There’s a witty saying that in England the person is judged about by his/her surname. Well possible it’s an exaggeration, still if that rule was applicable to nowadays Germany, then the hero of our interview would be revered even without doing anything, just for his surname comprising particles Graf and von. Von already indicates noble descent, still there’s also Graf – noble title. However not his surname and the noble lineage made Stephan Graf von Bothmer famous and worthy of reverence but his talent of a musician.
Stephan is a virtuoso pianist, the graduate of Berlin University of Arts, but more importantly he’s a unique and incredible composer, who revives the silent cinematography. After attending his Silent film concert, it’s hard to believe that films ever existed without Stephan’s music. He was in Yerevan in mid May on invitation of German Embassy and performed his concert of 1928 silent film “Luther” in Aram Khachaturian’s museum. The evening was devoted to Martin Luther’s life and mission on 500th anniversary of his Ninety-five Theses that generated the German Reformation that gave birth to Protestant Church.
Still despite of all my respect towards the great historical figures and events, what really impressed and captivated me that evening was Stephan’s marvelous music composed for 120 min. long “Luther” film and his live play on royal piano escorting the film from first picture to last subtitle without even a second of interruption.
- Stephan, thank you very much for this opportunity and pleasure of talking to you. I’m still under the impression of your silent film concert; it seemed to me the rebirth or resurrection of that 1928 Luther film. So let me start from that point. How and when did it come to your mind to compose music for silent films?
- Frankly, it was just by an accident. Then I was still a student and a friend of mine once asked whether I could compose piece of music for a silent film. He intended to display an old silent film in a club and wished a musical piece - better if a new one - to be played live on piano during the film to make the entertainment fresh and livelier. It was in 1998 and the idea of live piano concert accompanying the show of a silent film seemed crazy.
The silent film he intended to show was an old Soviet film called “The New Babylon”. It was filmed in Russia in 1929 and one of the many compositions to the movie was made by Dmitri Shostakovich. The events in the film happen in 1870-ies, during the Paris commune. Probably the Soviet authorities thought the Paris commune of the late 19th century may somehow be linked to communism in Russia, so the film bore an ideological emphasis but the Shostakovich music undercut it. He proposed a critical interpretation by intersecting the Marseillaise dissonances for example.
Still our concert was in the end of 20th century, in Germany. And the artistic debate about communism was really not my first concern. Yet the story of the movie is about a girl who works on a farm and loves a boy, who is a soldier. She and her friends engage with revolution, trying to create a new fair and equal world. But the king sends his army. Now the soldier has to fight against his own girlfriend. The army wins the fight (this is historic) and all revolutionaries get sentenced to death. In the end he has do dig the grave for his girlfriend. It is a tragic story at maximum. My music was linking to his personal tragedy other than Shostakovich, who was linking his music to the proposal of equality and fraternalism.
- This is how it came to your mind to compose music for the silent films… interesting. I guess the effort was successful.
- Yes, it was. But interestingly that first performance was in an outdoor venue and I never forget that piano, on which I first introduced my newly written music for “The New Babylon” film. That was not a good piano, not a bad piano, but “not a piano” at all. The instrument was awful, the performance was in outdoors, there was some raining, but despite of all unfavorable circumstances, the people had liked the experiment, many people approached me and congratulated and told that they loved my version even more than the Shostakovich film music. So it was then that I realized that it’s possible to give a new interpretation and sometimes even new life and meaning to silent film by composing new music for it.
- So you created a new style of art and concert. I can’t call it entertainment, but really art, because that convergence of the motion picture running on screen, the play on piano interpreting the film – underlining right every move, touch and view on screen it’s an unimaginable Renaissance of silent cinematography.
- Thank you. Yes, many people around the world liked my “Silent music concerts”, as I call it. By the time I developed a repertoire selecting silent films and composing new music for them. And in 2004 I rented a hall in Berlin and started to perform this Silent film concerts. Interestingly before my first concert I phoned the editors of a respectable media outlet that cover the arts and music and are influential in that field and invited them to that first concert, but they didn’t sound enthusiastic; “Oh, silent film, who may be interested in that…”. However I performed that first concert and I had already five times as much audience as usual, then the second one that attracted more attendees, then the third, fourth concert, already on regular basis, and these concerts turned into favorite entertainment, attracted large publics and passed in full halls. This went on till 2004/05. By now that very newspaper has written more than 30 articles about me. Once I was at the cover!
- As much as I know the history of classical music and life of musicians it rarely happens that the critics or journalists recognize or realize the value of any new style. Enough to recall how Wagner was initially treated for efforts to reshape the structure of opera. So it’s an old and often repeated story. Stephan, but is it true that you‘ve already composed music for some 800 silent films?
- Yes, it’s true… nearly 850.
- How is it possible? Are you Beethoven?
- Oh, no it’s film music it’s not that deep and serious.
- I’ve heard just one your composition for the “Luther” film and may assure it’s not only deep, but incredibly beautiful and powerful. And something more - you’ve resurrected that film. I’m not a great fan of cinematography and used to perceive the silent films as something short, funny, produced for commercial purposes. Still thanks to your concert I discovered that the silent cinematography had produced also impressively serious and valuable pieces of art. How did you come to the Luther film?
- Actually first I came across the film some 10-15 years ago, but at that time it didn’t attract me, because the film was in very bad condition with all dark pictures (because the tape was very dirty), many scenes were missing or in wrong order. Then close to this Reformation 500th jubilee, the German National Film Archive initiated the restoration and reconstruction of the “Luther” originally made in 1928.
But cinematography isn’t considered high art in Germany, at least not by the government. So the project ran out of money and out of support. I knew the movie by then and its enormous artistic potential. So I told “I’ll organize a big premiere for the newly reconstructed film on January 14th. I’ll compose the music and pay for the whole show, but you have to finish the movie.” And they did. The reconstruction was completed three days before the premiere. These were some of the most awful eight month I ever had, it cost me 10.000 Euro. But it turned out to be a great success. And now we have this wonderful movie, and everybody can show it and watch it.
The restoration of Luther film was a real struggle, and just the devotion and the enthusiasm of all the people engaged with it – especially the staff of German National Film Archive made that possible.
- Anyway thankfully it was done and the film and music are really marvelous. Stephan endless thanks for the interview, and especially for your music. I wish you true inspirations and plenty of great creations ahead. Thank you.