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#53. Citizen Kane - Music Analysis 

Citizen Kane Title


Within the early moments of Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, we are treated to static shots of the fallen Xanadu. What once stood as a majestic physical manifestation of Charles Foster Kane’s professional achievements, now slowly erodes against a murky stillness. Our personal tour of the abraded Kane estate commences at the “NO TRESPASSING” sign affixed to a rickety metal fence. As we gradually make our wake up towards the castle we pass all remnants of past attempts to surround oneself with life. Even with the shadow of death looming over all corners of Xanadu the extravagance of its sheer brazenness cannot be missed. As the camera travels we are accompanied by the haunting tones of composer Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score. His “Prelude” serves as a warning, an ominous exhortation to retreat back into the light of day; for there is nothing but the overwhelming regret of a life well wasted inside these stone walls.  As we near the master’s window the horns begin to escalate until both they and the light coming from Kane’s room are smothered all at once. In a silent darkness our eyes and our ears desperately grasp for any sign of life, any breath that may match our own. Once again the soft moan of Herrmann’s horns fill the room like a thick fog, but their emotion has changed. As the screen fills with the floating white flakes of a soon-to-be shattered snow-globe, the “Prelude” transforms ever so briefly into “Rosebud’s” theme, just as the dying man speaks his last word.

Citizen Kane Opening SequenceAs swiftly as the “Prelude” disappeared, it crashes back into the room with a nurse, who seems to be just moments too late. However the word “rosebud” has been heard, and the race is on to identify this mysterious lament of a remorseful man. We will remain as ignorant to the reality of who or what “rosebud” is until the final moments of the film, when Kane’s childhood sled, painted with the enigmatic handle, is tossed inside a burning furnace amongst the countless artifacts that served to define a lonely man. However, as it turns out, Mr. Herrmann spoiled the ending of this classic film well before its final moments. The same “Rosebud” theme heard briefly while Charles Kane took his last breath can be heard not 20 minutes later when we see a young Kane playing with his sled right before he is to be adopted-out to Mr. Thatcher. The more discerning viewer (or is it listener?) could, in theory, ably pick-up on Mr. Herrmann’s clever score, and in turn confidently assume the exact identity of “rosebud.” Call me a skeptic, but even the most learned musical savant would be unable to pick up on the subtle storytelling cues Bernard Herrmann imposes upon the early scenes of Citizen Kane, let alone the common spectator. Both the “Prelude” and “Rosebud” theme are too similar in tone to be characteristically dissected during a viewing, and I argue the sled’s theme is used far too subtly to provoke much thought on the matter. I think the motif of snow is a more obvious clue than the use of music. For whatever reason Herrmann and Welles chose to employ this theme in the manner they did is surely up for speculation. I for one, with the advantage of knowledge and hindsight, am under the opinion that it just makes sense to layer a leitmotif with its inspiration, which in this case is the tiny wooden sled that symbolizes a time in Kane’s life when he was truly innocent.

Kane and Norton in the beginning of their marriageWhile Hermmann’s score is subtly engaged throughout certain key scenes of Citizen Kane, there are several instances where his music is as perceptible as the images on screen. For proof of his virtuosity look no further than the famous “Breakfast Montage,” a scene of quick illustrations showcasing the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Kane and his first wife Emily Norton. With the use of some cunning editing, we are carried through the evolution of nine-years of marriage in just six concise shots. While there is several conspicuous clues on screen that more than allude to their dissolving marriage (the couple are seated farther apart in each scene, the lighting becomes quite harsher, and their dialogue more unwelcoming) the choice of music throughout the montage also clearly chronicles the disbanding of the husband and wife.

Herrmann’s score expertly unifies the couple, wonderfully narrating the action as it unfolds. The music begins in major mode, an elegant waltz that encompasses the love Kane so desperately hopes to find with his new bride. With the passing of time, you can hear the stresses of life affecting the theme. The tension seen on screen is also heard, with the waltz growing louder and faster until it is but a mockery of its origin; a loveless tune dying in a pitiful minor mode. With the end of the montage we know full well the couple is doomed to failure, that Kane’s first attempt at securing honest reciprocated love has been unsuccessful. 


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