Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Marks, Martin. “Screwball Fantasia: Classical Music in Unfaithfully Yours.” 19th-Century Music 34 (Spring 2011): 237-70.

The 1948 screwball comedy Unfaithfully Yours, written, produced, and directed by Preston Sturges, satirizes the elevated status of classical music through an extended fantasy sequence set in the mind of a conductor during a concert. Sir Alfred De Carter, the conductor, suspects his wife’s infidelity and imagines three scenarios inspired by the three works on the concert program: Rossini’s Semiramide, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. Throughout the film, Alfred is depicted as a caricature of high society, only enjoying the veneer of high culture. During the fantasy sequences, the classical soundtrack fluctuates between being in the foreground and functioning as underscoring. Alfred’s fantasies take the original narratives of the music and distort them to comedic effect. In the Tannhäuser sequence, Alfred turns the opera’s theme of love and redemption on its head by patronizingly redeeming his adulterous wife, treating her as a prop for his noble act of forgiveness. In the sequence featuring Francesca da Rimini, based on a vignette from Dante’s Inferno, Alfred imagines himself the melodramatic hero, tormented in hell. The Semiramide sequence is the most involved, opening with a six-minute scene of the orchestra rehearsing the overture before delving into Alfred’s fantasy. In the rehearsal, Rossini’s overture serves as the background for slapstick humor, as in a bit where a percussionist has to rush offstage to grab a pair of comically large cymbals. At one point during the Semiramide fantasy, musical cues in pop styles humorously intrude on the classical score as Alfred sneaks boogie-woogie records into a stack of classical records within his fantasy. Music is core to the humor in other ways as well: several running jokes are tied to repeated musical cues. The final scene offers one last send-up of Hollywood’s use of classical music to evoke sentiment. Tannhäuser is heard once again, this time as non-diegetic underscoring to Alfred reaffirming his undying love for his wife, which—given his misreading of the music in his fantasies—rings flowery and hollow. Unfaithfully Yours demonstrates Preston Sturges’s control over his film score and his assessment of classical music’s role in American culture.

Works: Preston Sturges (director) and Alfred Newman (music director): score to Unfaithfully Yours (246-260)

Sources: Wagner: Tannhäuser (246-247), Tristan und Isolde (258-260); Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini (247); Rossini: Semiramide (247-258); James Lord Pierpont, et al.: Jingle Bells (258-260)

Index Classifications: 1900s, Film

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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