This year marks the centenary of the first film appearance of English actor-comedian Charlie Chaplin, in “Making a Living”.
While his films (‘The Gold Rush’, ‘City Lights’, ‘Limelight’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘The Great Dictator’, and so many more) have become the stuff of cinematic and comedy legend, it is less well-known that Chaplin was an ardent musician, and that the violin in particular played a central role in his life.
Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) was born into poverty in London. His father (a singer, and also named Charles Chaplin) had deserted his family, and Charlie had to be sent twice to the workhouse to help the family finances, before he was even nine years old. His mother, a music-hall singer, was committed to an asylum when he was fourteen. Despite such a chaotic childhood, he nevertheless had a passion for music, and managed to teach himself to play piano, violin and cello.
In his autobiography, Chaplin recounts how his mother would take him with her to the theatre, where he would stand in the wings, and watch and listen to her and the rest of the cast.
He ecstatically describes the first time “music entered my soul”. He wandered into the streets one dismal evening and: “Suddenly, there was music. Rapturous! It came from the vestibule of the White Hart corner pub, and resounded brilliantly in the empty square. The tune was The Honeysuckle and the Bee, played with radiant virtuosity on a harmonium and clarinet. I had never been conscious of melody before, but this one was beautiful and lyrical, so blithe and gay, so warm and reassuring. I forgot my despair and crossed the road to where the musicians were. . . .It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment…”
By the age of sixteen, Chaplin was a rising star in the English music halls, but would still practice the violin four to six hours each day. Every week he took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended. Most left-handed aspirants on the violin adjust to playing it the ‘normal’ way, but not Chaplin. He got his violin strung left-handed, with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed as well. Apparently Jascha Heifetz once picked up Chaplin’s violin and tried to play it but couldn’t!
Claude Debussy complimented the young Chaplin, then about twenty, after he had starred in the Fred Karno comedy sketch show at the Folies Bergère in Paris, saying “You are instinctively a musician and a dancer.”
Stan Laurel (of ‘Laurel and Hardy’ fame) toured the US with Chaplin in 1910 and shared accommodation with him. It is said that when Laurel cooked (which was forbidden in their lodgings), Chaplin would play the violin to drown out the noise.
A 1917 press release underscores Chaplin’s affinity for the violin: ‘Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and if in the humor, can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer. Chaplin admits that as a violinist he is no Kubelik or Elman but he hopes, nevertheless, to play in concerts some day before very long.’
Chaplin writes of those years: “I had great ambitions to be a concert artist, or, failing that, to use it in a vaudeville act but as time went on I realised that I could never achieve excellence, so I gave it up.”
“As for the cello,” wrote Chaplin in his book, ‘A Life in Pictures’,”I could pose well with it, but that’s about all.”
Nevertheless, although he could not realize his dream of a concert career as a musician, he poured his creative energy into writing film scores awash with the string sound. Chaplin gave huge importance to the musical accompaniment to a film. ‘City Lights’ was the first of his films for which he composed the music, and thereafter he composed the scores for all of his films. Remarkably, as he had not formally studied music and therefore could not read sheet music, he needed the assistance of professionals to write his scores. The laborious process would involve Chaplin singing or playing tunes he had in mind, which were then developed. Film historian Jeffrey Vance asserts, “Although he relied upon associates to arrange varied and complex instrumentation, the musical imperative is his, and not a note in a Chaplin musical score was placed there without his assent.”
Chaplin’s immortal tune in ‘Limelight’, known as “Terry’s theme”, later became a popular song “Eternally”, and is based on the exposition from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.
And Chaplin appears on screen, playing his violin, in films that framed his career. In ‘Vagabond’(1916), he serenades a gypsy girl, steals monetary tips given to other musicians, and thinks up gags that would only occur to a musician: a trilling fourth finger that gets out of control; how to tackle an itchy nose while playing; and thrills and spills involving buckets of water while still holding on to his fiddle and bow for dear life.
In his masterpiece ‘Limelight’ (1952)Chaplin plays a faded, washed-up music hall star, in a story that is almost autobiographical, and his death on screen happens immediately after a violin-piano comedy routine with Buster Keaton.
Poignantly, at the height of his powers in 1920, he confided in a journalist, how he wished to break free from his career, and “retire to some Italian lake with my beloved violin, my Shelley and Keats, and live under an assumed name a life purely imaginative and intellectual.” The violin and he would remain inseparable to the very end.
(An edited version of this article was published on 1 June 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)