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  • Writer's pictureEsther Bae

What Max Steiner Created For America's Timeless Classic 'Casablanca'

'Casablanca' is beloved movie that set a noble and inspiring standard at a time of crisis. The music became symbolic of the movie as well as the time. It has made a big impact on film music after it. I created the following Q&A to look into Max Steiner's secrets in 'Casablanca' score and the film itself.

1. What are some important points about the life of composer Max Steiner?

Steiner was a child prodigy who conducted his first operetta at twelve. He was the only child of a wealthy family of Jewish heritage that has theatrical background and worked on Broadway operettas and musicals prior to films scores. Steiner won 3 Academy Awards: The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager (1942), and Since You Went Away (1944). He also scored a number of iconic movies including King Kong (1933), Little Women (1933), Jezebel (1938), and Gone with the Wind (1939).

2. Was the music for this film well written and conceived?

Absolutely. I think the music perfectly conveys the mood that the film tries to deliver. It plays a major role in storytelling in terms of evoking patriotism, making connections between different times, and strengthening romance. The film has a lot of music in it, but there are just a few themes. We hear many variations of the themes throughout the entire film, which I think it worked very effectively.

3. Did the score use any leitmotif (thematic material) to relate to characters, emotions, or places?

All over the place. National Anthems are often heard to arouse national pride, some scores are to evoke certain cultures, and thematic songs are used to make romantic connections between characters and times. Most of the themes are emphasized in connection with certain characters and places. We know it’s Rick’s club when we hear a piano, and we know it’s Ferrari’s bar when middle eastern sounds are heard.

4. What and how did Steiner use national anthems?

Steiner uses both the French national anthem (La Marseillaise) and the German national anthem (Deutschlandlied) throughout the film, and they often battle with each other. The most obvious example would be Rick’s nightclub scene where the German police and the people sing against each other. It conveys a lot of feelings such as heroism and nostalgia. The two Anthems are often heard when there is a political action related to one nation or when it takes place in a symbolic place. When German announces that their army will march to Paris, we hear the German anthem in a very dark tone. When the film flashbacks to Paris where Rick and Ilsa spend time together, we hear a majestic tone of the French anthem. At the very end of the film where the German official was killed by Rick, the music plays the French anthem in a very victorious way with majestic sounding brass instruments.

5. Which scene from the film that is of particular interest to you and why?

Rick and Ilsa’s flashback. After Germans’ occupancy announcement, Ilsa gets very sad and Rick asks what Ilsa was doing 10 years ago. The music slowly plays As Time Goes by while the scene has canon sounds in the back. Strings play As Time Goes by in high register and makes a good contrast to the sound of war. Although Sam says to Rick that Germans are on the way to look for Rick, Sam doesn't seem to care and continues to comfort Ilsa. Then the strings play As Time Goes by once again but in a middle register with a more consonant tone. We still hear cannon’s roar, but their romance is highlighted in a beautiful way.

6. If you were the composer of this film, is there anything that you would do differently?

The film is packed with scores the entire time. Although most of the scores work beautifully with picture, I would have scored a little less for the beginning of the film in order to allow the audience to get the background of the film objectively. When the film starts and shows the situations in Casablanca, I feel the music stays longer than necessary. Rather than the very beginning, I cannot think of any score better than how it is.

7. Lastly, why do you think Casablanca has resonated on a very personal and deep level with many film enthusiasts for over seventy years?

The film is filled with humor, action, romance, suspense, nostalgia, danger and heroism...and lots of music. Along with all the universal themes, challenges in love and neutrality are the core of the sympathy. Each character or even a small element in the movie represents a different theme and place. The hero Rick becomes very cynical due to old wounds from Ilsa and political fights. He tries hard to stay neutral in his romantic relationship as well as in his political stance. However, he ends up sacrificing his own good once again. We also have another character who tries to be neutral, Renault. He seems to be a corrupt official who takes a neutral stance to political involvement, but we see his sincere heart at the end of the movie. On the other hand, Laszlo represents courage and fighting spirit. Ilsa and the ticket to America seem to represent love and dreams. We find all these characters related to ourselves and embrace hard times.



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