Orson Welles's 100th Birthday: A Look at His Musical Impact

Orson Welles, 1937

Orson Welles, 1937

Exactly 100 years ago today, monumentally important filmmaker Orson Welles was born. While we remember him for some of the absolute greatest triumphs and game-changing innovations in cinema, not to mention memorable performances as characters ranging from Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane to the voice of Transformers' Unicron, it's well worth noting the impact that Welles had on music.

From utilizing scores that pushed the limits of what one could do with film music, to Welles and his indelible characters being referenced by everyone from the White Stripes to Ice Cube, Orson's fingerprints can be found all over every form of media in the century since his birth. In honor of his great legacy, we're looking back at 100 years of Orson Welles's impact on music.

Welles was the child of a professional pianist. His mother died shortly following his ninth birthday, which hindered his access to pursuing music further. But Welles soon found a musical soul mate in frequent collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann. The two met at CBS, and Herrmann conducted the music for Welles's early radio shows.

This tied their legacies together early on as Herrmann was at the helm for the music of Welles's infamous 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. With the first two-thirds presented as a straightforward radio broadcast, some listeners were legitimately panicked that a war with aliens was upon us. Later radio collaborations saw Herrmann conducting a few older pieces of his around Welles's newer works, giving both an understanding and familiarity with each other.

Herrmann always spoke highly of Welles's musical knowledge, calling him "a man of great musical culture." It's their chemistry and shared desire to innovate that Citizen Kane produced a score some would call unprecedented. The 1941 film's music crossed genres, from opera to jazz to waltz, in order to communicate with music what words could never do. Welles himself attributes "half of the film's success" to Herrmann's Academy Award-nominated score.

Universally considered one of the finest pictures ever made, Citizen Kane has found a particular fan in Jack White. White's a Welles devotee through-and-through (his Third Man Records takes its name from one of Welles's most famous roles), and his most overt tribute can be found in the White Stripes' 2001 song "The Union Forever." According to White, he became infatuated with, "It Can't Be Love, Because There Is No True Love," one of the film's jazz numbers.

As White was trying to play it on the guitar, he began putting together different quotes from the film, using their pairings to make an entirely new creation in the song's lyrics. While Rolling Stone reported in 2003 of rumors of a lawsuit from Warner Bros. over the unlicensed, uncredited lifting of the film's dialogue, no legal action was ever seen publicly.

We've heard Citizen Kane referenced in hip-hop as well. Both directly in terms of the character (Ice Cube's "You could call me 'Citizen Kane' for my pain" from 1998's collaboration with KoRN "Fuck Dying") an archetype (Aesop Rock's "Born for one task indeed / To spoil the Citizen Kane emote self this ugly duckling seed" from 1999's "Same Space (The Tugboat Complex Part 2)" ) as well as the film's classic status (R.A. the Rugged Man bragging his music is "Orson Welles, Citizen Kane shit" from 2001's "Even Dwarfs Started Small.")

While Welles's films, and subsequently Herrmann's accompanying scores, were largely manipulated and marginalized by the same studios that now celebrate his catalog, Welles and his work continues to influence the media and culture of our modern lives. Even as children (Steven Spielberg's '90s kids' favorite cartoon Animaniacs boasted in their theme song of being "totally insane-y, Citizen Kane-y") we're taught to accept Welles's great impact. From the sounds of things, we were taught correctly.

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