Die Leuchte Asiens (Prem Sanyas) is a 1925 German/Indian co-produced silent film adapted from a book – written in verse form – by English poet/journalist Edwin Arnold. His work, The Light of Asia, recounts the life and of Siddhārtha Gautama, a prince who rejects his privileged life, becoming a spiritual teacher and who is credited with founding Buddhism. Directors Franz Osten and Himansu Rai’s film feels like a series of set-pieces that are spliced together rather than a flowing narrative but is an interesting film to view. In 2001 Die Leuchte Asiens was restored and, although there does appear to have been original music composed for the film at the time (by Hansheinrich Dransmann), as part of the restoration German-born musician and composer Pierre Oser (who has composed music for several silent films) has composed a 95-minute score for a small chamber ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, Trombone and string quintet). Oser’s interesting score helps pull the various scenes of the film together, using themes, melodies and rhythms. The music initially seems at odds with the film’s subject (see below) but by the end it is the glue holding the film together. The original text from which the film’s screenplay was derived was a narrative poem and Oser’s music also feels like a musical narrative poem and is well worth hearing.
A major reason why Oser’s music seems so out of place is that the style of the music is firmly European in nature. It does not attempt to reinforce the film’s Indian setting, whether it be using ethnic instruments or having the chamber ensemble recreate Indian music (though some of the rhythms are suggestive of India). The composer wished to frame the story from the perspective of a European visitor: the film actually begins like a documentary travelogue with a group of Western tourists being shown the exotic sights of India (“Der Bodhi-Baum”). The main narrative of the story is told in the form of a flashback as the tale is told to the Europeans. Also, by using Western musical conventions, the composer is able to signal dramatic aspects in the music, e.g., tension, love, etc.
The score for Die Leuchte Asiens tends to flow throughout the film using various combinations of the chamber ensemble to set the mood of scenes rather than highlighting dramatic moments. The third track (“Die Geschichte des Gautama”) highlights this well. This 11-minute cue underscores the pressure the King and Queen are under to produce an heir to the throne. With the Queen apparently unable to conceive a child, the King sends out a sacred elephant to choose an adoptive heir. The elephant is unsuccessful but, in the meantime, the Queen gives birth to an heir but dies during childbirth. Oser’s music is very moody and an increase in pace with strings and woodwinds when the elephant moves through the streets looking for an heir is the only obvious musical concession to the on-screen drama. This “broad brush stroke” approach to the music is heard throughout. Shrill flutes and dissonant/stabbing strings are heard when the King has a bad dream (“Jagderfahrung”), sustained strings and woodwinds add suspense to a scene where Prince Gautama is challenged by rivals for the hand of his intended wife (“Zweifel”), quick-tempo string ostinato figures (e.g., “Sorgen” and “Die Entscheidung”) signal various characters’ travels on various forms of transport, mournful strings play during scenes during Gautama’s anguish at leaving his wife, Gopa, on the road to enlightemnent (e.g., “Einsamer Wanderer”, the list goes on.
But, the film does contain thematic music and the best example of this is heard for the central relationship between Prince Gautama and his love, Gopa. Heard to great effect on woodwinds during their wedding ceremony (“Alter und Tod”), it has the quality of a fanfare but the statement is not too grand. It reappears at several key moments throughout the score: when Gautama is leaving Gopa the theme acts as a reminder to him of the love they have (“Gopas Suche”) and when the couple are eventually reunited at the end of the film (“Gopa Die Jüngerin”). There is also a recurring theme/motif (in the form of an unusual woodwind and low strings rhythmic motif) that is heard in tracks such as “Auf Der Suche Nach Dem Nachfolger” and “Zweifel” that appears to be associated with Gautama’s main rival.
Oser’s score for Die Leuchte Asiens is an unusual one in the sense that, for a lot of the time, there doesn’t seem to be much relation between the music and the image. But I think that sense arises because the music plays a different role to music written for films today. Yes, there is the use of motifs, themes and dramatic devices that we know from modern film scoring but the music seems to be functioning more as music suggesting mood rather than supporting the action. The use of the Western music rather than using Indian music is not a distraction (though there are a couple of occasions where the use of music that would seem more suitable in the court of some European royal family (e.g, the beginning of “Gopa und Die Hochzeit” and feels woefully out of place)). The quality of the recording is good (though there are a couple of occasions where intrusive noise from musicians/instruments can be heard). But the members of ensembleKONTRASTE (under the direction of Frank Strobel) do a fine job bringing Oser’s work to life. One part of the production of this release that is also worth mentioning (though it won’t affect anyone who has not seen the film itself) is that there seems to be a problem with some of the track titles. After the first few cues, track titles seem to be out of step with what’s happening in the film. And later on in the album, titles don’t seem to correspond with the music’s placement in the film at all.
It was the striking artwork image of Seeta Devi as Gopa that initially brought this score to my attention as I was browsing through an online store. And I am glad that it did. Though a challenge to listen to in its entirety because of it’s length, it is a rewarding listen and is very much recommended. Die Leuchte Asiens is available as a digital download at many of the usual online stores.
Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on blue arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.
- Ouvertüre (4:31)
- Der Bodhi-Baum (3:34)
- Die Geschichte des Gautama (11:11)
- Auf Der Suche Nach Dem Nachfolger (4:35)
- Tod Der Königin (2:07)
- Jagderfahrung (4:20)
- Der Traum (3:47)
- Verlockungen (1:40)
- Gopa und Die Hochzeit (5:08)
- Zweifel (4:11)
- Alter und Tod (2:03)
- Die Vergänglichkeit des Lebens (3:33)
- Sorgen (4:59)
- Die Entscheidung (4:12)
- Verlassen (2:35)
- Bestürzung (1:43)
- Einsamer Wanderer (2:03)
- Gopas Suche (2:05)
- Gautama und Der Bodhi-Baum (7:39)
- Predigt (7:19)
- Anhänger (4:46)
- Entsagung Des Weltlichen (2:39)
- Gopa Die Jüngerin (4:34)
Running Time: 95:24
FKM Records (2010)