Thematic Transformation in Korngold’s Robin Hood

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Erich Korngold’s music for the The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) remains one of his most admired and enduring film scores. Indeed, the score was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Score and is one of the best examples of music written in the style of the studio era of the 1930s and 40s, or what is known as the Classical Hollywood era.

In large part, the filmmaking style of Classical Hollywood revolved around coordinating the filmic elements to present the narrative with as much clarity as possible. Film scores of the era aided in this goal through such techniques as leitmotifs (themes, especially for the principal characters), sudden loud chords at intense moments (known as “stingers”), and musical imitations of physical gestures onscreen (called “Mickey Mousing” for obvious reasons).

The leitmotif technique, however, does not consist merely of sounding the same form of a theme each time a character appears onscreen. On the contrary, over the course of a film, most leitmotifs undergo some kind of variation in order to reflect physical, psychological, or emotional changes of a character at various points in the narrative. When applied to places and objects, the variations might suggest a character’s reaction to the place or object, or may simply be a guide as to how the viewer ought to interpret a scene. This process, called thematic transformation, is an important part of how film music is used and certainly applies to Korngold’s Robin Hood, as shown in the following film music analysis of two of its most prominent leitmotifs, those for the Merry Men and Robin himself.

The Merry Men’s Leitmotif

Initial Form

This is the leitmotif we hear at the very start of the film over the main titles. Its setting as a march aptly depicts the military prowess of the merry men, and yet its jaunty major key simultaneously reflects the men’s cheerful spirit and depiction as the “good guys”.

Here it is in the main titles (up to 0:56):

Waltz

While this form of the leitmotif returns in the film when the men ambush Sir Guy and his party in Sherwood Forest, it is also subjected to some transformations. For example, when the men are preparing a grand feast on the spoils of the ambush, we now hear the Merry Men’s leitmotif in triple time as the introduction to a graceful waltz that suggests the celebratory atmosphere of the event:
 

Disguise

Later, the men approach Nottingham Castle disguised as the entourage of the Bishop of the Black Canons, who has been coerced into following Robin’s plan. Here, the Merry Men leitmotif appears in a threatening minor key to suggest the situation’s potential danger to the men. The leitmotif is also supported by the fifth note of the scale (the dominant) instead of the first note (the tonic) as it was at the film’s opening. This subtle change adds a sense of anticipation to the scene as dominants usually suggest that a resolution to the tonic is nearing with every passing beat. Hear these changes below:

Once the men are about to enter the castle’s interior, we hear the leitmotif once more in a minor key, but with yet another change: the melody is now pared down to a mere outline of the Merry Men tune. While it remains recognizable, its relationship to the original tune is somewhat hidden, just as the Merry Men themselves are in disguise in the scene. Hear this in the above clip from 1:53.

Robin’s Leitmotif

Initial Form

This theme undergoes several transformations throughout the film. The first time we hear it, it accompanies a close-up of Robin’s face, clearly associating that character with the music, as is typical of Classical Hollywood scores. Here is that version of the theme:
 

Heroic/Danger

When Robin first enters the castle, he is carrying on his shoulders a dead deer he took the blame for killing in order to save Much from being arrested by Sir Guy. Robin enters the room brazenly, knocking down two guards with the deer and leisurely sauntering in. At the same time, the situation is full of danger as he is completely surrounded by his enemies. This mixture of confidence and peril is indicated musically through the leitmotif’s militaristic opening figure (a rising fourth, suggesting something powerful) and through the unusual string of three chords that follows the figure (chromatic chords, suggesting the danger and precariousness of the situation), which are also given a confident, sure-footed rhythm. Here is that version of the theme:
 

Romantic Longing

Later in the film, as Robin and Marian develop their love for each other, Robin secretly scales the wall of the castle to Marian’s chamber to meet her and declare his love. As this scene begins, we hear Robin’s theme, but this time it is divested of its heroic quality. Instead we hear it played softly and lyrically in the strings, which lends it a romantic sound. Even more prominently, the harmony of the theme has now been transformed into a single chord, one that is much more dissonant than the heroic chords we heard before. This dissonant chord is called a half-diminished seventh chord and it’s one that became famous with the opening of the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Because the chord has a mysterious quality and yet still requires some kind of resolution to its dissonance, it is a fitting musical symbol of Tristan and Isolde’s infinite yearning in their ill-fated romantic love. Here is the opening of the Tristan prelude, the half-diminished seventh chord entering at 0:10:

Now hear the same chord (though transposed) in Robin’s theme at the start of the love scene:

With the Tristan prelude as a conceptual backdrop, it becomes clear that the transformation of Robin’s theme indicates his romantic longing to be with Marian even in the face of great danger.

Triumph

A final transformation of Robin’s leitmotif occurs at the very end of the film, when Robin and the Merry Men have returned King Richard to the throne, been granted pardons from their accused crimes, and when Richard permits Robin and Marian to marry. For these triumphant events, Korngold scores Robin’s theme in the strings as in the love scene, emphasizing the romance of Robin and Marian in its new-found freedom. Korngold also uses mainly major and minor chords within a single key rather than the dissonant half-diminished seventh, suggesting the stability of the situation with Richard once again as king. As the film winds down to its close, and the crowd cheers Robin and Marian as they leave the room, we hear this same version of Robin’s theme but with the brass instruments added as a final gesture of triumph.

Thus, far from merely signalling the Merry Men’s and Robin’s presence onscreen, these two leitmotifs follow the characters through their adventures, mirroring their physical and emotional states through the process of thematic transformation.

Coming soon… Thematic Transformation in ­Ben-Hur

11 thoughts on “Thematic Transformation in Korngold’s Robin Hood”

  1. It’s a terrific score isn’t it!! Thanks for the great discussion. I always thought thematic transformation was part of the DNA of music of the romantic period in general (as opposed to motivic development in the ‘classical era’). I guess this style of music suits film because of its potential to transform, as you’ve suggested, ideas relating to character and plot. I wonder, though, how sophisticated audiences are and how much they understood (and continue to understand) the relationship of the music to the film. For it to have mass appeal it must be stripped of complexity and the Korngold certainly has a more simplified quality than, say, the music of Bernard Herrmann (to name one).

    Cheers!

    1. Hi Sue – you raise a good point. How much of film music’s meaning do audiences perceive? It depends on a lot of factors, but I think that music is something whose meaning can be felt even if we don’t understand why. That’s part of what makes music so deeply effective yet often inexplicable. And in many ways, the narrative helps us understand the music as much as the music helps us understand the narrative. So the statement of a theme, for example, comes across much more clearly when it is associated with something in the narrative. And even then, it can be veiled and go unnoticed, at least by our conscious mind. Then there are those statements of leitmotifs that seem incongruous with their previous meaning. Marian’s motif in Robin Hood, for example – does this simply represent the character? It is associated with her before she falls in love with Robin, but also appears in the love scene. What does this mean exactly? Hard to say…

  2. hello. I collect film music mainly from the fifties and my favourite composer is dimitri tiomkin and I was wondering if you could ever do an analysis of his music, specifically ‘land of the pharaohs’,’fall of the roman empire’, and ‘the alamo’ and comment on his wonderful interpretations of his themes and harmonies from a russian and Slavic viewpoint. he wrote great folk melodies and ballads that I listen to and really enjoy. thanks for any information.

    1. Hi Raphael – Thanks for the suggestions. I have yet to write about Tiomkin, but I’m sure I’ll get to him in the future. Cheers.

  3. Hey Mark! I listened again to this score – particularly the “Robin enters the castle” cue. This is Shostakovich, I feel; bi-tonality, lush orchestration, plenty of brass!! It’s very ‘classical’, this score. And very wonderful, always.

    Warner Brothers and their loud scores!! Bless them.

    1. Film Score Junkie

      Bob, thanks for notifying me about the links. I’ve fixed them all. It seems my broken link finder wasn’t set properly. Hopefully it works now.

  4. Very nice concepts! I wonder if there’s any way to get the score of this symphonic suite. I haven’t found any possibility to get it, does somebody know??

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