, to Heathcliff, whereas Heathcliff’s gaze is unbroken. Cathy deduces Heathcliff’s motives, the blocking depicts this, Isabella is literally and figuratively caught between Heathcliff and Cathy. The spell is then broken by the change of camera angle back to the harpsichord, and the piece finishes.

The music has a layered set of functions in this scene, it is not meant to represent the tensions between the protagonists – as film music written exclusively might do – but it serves to highlight them by its detachment from the narrative. Dialogue and background conversations cease, time seems to stop, and we are subjected to the gazes of the characters and all that that reveals.

Scene 3: Cathy’s Death – 1:28:16-1:36:41

Cathy’s death scene is the most tenderly scored in the entire of Wuthering Heights. It is dignified, sincere, and lacks the melodramatic surging of the ‘Love Theme’s’ previous iterations. The use of chamber groupings rather than full orchestral sections aptly depicts the frailty and vulnerability of Cathy. This is not a scene in which false emotions are displayed, we see the genuine nature of the protagonists, and the delicate music draws us in, creating unspoken dialogue.

Heathcliff enters Cathy’s room, apprehensive. The music illustrates both Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s heartbeats through pulsing cellos. The strings resolve onto a fragmented version of the ‘Love Theme’, notably, the expressive leap of an octave. The theme appears first in major then minor, the shifting modes perhaps illustrating Cathy’s battle for life and Heathcliff’s battle for Cathy. Or perhaps it depicts Heathcliff’s mixed emotions, joy at seeing Cathy, followed by his realisation of her ill state. When Cathy opens her eyes, the ‘Love Theme’ is played by a viola, accompanied by tremolo violins in a high register, highlighting the Cathy’s delicate Cathy’s state and her emotion at seeing Heathcliff before her. She looks away, thinking she is hallucinating, her gaze returns and confirms that he is indeed with her. This realisation is aided by the introduction of the cello, punctuating chords I to V, adding a warmer, reassuring timbre to the instrumentation. The music’s dynamic swells when they kiss. This is a climactic moment for protagonists and audience and is once more tastefully handled by Newman. The crescendo is not overt but is enough for the music to become noticeable by the audience, it is fused with colourful reharmonizations of the second half of the ‘Love Theme’.

An orchestral stinger punctuates the moment of Cathy dying in Heathcliff’s arms. This initiates a distant modulation with a mournful viola overseeing her death. To depict the religiosity of Cathy’s soul departing her body, Newman “imperceptibly” introduces a “wordless and distant chorus” (Cooke, 2008, p. 106). This serves to intensify the transcendental effect present within the scene and is a musical depiction of that which could not be visually created, Cathy’s soul. This “wordless” chorus became a recognisable characteristic of Newman’s music, despite it being most often “arranged by Ken Darby” (p. 106). Its effectiveness was amplified by its tasteful handling, being “sneaked in” at a soft dynamic. Cooke parallels this chorus with the beginning of the film, where the ethereal chorus is present as the ghost of Cathy calls through Lockwood’s bedroom window. This further confirms the role of the chorus in Wuthering Heights to connote the supernatural, and perhaps could be described as a leitmotif for Cathy’s soul.

The 1940 Academy Awards were fiercely competitive, other notable releases in 1939 were Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Newman’s score was nominated for ‘Best Music, Original Score’ but The Wizard of Oz won that category. Newman’s output was prolific, he scored “no fewer than 250 films” and was “the most honoured of Hollywood composers, winning nine Academy Awards” (Cooke, 2008, p. 104). He achieved success through marrying drama and music in a way which would translate emotion to the audience. He successfully navigated film music’s problematic nature and managed to transfer the “dramatic meaning of a scene … into the language of music” (Jackson, 2011, p. 122).


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By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.