Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE HOLY MOUNTAIN – Edmund Meisel


January 24, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1926 the future documentary filmmaker (and Nazi propagandist) Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer and an aspiring actress. A chance meeting between her and director Arnold Fanck was fateful as he was impressed by both her beauty and singlemindedness. As such, he began to write sketches to a film he envisioned, a love story, which would showcase her talents. Fanck took his screenplay – called Der Heilige Berg, or The Holy Mountain – to the UFA production company, who agreed to support the project. Harry R. Sokal was assigned production with a budget of 1.5 million RM. Fanck would direct and handle cinematography. His cast consisted of Riefenstahl as Diotima, Luis Trenker as Karl, Frida Richard as Mother, Ernst Petersen as Vigo, Friedrich Schneider as Coli, and Hannes Schneider as Mountain Guide.

The story is set in the southern mountains of Germany and explores the life of dancer Diotima. One day she has a fateful meeting at the mountain cottage of Karl, an engineer. They fall in love, but eventually Diotima’s kindness triggers a series of misunderstandings that imperil lives. One day by chance Diotima comes across a chilled Vigo, a young friend of Karl, who she gives in kindness a scarf. Vigo misinterprets her gesture as a romantic overture and falls in love with her. Later Karl finds her innocently caressing Vigo, and concludes with anger that the two are betraying him. Karl takes Vigo up the mountain one day with the intent to engineer an accident to kill him, yet when the weather tuns bad Karl relents and the two men help each other survive as Diotima organizes a rescue party below. The film was well-received by critics, who lauded the striking outdoors visuals, and was commercially successful.

Edmund Meisel gained recognition in the burgeoning German film score industry in the early 1920s for his compositions for the films of producer and theater director Erwin Piscator. His big break came in 1925 when Prometheus Film GmbH, the German distributor of the Soviet silent film “Battleship Potemkin” hired him to score the film. While director Arnold Fanck was not known for utilizing original music in his films, his production company took notice of Meisel’s rising star in German theater and commissioned him to score the film. The film was already completed by time Meisel became attached and he was very impressed when he viewed it with Franck in attendance. He related;

“During the first showing in the director’s presence I immediately conceived the musical garb for the tragic plot, keep to the majestic natural rhythm of the mountains, which dominates the whole work. The music was written in complete harmony with the plot”.

For his soundscape, Meisel embraced both leitmotifs as well as modern impressionist writing, fully embracing dissonance and textural compositions. He composed four primary themes; The Fate Theme offers a grim, three-note construct, which speaks to the doomed relationship between Diotima and Karl. The theme is pervasive, a lurking, ever present undercurrent of woe, which portends the ruin of all. Diotima’s Theme lyrical, string borne theme offers a stirring ascent of four-note phrases, which reflect her yearning for love. She is a dancer and Meisel’s music offers a celebration of life, feminine beauty and grace, flowing with a dance-like ambiance, which perfectly carries the many scenes where she expresses herself through dance. Vigo’s Theme supports not only his personal identity, but also his friendship with Karl. Eight-note phrasing by warm strings gentile speak to his gentle nature, and affection that he has for Karl. There is a dance-like quality to the melody, which flows effortlessly. The Sacred Mountain Theme offers a majestic four-note phrasing, which speaks to the magnificence and grandeur of the mountain. Yet in many ways the theme is also Karl’s as the mountain was his life. What is impressive is how he modulates the theme when winter conditions bring out the mountain’s physical dangers. Its grand statement at the film’s end offers one of the film’s most powerful moments. Lastly, cues coded (*) offer scenes where the music is not found on the album.

The film opens with silence and a commentary roll, which describes the efforts made to realize this film. At 0:42 of the septa hued film we flow into (*) “Main Titles” which opens with a display of the film title. A grand panorama shot of the Sacred Mountain, which towers over a pristine alpine lake dominates the screen. The Fate Theme borne by a bleak violin wail, supported by discordant xylophone strikes and pizzicato strings supports as “A Drama Poem with scenes from nature by Dr. Arnold Fanck” displays on the screen. Meisel sow a forlorn tapestry, which supports the roll of the opening credits as white script against a black background. A chime misterioso ushers in a violin tenero expression of Diotimas’ Theme with twinkling piano adornment, which leads to a segue into “Prelude”. It opens with tension strings and a close up of Diotima as we read; “There, where the rock falls steeply and defiantly into the surf…is her home”. Meisel sow dark auras with currents of danger and suspense as we see a montage of shots of the restless waves striking the jagged coastline. We see her silhouetted on a cliff and a cello grave and piano irato drive the music forward, joined by forlorn horns. “The sea is her love, wild, and boundless”. As she sits in contemplation starring over the vast expanse a yearning violin joined by a piano triste emotes her theme, so full of longing. “But her life, is dance – vibrant expressions of a stormy soul”. A cello, and then violin full of joie de vie, supports her graceful dance of life along the seas shore.

At 1:14 we segue into “Diotimas Dance To The Sea”, a wondrous score highlight, a masterpiece cue where we are graced by a gorgeous, free-flowing and dramatic extended exposition of Diotima’s Theme, which blossoms on full orchestra. We see her dancing with delight along the wave tossed shores and Meisel’s music offers a celebration of life, feminine beauty and grace, achieving a stirring confluence with Fanck’s cinematography. Meisel uses quivering strings, trilling woodwinds, harp glissandi and cymbals to mirror the restless sea and waves crashing against the shore. We close dramatically as we read; “And so Diotima dances…dances to satiate her longing for him, whom she has seen only in her dreams, atop the highest mountain peak” as we see Karl standing on a mountain peak.

“Two Friends From The Mountains” opens with best friends Karl and Vigo standing proudly on a peak surveying the local mountains, which Meisel supports with the Friendship Theme. At 0:23 a grand horn declared statement of the Sacred Mountain Theme resounds to support the majestic panorama. We close with dark iterations of the Fate Theme (not on the album) as the two depart. At 0:39 we segue into “Grande Hotel” where Meisel offers old world charm and gentility to support the beautiful and imposing hotel. We see its luxury and the wealthy guests in attendance as Karl and Vigo enter. They slit and at 1:24 a diminuendo supports Karl stopping to read a large poster, which states; “Diotima dances this evening…” As he ponders, a brief quote of Diotima’s Theme joins. At 1:37 a drum roll leads a segue into “Mazurka”, whose free-flowing dance propels Diotima’s dance on stage. At 2:40 trumpets usher in a “Nocturne” to support her performance of “Dream Blossom”, which is carried by strings gentile and piano tenero. We see that Karl is smitten by her performance, which he calls, almost holy. In (*) “After the Show” energetic string festiva support the crowd’s enthusiasm for her performance and gifts of flower bouquets. As Karl departs the hotel the forlorn Fate Theme emotes on violin triste. A spritely Diotima’s Theme carries her departure, yet it dissipates when she meets Karl, who averts his eyes. She is also smitten by his dashing good looks, but Meisel supports with an eerie twinkling rendering of the Fate Theme, which supports her boarding a limousine. Karl, sums up the courage to come to her, which Meisel supports with a romance for strings. They hit it off and are quite happy they met, yet as she departs, we end on a dissonant Fate Theme.

(*) “Karl’s Ascent Up The Mountain” reveals him ascending the mountain to savor his overwhelming experience of meeting Diotima. Strings energico and chattering xylophone offer hiking music for the ascent. A shift to Diotima’s hotel room is supported by a bleak Fate Theme. Meisel creates an impressionist ambiance by wandering strings and piano as we see Karl hiking in the snowcapped heights. In “Diotimas Walk Into The Mountains” we read; “A jubilant spring climbs higher up the mountain. And a joyous Diotima immerses herself in it”. Diotima adores all the blossoming flowers and the music is blissful as she darts here and there. At 0:12 a cut away to Karl descending the mountain is supported by a plodding construct with some dissonance as we see him carefully hiking down. We return to Diotima at 1:05 in “Spring In The Mountains”, where once again Meisel graces us with idyllic music of the Sacred Mountain Theme as we see her enjoying the natural beauty. At 2:45 we segue into “Bridge Of Ice” atop trilling woodwinds and twinkling xylophone as we see Karl chopping the ice to secure good footing. Below the brightness of the Sacred Mountain Theme resumes as we see Diotima savoring the natural beauty. At 3:55 we segue into “The Meadow”, a wonderful score highlight, which Meisel scores as a rhapsody using a playful danza felice as we see Diotima frolicking in the mountain flowers and herds of mountain goats. The confluence of music and cinematography is just beautiful. We shift back and forth to more strident passages as we see Karl negotiating his safe passage down the mountain. At 4:53 we segue into “The Meeting” another score highlight where our two lovers finally meet at a mountain cabin. Playful woodwinds animato join with strings felice as she at last comes upon him. At 6:09 ta robust Sacred Mountain Theme joins when she asks for what he is searching for up there, and he answers, one self. When he turns the question back to her as to what she would seek, she answers, beauty. At 7:17 her answer evokes strings appassionato as we see love in his eyes, and we culminate on a dramatic crescendo romantico.

“In His Homeland” reveals Karl at home, which Meisel supports lightly with playful pizzicato strings. At 0:16 we segue into “He And His Mother” atop lush strings romantico where Karl escorts his mother to a chair, sits next to her and informs her that today he will seek the perfect mountain, and then the next day he and Diotima will celebrate their engagement high up on that mountain. Meisel weaves within the romance for strings both Diotima’s and the Mountain Themes for a wonderful exposition. We close as she caresses him and we have a perfect mother-son moment. At 1:04 we segue into “The Kiss” atop Vigo’s Theme atop strings felice and sleighbells as we see Diotima on skis moving through town as Vigo, who is on skis and drawn by a horse fly past her. She calls to him, he stops, and comes back to her. At 1:20 strings d’amore blossom as she says; “I suppose you came all this way just to see me, not the ski race”. He smiles and the departs, saying; “Look for me in the jumping contest!” The playful pizzicato strings and sleighbells resume as Diotima continues on to Karl’s house. Her theme blossoms as she meets his mother, who discreetly steps out to give them some private time. Tension entwinned with disappointment enters at 2:00 as she pleads with him; “Take me with you one time, into your world, really high up,” and he refuses. As Diotima steps outside, Karl’s mother whispers to him; “The sea and the stone can never be wed, which Meisel supports with the Fate Theme.” Karl takes Diotima up only as far as the cabin supported by the woodwind beauty of the Mountain Theme as we see beautiful winter images of the mountain. He looks up the mountain and says; “Look, those enormous rocks have been worn away by the gigantic force of water, in nature’s eternal cycle.” Fanck supports with images of snow melted water powerfully cascading through gorges. WE close romantically as we see love in her eyes as she comes to his welcoming embrace and they kiss.

(*) “Karl Takes Diotima Back” reveals the two skiing back down from the cabin, and as they weave through the snow Meisel supports with a danza felice. As they reach the junction, he says goodbye, yet sees she is distraught. When he asks what is wrong, the Fate Theme sounds as she answers; “Fear!” He promises that he will be back for her dance performance tonight and departs saying; “Goodbye, until tonight!” In (*) “Ski Jump Contest” Diotima decides to watch the contest as Vigo and Colli compete. Meisel supports with dance-like energy as we see the contestants making incredible jumps and landings. Vigo wins the contest and is congratulated by Diotima. A scene change to the mountain reveals Karl exploring supported by a grim Fate Theme, entwinned with a bleak solo violin. A return to Diotima and Vigo reveals some affection as she tussles his hair and he calls her, “Madonna”, which Colli overhears. Returning to Karl he beholds the beauty of his cathedral like mountain supported by the Sacred Mountain Theme.

“The Great Long-Distance Run” offers an astounding kinetic score highlight. Diotima sees Vigo off to the race saying; “Come back the winner and I’ll grant you a wish.” The great cross-country race begins with Colli and Vigo contesting for the lead. At 0:45 horns of doom resound as Colli takes a commanding lead. At 0:55 an accelerando furioso is unleashed as we see the racers reaching speeds of 75 mph. Descent motifs begin at 2:00 and support descents and landing by the competitors. The accelerando furioso regains its energy and Meisel unleashes a kinetic torrent as we see Vigo seize the lead over a tiring Colli. Vigo soars to the finish line to win the race and at 4:01 is congratulated by Diotima supported by a joyous rendering of her theme. “The Horrible Northern Steep Mountain Side” reveals Karl descending from the mountain to return to the cottage. The Sacred Mountain and Diotima Themes carry his progress. At 0:28 the Fate Theme joins as we see Vigo and Diotima return to the cottage. At 2:11 a slow building ascent crescendo of tension commences and carries Karl towards the cottage. At 3:42 a new more forceful crescendo begins a slow building ascent with increasing dissonance interspersed with the Fate Theme as he arrives at the cottage from the rear. Vigo claims his wish, and when Diotima asks what he desires, he falls to his knees and buries his head in her lap, which shocks her. Karl comes around the side to witness this, as the cue crashes to its end.

In “The Abyss/Hallucinations” Karl is devastated, and retreats out of sight unnoticed as we see in his mind’s eye his beloved Sacred Mountain cathedral spires collapsing. Shrill horns support his torment. Dire horns of rage resound at 0:45 as he heads back to the mountain and we see him skiing with fury, as Diotima and Vigo part ways; she going back to town and he to visit Karl. At 0:54 a German folk dance supports Vigo informing Karl’s mother that he loves Diotima, much to her surprise as he is unaware of Karl’s feelings. At 1:22 the music darkens when Karl arrives home, and sets into motion his plan for revenge. He convinces Vigo to join him on an arduous hike high up the mountain where he will kill him, as a dire Fate Theme resounds at 1:30. The climb is perilous with bad weather and strong winds supported by an impressionist soundscape interwoven with The Holy Mountain and Fate themes. At 4:31 portentous trumpets resound when Vigo informs Karl that he has met a dancer and wants to return to her. The music evokes a rising menace driven by dark purpose as Karl becomes angry, moves towards Vigo who backs up and falls off the cliff. At 5:21 the music lightens and an ascent motif supports Karl decision against killing him as he tries unsuccessfully to pull him up by the rope they share. At 6:15 Diotima goes with her dance show in town, her worry is reflected in the music as her theme lacks its normal ebullience. At 7:09 we segue darkly into “Bad News For Diotima” and close ominously as a town official announces that Karl and Vigo had not returned from their climb. Diotima faints as he asks for volunteers for a rescue mission.

“The Act” reveals Diotima traveling to the ski lodge to beg its men to mount a rescue for Karl and Vigo. Meisel creates a grim impressionist soundscape as we see Diotima struggling against fierce winds and avalanches. It swells as conditions worsen and Diotima’s life is in peril. At 3:08 a dissonant rendering of her theme carries her desperate arrival at the lodge. At 3:35 we segue grimly into “Torch-Lights In The Night” sustained by her now pleading theme as she alerts the men and rouses them to mount a rescue mission. At 5:15 the men set off up the mountain each carrying a torch as the music surges with new purpose, yet Meisel fills us with foreboding as we close with two dire refrains of the Fate Theme.

The final senary cue offers a magnificent score highlight. “His World/Vision” reveals Karl buffeted by wind and snow as Vigo dangles helplessly on the safety rope. A molto tragico rendering of the Sacred Mountain Theme supports their plight and Diotima’s torment as she sees in her mind’s eye Karl pushing Vigo over a cliff to his death. The Sacred Mountain Theme swells, cresting at 1:47 as Karl has a vision of his marriage to Diotima with the resplendent, crystalline mountain cathedral spires in the back ground. We flow seamlessly into “The Temple” as we see Karl and Diotima walking hand in hand through massive crystal doors into the magnificent crystalline temple sanctuary. Meisel graces us with a romance for strings, yet at 2:33 dire horns resound and a descent motif of despair supports the collapse of the altar and Diotima disappearing in the swirling winds. At 3:22 horns brilliante announce the dawning of a new day. Yet it is short-lived as we segue into “The Rescue Team” at 3:40 as we learn that Karl and Vigo both died of exposure, as Karl refused to cut loose his friend to save himself. At 4:05 we segue into “The Funeral Procession”, which Meisel supports with a threnody as we see the rescue team return bearing the bodies of Karl and Vigo. As Coffi enters the cabin Diotima’s eyes beam with hope, which is dashed when he says that both men had fallen. A dark rendering of the Sacred Mountain and Fate Themes entwine, and unleash at 5:55 crescendos of agony as a devastated Diotima absorbs the news. At 6:28 we close with “Fidelity” for a grand statement of the Sacred Mountain Theme as we see Diotima alone in her world by the sea, as the Sacred Mountain towers above, an enduring symbol of humanity’s greatest values; fidelity, truth, loyalty and faith.

I wish to commend Thomas Karban and Mark Andreas for the restoration, re-recording and production of Edmund Meisel’s masterwork, “The Holy Mountain”. The audio quality is excellent and offers a wonderful listening experience. Director Arnold Fanck was in his heart a brilliant cinematographer, with the conception and execution of the visuals of this film simply, stunning. It is clear from the beginning that the Sacred Mountain was one of the actors, and Edmund Meisel recognized this and ensured his music spoke to its towering grandeur and magnificence. The cinematic confluence of music and cinematography in this film was just exceptional. Additionally, the film offered a classic love triangle where two dear friends compete for the affections of one woman, which precipitates tragedy. Their three themes perfectly captured their essence; Karl’s taciturn nature, Diotima’s dance-like, feminine beauty and grace, and Vigo’s exuberance and confidence. Also effective was the pervasive and inescapable Fate Theme, whose dark and portentous undercurrent permeated the score. While the leitmotific writing was exceptionally crafted, commendable also was Meisel’s impressionist passages, which for me were equally effective if expressing the emotional dynamics unfolding on the screen. Folks, this Silent Age film was a heavy lift for Meisel in not only conveying the powerful emotions expressed by the actors, but also the visual beauty and grandeur of Fanck’s vision. I believe Meisel succeeded brilliantly and this score offers a testament to his mastery of his craft. I highly recommend this superb album, which also includes Meisel’s score to the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, as a historic film score, essential for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the astounding finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKd8OFndJE0&t=2s

Track Listing:

  • The Ship/Sleeping Sailors (3:24)
  • Smirnow/The Soup/The Canteen/Our Daily Bread (6:53)
  • The Deck (2:13)
  • Wakulintschuk (2:24)
  • Fire!/The Mutiny/The Priest (3:39)
  • Brothers, The Victory Is Ours!/Death of Wakulintschuk (3:39)
  • The People of Odessa (10:14)
  • The Harbor of Odessa (3:41)
  • The Odessa Steps (5:42)
  • Restless Night/The Floating Bridge/All Hands On Deck!/Machine Room (6:54)
  • Full Speed Ahead! (3:17)
  • Brothers! (1:36)
  • Prelude/Diotimas Dance to The Sea (5:52)
  • Two Friends From The Mountains/Grande Hotel/Mazurka/Nocturne (4:50)
  • Diotimas Walk Into The Mountains/Spring In The Mountains/Bridge Of Ice/The Meadow/The Meeting (8:32)
  • In His Homeland/He And His Mother/The Kiss (4:02)
  • The Great Long-Distance Run (5:32)
  • The Horrible Northern Steep Mountain Side (6:51)
  • The Abyss/Hallucinations/Bad News For Diotima (7:52)
  • The Act/Torch-Lights In The Night (6:25)
  • His World/Vision/The Temple/The Rescue Team/The Funeral Procession/Fidelity (8:27)

Running Time: 111 minutes 59 seconds

Edel Records 0029062EDL (1925/1926/1997)

Music composed by Edmund Meisel. Conducted by Mark Andreas. Performed by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana Original orchestrations by Edmund Meisel. Recorded and mixed by Joachim Gottschallk. Score produced by Edmund Meisel. Album produced by Thomas Karban.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: