Musical Portraiture of Film Stars: Charles Koechlin's Portraits of Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, Charlie Chaplin, and Jean Harlow in The Seven Stars’ Symphony (1933) and Épitaphe Op. 164 (1937)

Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Katharina Uhde


Arts and Sciences



Presentation Type

Poster Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-28-2022


Charles Koechlin’s The Seven Stars’ Symphony (1933) and Épitaphe for flute, alto saxophone and piano Op. 164 present musical homages to movie stars from the 1930s by using different compositional techniques. This presentation explores how Koechlin portrayed Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and Emil Jannings in the last three movements of the Seven Stars Symphony with how he memorialized Jean Harlow who died tragically in 1937, at age 26. Mvt. 7 of the Seven Stars Symphony, titled "Charlie Chaplin" will be investigated on referential music from Chaplin's films --- that is, whether, and if so, how, Koechlin alludes to Chaplin's film scores. In addition, Koechlin's approach to musical ciphers -- using note names to stand for letters of the alphabet in order to "spell" things with tones -- in mvt. 7 is compared with mvt. 5, "Marlene Dietrich" and mvt. 6, "Emil Jannings". In comparison to these three movements, Epitaphe takes a slightly different approach, hiding its allusions to the platinum-blonde actress behind performance instructions, timbre, and register, thereby creating a less explicit but still captivatingly sensual musical imaginary. Koechlin's musical interests were as diverse as his music -- a student of Gabriel Fauré, Koechlin admired J. S. Bach, whose BACH cipher may have inspired his use of ciphers. A pioneer for modernity in France, Koechlin's fascination with photography, film, and particularly the new medium of sound film, all became subsumed in his four musical portraits presented and compared here. My research takes Robert Orledge's biography (1989) as a basis and provides musical analysis in order to showcase Koechlin's methods of musical portraiture with greater detail, thereby adding to Orledge's research and complementing areas which he has not covered in depth.

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