The Intolerance Project

Table of Contents

1. Research Perspectives

Silent film has always been an area of interest from a composer’s point of view. Given the fact that the film has no sound puts the composer into a different perspective of writing music. Composition and instrumentation has fewer restrictions therefore the imagination of writing could be virtually limitless. As Larsen (2007) states:

"The music of the silent films is not film music in the modern sense – it is cinema music; and external addition to the moving pictures, part of the total performance more than part of the film and its narrative" (p.26).


In the beginning of my research studies, I had the chance of watching and observing a number of films in the Hollywood silent era. I was always intrigued by movies like Metropolis, A Trip to the Moon, Nosferatu et al. The film which I found to be most motivating in view of the plot, production and most importantly music and ethnography was Intolerance by D.W. Griffith. Intolerance is a movie divided into four separate stories; the modern story set in California (A.D. 1914), the Judean story set in Judea (A.D. 27) the French story set in Paris (A.D. 1572)  and the Babylonian story set in ancient Babylonia (539 B.C.). Ancient Babylonia has been chosen for this specific research as it was the most compatible set in order to start experimenting with music based on the traditions and instruments of the particular region and time. Middle Eastern scales and instrumentation has always been an interesting personal subject in view of their history and overall aesthetic.

Furthermore, I have always had the feeling that something is missing from the scores of many different Hollywood films in the silent era and across the greater spectrum of Hollywood productions throughout time. The sense of repetition was always present, in a certain degree, and as musicologist, film and TV composer Fred Steiner (citied in Rosar, 2002) observed “the changes in film music style are somehow superficial resulting in new wine in old bottles” (p.4).  

Authenticity was a key element which I felt the need of investigating, constructing and demonstrating in this practical research. In his discussion considering film music Aaron Copland states that purpose of music is to "create a more convincing atmosphere of time and place” (as cited in Prendergast, 1990). Queries of comparing contrasting and blending instruments and sounds inspired my seek for cultural diversity and genuineness. Researching relevant literature and discovering opinions that agreed with my argument of what is ethnic in film music “is what Hollywood has made ethnic” (Goldsmith citied in Kassabian, 2001) increased my appetite for further investigation and practical experimentation. Consequently Intolerance became the center of my project, my primary source of writing music and exploring the possibilities of presenting a diverse aesthetic experience.   

The original score for Intolerance was written by Joseph Carl Breil, one of the earliest American composers in the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, the remaining scores kept by the New York’s Museum of Modern Art were only used in the film’s reconstruction in 1989 with the collaboration of Gillian Anderson, a musicologist and conductor who worked in the music department of the Library of Congress, and Peter Williamson who was the museum’s film curator. Anderson describes the score transcripts condition as ‘very brittle; the paper quality was bad. It wasn't meant to last, it was meant to be used and thrown away’ (citied in Harrison, 1989).

The generation of the new score was assigned to Carl Davis, who used what was left from the original transcripts of J.C. Breil in combination with his own original music. Until this day Davis’ score of Intolerance consider to be the most successful in both terms of authenticity and immersion. A quite interesting article from the Washington Post’s archives (dated back to 1989) considering the reconstruction of Intolerance can be found here:


This official reconstructive version is going to be used in this research as a basis to the analysis, comparative process and original compositional presentation that will follow. Below is a link demonstrating Carl Davis approach to Intolerance:


Other than J.C. Breil and Carl Davis’ there are two more published works of composers in Intolerance. The most widely known version is that of the composer Gaylord Carter who wrote a score for the pipe organ:


The second version published was composed by Joseph Turrin and contains a synth orchestral score:


2. Preliminary Compositional Survey

Comparative analysis in a number of different films was the next step in order to obtain a spherical view from the silent film era to the rest of the 20th century. This particular subject has its meaning in observing other people’s work and drawing a map of characteristics demonstrating their similarities and variations whilst preserving the same initial angle of ethnic elements and exoticism in general.

Furthermore I felt the necessity of choosing certain segments on a number of films and examine them in depth considering their semiotic process together with a presentation of appropriate tables and video examples. In this way there could be a direct comparison with the segments of Intolerance chosen specifically for demonstrating the initial argument of ethnic authenticity and experimentation. According to Stevens (2006) ‘No composer has ever achieved complete freedom of expression without first learning to control the progression and development of his work so that it will sound effectively within prescribed limits. Film scoring provides this discipline in its most demanding form’.


Starting from a time period of the early 1900 until the mid-60’s the following set of motion pictures was used as a primal introduction to the analysis:


Film Trailer

Video Scene

The Birth of a Nation (1915) - Music by Joseph Carl Breil

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) - Music by Mortimer Wilson

Film Trailer

The King of Kings (1927) - Music by Hugo Riesenfeld / Josiah Zuro

Video Scene

Film Trailer

Napoleon (1927) - Music by Arthur Honegger

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) - Music by Miklós Rózsa

Rome Open City (1945) - Music by Renzo Rosellini

Video Scene

Film Trailer

Video Scene

Film Trailer

Video Scene

Film Trailer

Video Scene

The African Queen (1951) - Music by Allan Gray

Film Trailer

Video Scene

Gengis Khan (1965) - Music by Dušan Radić

Movie Trailer

Video Scene

After watching these films and paying attention to the compositional structure certain key elements were noted and presented in the table below:

An interesting point is that music scores, moving through time, begin to fade away from classical harmony structure and overall use of orchestra introducing a greater variety of textures, dissonance, and the use of vocals /choir.

Additionally, instrumentational complexity together with specific leitmotifs for scenes and characters seem to be less apparent as music for films evolves. Instead, patterns take place using the classical orchestra closer in creating certain effects and building an overall atmosphere inside the movie. In his discussion considering tonality and the Hollywood scoring practice through the 20th century Lehman (2012) states that ‘other differences include; a greater tolerance for repetition or thematic inactivity (or, indeed, athematicism); relative contrapuntal and orchestrational simplicity’.  

The use of ethnic instruments, and furthermore experimentation in view of exoticism, seems to be absent or rarely used, in terms of mimicking instruments as well, in combination with the classic orchestra. Though it is worth noted that in some cases composers make use of certain eastern scales but this is an exception to the rule. Also rhythmic patterns seem to be specific, with no major alternation or introduction of ethnic percussion.


After spectating Intolerance and drawing the film’s timeline (see table.1) the first two clips were chosen based on the inspiration and the controversy that re-arranged music could produce. Clip 1 begins with the title ‘Cyrus moves upon Babylon’ and describes the marching of Cyrus’ army towards the Babylonian king Belshazzar. Clip 2 has the title ‘The Feast of Belshazzar’ and is set on the great feast in Belshazzar’s palace. Below you can watch those two clips with the original music of Carl Davis:

Intolerance Clip 1 - Cyrus moves ypon Babylon

Intolerance Clip 2 - The Feast of Belshazzar


Clip 1 - ' Cyrus moves ypon Babylon '

These two video clips of 'Intolerance' offered the opportunity to examine more closely the harmonic movement and the overall aesthetic of music, always in conjunction with the visual progression. In order to compare and contrast with other film composers’ stylistic approaches the next logical step was to separate the scenes into smaller parts based on the characters and overall plot development of the visual. Therefore, clip 1 (‘Cyrus moves upon Babylon’) was divided into three smaller sections:


  • Scene 1 – Duration 22 seconds (0:00:00 – 0:00:22)

This is the opening scene of this film’s chapter, starting with the book title, signifying the beginning of a military attack.


  • Scene 2 – Duration 14 seconds (0:00:22 – 0:00:36)

This scene demonstrates the following of Cyrus’ orders and the preparation of his army going to attack the Babylonian king Belshazzar.


  • Scene 3 – Duration 46 seconds (0:00:36 – 0:01:22 / end of clip 1)

The last scene starts with the presentation of the other side, King Belshazzar and his preparation for defense against Cyrus’ attack, as the title suggests. This is a more contradictory and dramatic scene showing Belshazzar’s emotional state of having to leave his beloved queen in order to go and defend his city. It demonstrates his inner struggle between emotion and responsibility.



In this clip the main instruments used for building up the tension in Carl Davis’ score is woodwinds, brass and percussion. The music begins with woodwinds and high brass phrases (fast notes passage to describe the book page flipping), followed by the introduction of lower brass (French horns, trombones) and dynamics variation from piano to forte especially noted in the trumpets and tremolo strings. Strings also play the role of connecting this scene with the next one by adding the note C, the 7th chord of D major in order to resolve into the next scene which begins in G minor.

Scenes from other films were examined and presented further on in an attempt to discover other composers’ stylistic approaches. These are:


  1. The Ten Commandments (1956 – Music by Elmer Bernstein)

  2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962 – Music by Maurice Jarre)

  3. The Mummy (1999 - usic by Jerry Goldsmith)

  4. 300 (2006 - Music by Tyler Bates)


A general map of the video analysis that will take place can be seen from the table below:


Starting with the Ten Commandments the part of the film that was found to be based on a similar foundation as scene 1 from Intolerance is the following:

Scene 1

In the case of the Ten Commandments one can observe a more simplistic arrangement approach. Minimalistic orchestration with trumpets, and horns supporting them, are performing a theme introducing the character and creating a dynamic sense of superiority. One observation could well be that since the plot is different, the specific motif is more simplistic and close to what it could be in reality in terms of the scene’s realism (not examined in musicological terms nor in terms of sound authenticity).

Additionally, if someone pays specific attention in the scene’s characters can observe that the specific cue is balancing between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Music is synchronized with one guard holding a brass instrument although the film could imply that others are off the camera's perspective, even though they do not appear further on while the music is continuing and the camera angle is wider covering almost all the characters.     



To a certain extent, a different approach was observed in the film Lawrence of Arabia:




Though one could argue that this edited video clip would be better suited in combination with the next Intolerance scene because of its visual aspect (Scene 2), instead it was used here purely for describing a different approach to a somewhat compatible section development. Maurice Jarre’s approach here contains more string elements and phrases that reach and demonstrate the unknown, the camel's march  in the chaotic desert in conjunction with the camera’s wider/distant angle. Moreover, one could argue that the overall atmosphere of the score contributes greatly in the geolocation the film is based by listening to the more dissonant structure in combination with the exotic scales that the string instruments have been scored.



Moving forward in time, the next example comes from Tyler Bates’ score of the 300 film (2006):




In this example the composer is using a similar approach as the one observed in ‘Intolerance’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’ by making use of the brass instruments in order to build a certain climax. The scene begins with a diegetic sound of a low wind ethnic instrument (possibly digideroo) which signifies the beginning of the attack. What is also worth noted is the use of vocal choir, an element which was radically became to be apparent in the evolution of epic war films in the Hollywood cinema. Nevertheless, there seems to be no sense of authenticity (other than the ethnic woodwind instrument) considering the time and place of the film.       

Moving into the next scene of Intolerance (Scene 2), the first aspect that can be noted is the introduction of a new theme performed by low brass instruments (trombones and tubas) in conjunction with a slow pace rhythmic structure supported by the timpani. The overall compositional procedure attempts to focus on the main theme by leaving certain space in the audio spectrum without enabling other instruments to involve. One could argue that this is the main reason why the composer has chosen not to use instruments like orchestral strings or woodwinds.


 A first similar example was taken again from a segment of the film ‘The Ten Commandments’:




This example follows the same pattern as the one used in scene 1, only this time as the music develops one can detect the introduction of more instruments, thematic changes and blending of half played exotic scales. As it progresses the change is more apparent from being diegetic to non-diegetic. Also one could notice the rhythmic structure scored for high pitched strings and woodwinds in order to unite with the films movement (horse and carriages).




Moving forward, the next example was drawn from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’:





What is common here with the above, and with the Intolerance clip (Scene 2) as well, is the apparent use of rhythmic structure. Maurice Jarre following a more exotic approach throughout the entire film distinguishes here from the rest by using a combination of the classical orchestra timpani together with high pitched percussion like toms, bongos and tambourine. Though the rhythmic synthesis is not based on something exotic like the Arabic ciftitelli (shiftaatellii), maqsuum, zaffah et cetera, the sound of these instruments are quite close in implementing the desired ethnic touch; after all these specific percussions have a lot common roots found in several different geolocations through time but their use was commonly found in the middle eastern traditions. What is also common with the music in ‘The Ten Commandments’ is the re-introduction of the main theme and the buildup of the entire arrangement on it.  

Scene 2

The last example was taken again from the film ‘300’:





Again, here one can observe that the main thematic lines have been scored for the vocal choir. Simplistic structure followed by low percussion (timpani, low toms) and low tempo rhythmic structure (also in Intolerance scene 2) contribute in building a dramatic atmosphere, and create a sense of anxiety and expectation to the audience.




In the third and last scene of ‘Intolerance’ (Scene 3) Carl Davis’ intention is to keep the uniformity of the previous structure without implementing new elements or stopping the ones before, like the percussion rhythmic structure. Instead he decides to reinstate the woodwinds and give them the central role as the picture dictates a more delicate approach based on the characters' emotional state. Overall tension is lowered here, moving from the previous low brass dynamic theme into the subtler instrumentation in woodwinds. The preservation of the same rhythmic structure contributes in the continuity of the film’s plot; there is war ahead and the Babylonian king must stand in his place and execute his duties.


As a first example, a video segment has been chosen from the film ‘The Ten Commandments’:



In this example Elmer Bernstein is using a quite characteristic approach in describing this emotional scene. Instead of using a rhythmic structure, like in ‘Intolerance’, to imply the overall dramatic sense of slavery and war, he uses the orchestral strings in order to achieve a more sentimental ‘Hollywood' moment of two people that used to be in love. Therefore, the legato violins are moving continuously performing with a distinctive expressivity contributing in the scene’s romance. Music scales that have been used here have an idiosyncratic connection with the western harmony and no attempts have been noticed in order to move towards a different direction or blend the element of exoticism.





The second example comes from the movie (in mini-series) Jesus of Nazareth:



Maurice Jarre composed an emblematic score for the ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ with aspects of great experimentation based on the location and thematic content of the film. In the specific scene he makes use of orchestral strings moving in a dramatic motif. This minimalistic approach enhances the scene and makes room for the viewer to focus more on the dialogue between the two characters. Pure use of western harmony can be found here emphasizing in the use of minor thirds.     



Further on the last example for this scene (scene 3) comes from the film ‘The Mummy’ scored by Jerry Goldsmith:


Again in this situation one can observe the protagonist role of strings. Followed by a more grandeur arrangement the orchestral strings signify and reinforce the scene’s dramatic atmosphere. At this example the harmony behind the performance indicate the exoticism based on the geolocation and time the film is based on. In terms of performance and arrangement there is no ethnic instrument which supports or enhances the previous statement.         

Scene 3

Clip 2 - ' The Feast of Belshazzar '

The second clip chosen for comparative analysis was divided in four sections:


  • Scene 1 – Duration 1:19 minutes (0:00:00 – 0:01:19)

This is the opening scene of this film’s chapter, starting with the introduction of a great feast in the Babylonian palace. It demonstrates King Belshazzar’s gloriousness by celebrating Babylon’s victory.


  • Scene 2 – Duration 21 seconds (0:01:20 – 0:01:41)

This scene illustrates the king’s and princess’s marching towards the center of the feast. It is a ceremonial moment implied also by the raised left hand of the king.


  • Scene 3 – Duration 46 seconds (0:01:42 – 0:01:51)

The soldier / guard in this scene is fondling a white bird signifying peacefulness. During the last seconds of the scene the guard straightens his body while his king is approaching.


  • Scene 4 – Duration 56 seconds (0:01:52 – 0:02:15 / end of clip 2)

The last scene is similar with the first; camera is moving towards the center of the feast, where the king and the princess are. It is an immersive scene which concludes the ceremonial celebration.

Once again scenes from other films were examined and presented further on. These are:

  1. The Ten Commandments (1956 – Music by Elmer Bernstein)

  2. Spartacus (1960 – Music by Alex North)

  3. Star Wars IV : A New Hope (1977 - Music by John Williams)

  4. Star Wars VI : Return of the Jedi (1983 - Music by John Williams)

  5. The Lord of the Rings : The Return of the King (2003 – Music by Howard Shore)


A general map of the video analysis that will take place for this scene can be seen from the table below:

In this clip Carl Davis is building the arrangement around a certain theme scored for the violins. Gloriousness is described here with full orchestra instrumentation. Rhythmic structure has been built by using the timpani and low brass playing eighth notes sharing relevance with certain compositional approaches like the one found in ‘Pops and circumstance’ by Sir Edward Elgar (see video link below – starting from 1:51). High woodwinds and harp in conjunction with the solo violin are also used when needed according to the visual. The scene before the king's and princess's appearance (A golden moment for Belshazzar and the princess beloved) in combination with the soldier and the white pigeon suggests a more romantic approach. In this way the composer reflects a dreamier atmosphere of pureness and peacefulness.       

‘Pops and circumstance’ by Sir Edward Elgar
Scene 1

As a first comparative example of scene 1, the following video clip from the film ‘The Ten Commandments’ has been selected and presented below:




In this example Elmer Bernstein’s score has been used to demonstrate Moses’ arrival in the palace returning from a successful conquer. One can observe the composer’s minimal approach by using only a rhythmic structure describing the character’s movement towards the king. It is worth mentioning that the stylistic approach in this case is quite exotic considering the use of the tambourine and timpani contributing in the overall exotic atmosphere in the palace. In the scene’s end, where Moses approaches the king of Egypt there is a classic music motif of trumpets playing 5th notes, waver between diegetic and non-diegetic sound.           



A second example has been used from the film ‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope’:



In this example John Williams’ score embodies the heroic award ceremony celebrating the alliance’s victory and preserving peace. The compositional approach is presented by a rather dynamic theme; French horns are starting to build up the structure and viewer’s expectation for the scene, followed by the trumpets performing the main thematic session.




As a first example of comparing ‘Intolerance’ scene 2, a scene has been chosen once more from the film ‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope' :




This is basically the continuation of the previous scene's example. It was used separately here, and always in comparison with ‘Intolerance scene 2’ in order to demonstrate a more personal and emotional moment. When the camera’s angle changes and captures the interaction between the three characters (Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and Princess Leia), the music changes from being heroic (use of brass) into more sentimental and ‘personal’ by using the orchestral strings implying the characters’ association. Also rhythmic structure has not been changed, since it is a heroic moment after all, and instruments are being added (dynamics going from piano to forte) as the arrangement builds up so it can reaches to a certain peak moment at the scene’s end (applause).

A similar process has also been found in the film “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’:



In this example, Howard Shore is using and developing the main theme in the movie used for describing Hobbits and the Shire. It is an emotional scene where the composer is using romantic allegro strings in order to describe the king’s bowing, and the rest of people gathered, in relationship with the four Hobbits and especially Frodo since the camera is zooming in presenting his facial expression.  



Moving into the next scene (Scene 3) the following example has been taken from the movie ‘Spartacus’:



As with the ‘Intolerance’ scene 3, one can observe the noticeable minimal orchestration in order to describe nostalgia for peace and humanity. Elmer Bernstein is using the harp and oboe to accompany the character’s poetic scene. What is also interesting is the movement between major and minor chords with the aim of contrasting romanticism and war tragedy.



An additional example can be found in the film ‘Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi’:




In this example John Williams keeps the background festive score and adds romanticism with the use of strings and vocal choir. Sentiment is being described in this situation with a grander orchestral arrangement, as it is best suited to the scene (reaching the end of the film). The harmony is again moving between major and minor chords as in this way describes better the character’s mixed emotional state (Luke Skywalker).    


Considering the fourth and last edited scene from ‘Intolerance’ the following example from the film ‘Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ has been used for research comparative purposes:



In this example, and as the film reaches it's ending, the sense of romanticism is described through scoring a legato expressive theme for the orchestral strings. It is worth noted that the movement between 4th and 5th major chords contributes in the unexpected and pleasing emotion of the king’s character base on the plot (Arwen is alive). The music therefore, as well as the picture, concentrates on these two characters’ love scene.   

Scene 2
Scene 3
Scene 4
Supplementary Audio-Visual Research

Additionally, and in order to start writing film music with ethnic elements from the specific region and time, there was a need for researching a number of music examples that would provide me with a cornerstone of the overall compositional aesthetic. Furthermore, it would also enrich my knowledge of how particular ethnic instruments are being performed in real life, an aspect which in my opinion is crucial in understanding music itself and master the art of orchestration.

Examples of the audio/visual material that was used for this purpose, and will be discussed further on, is presented below:

'Ancient Mesopotamian Music - Babylon' (Music by Derek & Brandon Fiechter)
'The Oldest Known Melody (Hurrian Hymn no.6 - c.1400 B.C.) ' (Music by Michael Levy)
'Music of the Ancient World - Sumerian Music V' 
'Echoes of Ancient Mesopotamia / Canaan - _The Lyre of Megiddo'
'Ancient Visions - New Compositions For An Ancient Lyre' (Music by Michael Levy)
'Ancient Babylonian Music Played on Replica 3000 Year Old Lyre' (Music by Michael Levy)
'Hurrian Hymn  - Ancient Mesopotamian Musical Fragment c1400BCE'
'Echoes from Ugarit: Oldest Melody in History' 
(example of ethnic melody in classical orchestra arrangement) 

As a first comment of the above examples one can observe the simplicity in terms of harmonic structure. Especially in the above compositions for the ancient lyre there is a significant tendency in the poetic substance of music.

Supplementary to the above, there is a clear presentation of themes which emphasizes the similitude between music compositions and songs/hymns. This observation resembles the scoring approach of Alex North in the film ‘Spartacus’ in certain parts such as the poetic scene demonstrated previously.


Additionally, the use of lute (also known as oud or in ancient Egypt) has been found to make a significant contribution not only as a soloist instrument but also in terms of rhythmic structure. It is worth mentioning that the lute, and its constructive variations, was a very important and frequently used instrument in almost every middle-eastern tradition. In his discussion considering the musical traditions in Ancient Egypt Kolyada (2009, p.146) states:

 “Lutes had indeed once been very popular in Ancient Egypt (from the eighteenth dynasty on) and occupied a prestigious position in the instrumental hierarchy. This is obvious even from its name; in ancient Egyptian also means “beauty”, “good”, “nice”.


What is also worth mentioning is the importance of lute as an accompaniment instrument for vocal soloists. Its distinctive and transformational sound, in terms of performance, was found to be most appropriate in several occasions. An interesting quote, demonstrating the above argument, is presented in Ribera’s research considering the music in Ancient Arabia and Spain:


“Its rhythmic vibrations, sweet, smooth, and mysterious, permitted various shadings according to whether the strings were plucked with the ball of the finger, or with a plectrum, or with or without a tremolo in the fretting. All these qualities made it the irreplaceable companion for the human voice in intimate concerts of chamber music of chamber music. The lute, moreover, could be easily manipulated by the singer himself, marking not only the rhythm, but also the harmony, without drowning the voice, with which it could never compete, although it sometimes imitated it in the gracile smoothness of its tone” (2014, p.189).



© 2016 by Evangelos Chouvardas

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