When Charlie Chaplin unveiled The Gold Rush in 1925, silence wasn't necessarily golden. It was in glorious black and white.
Perhaps the definitive depiction of Chaplin's career-defining screen character, The Tramp, the movie has long been considered a classic of the silent-film era. When Chaplin revisited, re-edited and re-released The Gold Rush in 1942, its original black and white splendor was retained. But color nonetheless poured from an orchestral score composed by The Tramp itself.
On Friday, the Lexington Philharmonic will present the sight and sound of Chaplin's masterwork by performing the score of the 1942 version of The Gold Rush live to a screening of the 1925 original.
Befitting the occasion, the orchestra is encouraging patrons to dress in black and white.
"While we have done several multimedia projects, performing a true film score that actually accompanied a film is something we've not done yet," said Philharmonic music director and conductor Scott Terrell. "Also, Chaplin has been underappreciated in terms of people knowing how incredibly musical he was. The entire movie is driven by the music. It's really quite virtuosic for the orchestra, too. It's unrelenting. It's 80 minutes of nonstop playing, so it runs as long as the movie does."
Chaplin introduced The Tramp in the 1914 film short Kid Auto Races in Venice, making this year a centennial for the character. But by the time The Gold Rush reappeared in 1942, Chaplin, then in his 50s, was acting, directing, scripting, editing and scoring his films — a remarkable feat considering he had no formal musical schooling.
"Still, he played string instruments and composed at the piano," Terrell said. "He was a sort of an innate musician even though he wasn't necessarily a studied or trained one. But that didn't stop him from writing his own scores, which I think is fascinating. He had a sort of natural musicality.
"Chaplin really believed that the music wasn't simply meant to accompany. It was meant to drive the action, which is a different philosophy than most people would think of. We get used to a film score by John Williams or whoever where the music fits the plot. I think Chaplin came at it from the other direction.
"There is a lot of music in the score people are going to know. There is the Flight of the Bumblebee, there are Tchaikovsky waltzes, there are Brahms quotes, there are Rimsky-Korsakov quotes. The score gets its inspiration from a lot of classical music. It just has a slightly different bend."
Having seen the two versions of The Gold Rush "a total of 80 to 100 times" and guest conducted a chamber-style version of its score in 2010 with the Charleston Symphony in South Carolina, Terrell said the synchronization of live music and vintage cinema presented numerous performance challenges.
"If I'm a little quick and I get a ahead of the scene, then I have to find a way to pull the reins back and get us to where we need to go. It's imperfect — that I can assure you. But what makes this score work really well is that it was written in such a way that the more sentimental music has great elasticity. It can move and pull back as needed. ...
"For me, my job for the orchestra this week is to get to the point where they know the score so very well that they can sort of adjust as we go."
To that end, Terrell and the Philharmonic will be on their own Friday; the program will feature no additional selections or guest soloists.
"It's all orchestral and all Charlie. He's the guest."
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.