Shirley Walker // Mask of the Phantasm // Masked Melodies

June of 1992 saw the release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, sequel to the highly successful Batman released three years prior. Capitalizing on the popularity of their new icon, Warner Bros. set in motion creation of an animated series set in a similarly dark Gotham City that was aired weekday afternoons (Tonks). The series was a hit and the studio chose to run a feature film in theatres Christmas of 1993. Mask of the Phantasm was headed by the same creative minds of the weekday television show including directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, writers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, and composer Shirley Walker. This essay will discuss Walker’s use of thematic layers and identifying orchestration within her score for Mask of the Phantasm.

The larger budget provided by Warner Bros. for Mask of the Phantasm allowed for Walker’s musical resources to triple to what she had averaged on the television series (Takis). With her 110-piece orchestra, synths, and 25-member choral force Walker composes a wall-to-wall score to compliment the films compelling 70-minute animated storyline. To occupy the near 65 minutes of music Walker employs an economical and engaging compositional method which John Takis calls the “multi-layered” approach.

bruce timm poster motp

Walker composes seven themes using this multi-layered approach. They represent the characters of “Batman”, the “Phantasm”, “Joker”, “The Ski-Mask Vigilante” and the “Mob/Gangsters”. The two remaining themes represent Bruce and Andrea’s relationship; “Love Theme”, and Bruce’s vow of vengeance for his parents deaths; “The Promise”.  Within all of these themes the chords, rhythm, countermelodies, and melody are all used not only simultaneously, but each separate element becomes an identifying component. (Takis)


Walker’s Batman theme is featured in the opening credits in a full choir and orchestral setting. As Walker explains in her demo-tape for the theme, presented in La-La Land’s 2CD release of music from the series, the theme is comprised of four elements; a main ascending call, two differing answers, and a transitional, climbing extension (Walker).  The theme a crossover from her work on the animated series is first attached in the film to Batman when the Dark Knight swoops through the window to break up a Mob money-laundering racket. It is a four-note ascent using the three intervals of a minor chord. The first type of answer Walker describes as “dark and somber” and can be heard singularly when Batman investigates Sal Valestra’s apartment. The other “lifting and heroic” is most clearly presented in the final scene as Batman answers the call to duty as the Bat-signal shines in the Gotham sky. With the exception of the Main Titles both answers are best heard while Batman first dawns the cape and cowl. The climbing extension is different then her material she describes in here demo-tape. Rather then the modulating 4-note ascent as she describes in her demo-tape Walker uses a simple ascending scale line. The material she uses to both open and close the Main Tiltes and it is used again most clearly as Batman pursues the Joker in the last battle. Walker uses each layer of the theme throughout the film to different dramatic end but its association with Batman remains consistent.

Another example of Walker’s multi-layered theme is the “Phantasm” theme. It first appears during the character’s entrance in the opening parking garage fight. The theme can be broken down into two main parts. The first is the ghoulish melody, most often presented on theremin by future Batman composer Hans Zimmer. It’s otherworldly quality comments on the strangeness of the new masked assassin. The other element is the four chords that underpin the melody. The chords outer voices move chromatically toward each other for the first two chords then proceed away on the remaining two chords. To identify moments where the Phantasm exploits are involved Walker uses these elements layered together or separately. The melody is used alone just before Mob member Buzz Bronski is slain. The Phantasm doesn’t appear on screen but a solo flute plays the melody as the unsuspecting Bronski gropes for his surrounding in a dug out grave. The four underpinning chords are heard apart from the melody as the Phantasm and it’s foggy trail enter Mob member Sal Valestra’s apartment, and highlighted most clearly just before the apocalyptic explosions of the Gotham World’s Fairgrounds. Walker uses both elements separately to gain variety in the way she identifies the character.

Walker’s multi-layered approach to using themes in the film is heightened by her orchestration. As with the theremin’s presence reminding us of its attachment with the Phantasm other instruments help the audience to identify Walker’s “Mob/Gangster” and “Love Theme”. March-like rhythms in the low-reeds, stopped cymbal clashes, and muted brass help to identify the Gotham mafia and their gangsters. The muted brass harkens back to the early film scores and their use of jazz to represent the seditious subculture of the 1940’s and 50’s. The first encounter with the “Mob/Gangster” is heard during Bruce Wayne’s first night as defender of justice. His fight and chase with a gangster ring highlights the march-like rhythms and cymbals that connect the audience to the criminal’s identifying music. Making the distinction more evident is the presence of another theme representing Bruce, “The Masked Vigilante”. This variation of “The Promise” material is scored in a less menacing color, with sweeping string lines and heroic horn and trumpet melodies. Throughout the rest of the film whenever a Mob member is present Walker recalls the dark orchestral jazz tints, additionally employing a four-chord progression. The chromatic contour of the outer voices is an inverse of that of the “Phantasm” theme. Scored in the low-reeds Walker musically discloses a connection between the Phantasm and the Mob that the story will not reveal until its final scenes.

andrea and bruce

Orchestration also helps to identify Bruce and Andrea’s relationship in the “Love Theme” whether the theme’s melody is present or not. The theme is first heard in a flashback during a date to the Gotham World’s Fair. The melody, sung by a solo oboe and solo clarinet, speak of the intimacy of their relationship. Moving string lines, glockenspiels, and a dream-like synth generated tones and bells call to memory the optimistic moments between the two young lovers. The lighter orchestration appears without the melody in several subsequent scenes, most subtly in Andrea’s final scene. As Andrea broods on a distant cruise ship chords from the “Love Theme” sound, set in the high range of the violins, then seem to disappear with a passing sea breeze.

Walker’s two remaining themes are the “Joker” theme and “The Promise”. The “Joker” theme is the second carryover from her work on the television series into Mask of the Phantasm. It always accompanies the sadistic Clown Prince of Crime and is highlighted during the fight between the Joker and Batman in the Gotham of the Future scale model. The music is orchestrated with xylophones, vibraphones, woodblock, and playful clarinet melodies reminiscent of 70’s game show music. “The Promise”, associated with Bruce’s vow to avenge his murdered parents, is highlighted in the three major scenes in the film. In its occurrences the music is the major driving force in the narrative, neither dialogue nor sound effects overpower the score. The first full sounding arises as Bruce looks silently onto the portrait of his murdered parents. Here the solo trumpet takes the lead on the ascending chromatic melody with full legato orchestral backing. A solo trumpet again takes lead after Andrea returns Bruce’s engagement ring. Backed with heavier brass and a rhythmic string countermelody “The Promise” connects a montage of the portrait of the murdered Wayne couple and the ascent into the Batcave as Bruce first dawns the Cape and Cowl. Its most powerful occurrence is after the final fight between all three main characters. As Batman is caught in the Joker’s explosives that are decimating the Gotham World’s Fairgrounds, an apocalyptic, full-voiced chorus and orchestra are released. As the ground below gives ways, Batman falls into the sewer pipes and is pulled into the nearby ocean where the drains released him and watches the destruction. Walker’s choice in using “The Promise” speaks of an angelic act by his parents as he is spared from death because of the vow he has maintained in their honor.

dawning the cowl

Shirley Walker considered her work for Mask of the Phantasm to be her Magnum Opus. (Larson) Walker’s use of thematic layers and identifying orchestration within her score for Mask of the Phantasm are a testament to her skill as a composer and their success in to aid in the film’s dramatic narrative. Although Disney’s The Lion King overshadowed the theatrical release of the film, its home video release was positive and the animated series continued to enjoy a successful run. Shirley Walker passed in 2006. Her music for the Batman animated mythos remains in popularity. Multiple recent album releases on the La-La Land label honor her talent, skill, and superb ability to write for film and television. Through all of Batman’s adventures on film, Walker’s score for Mask of the Phantasm remains to be one of the strongest musical representations of the Dark Knight.

references + sources

Larson, Randall. “Remembering Shirley Walker”. December 2006, Interview Summer 1998.

Takis, John. “Music of the Knight, Parts 1 and 3”. Film Score Monthly Vol. 14 Iss. 4, 2009.

Tonks, Paul. “Batman: The Animated Series; A Celebration”. 2002.

Walker, Shirley. “Batman: The Animated Series. Volume One”. Prod. MV Gerhard. La-La Land Records, 2008.

Walker, Shirley. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Expanded Archival Edition”. Prod. Thaxton. La-La Land Records, 2009.

Builder of Bridges // Reger as Relativistic Historicist

reger 1.jpeg

The New York Times issued an article in 1906 after a performance of his Max Reger’s Serenade and sacred cantata O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. The paper gave a brief review on the works performed but devotes most of its ink to Reger’s reception in Germany. Reger follows a path “that leads him in a different direction” the paper states. After comparing him directly to Brahms the paper makes mention that he is sometimes referred to as “Bach of Bavaria” and his non-admirers refer to Bach as “Reger of Saxony”. Although this bit of biting humorous nicknaming may have lost its relevance to most in the 21st century it meant a great deal to those in Germany around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. This essay will show that Reger was more than just an admirer of Bach but deeply coupled to the baroque tradition of modeling and synthesis as exhibited through his Organ Suite No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 16 with a focus on the last movement.

A 1905 article in “Die Musik” presented opinions of Bach from important and influential individuals. Like most remarks that were printed Reger stated that Bach’s music has a healing force about it, “Sebastian Bach is for me the beginning and end of all music; upon him rests, and from him originates, all real progress!What does—pardon, what should—Sebastian Bach mean for our era?A really powerful, inexhaustible medicine, not only for all those composers and musicians who suffer from “misunderstood Wagner,” but for all those “contemporaries,” who suffer from spinal maladies of any kind. To be “Bachian” means: to be authentically German, unyielding.”That Bach could be misunderstood for so long, is the greatest scandal for the “critical wisdom” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

Reger’s unique position in Germany as a composer around the turn of the century placed him in a Germany that was concerned with its musical national identity. Two months following the Die Musik article Strauss’ Salome was premiered and the growing discussions about “degenerative” music propagated. The “healthy” and regenerative powers that were believed to spring from Bach’s music were raised and placed as protagonist against the “unnatural” music from other composers of Reger’s time. (Frisch 141-144)     Bekker writes of Reger “the first in his art made reference once again to that past which for us, insofar as we want to connect with the past, is fruitful, he was thus the first to reach beyond the Classic-Romantic models to Bach.” (Frisch 149) While Bekker’s comments offer high praise to Reger and his efforts the title of being the “first” is the fault in his claim. Reger indeed used models, techniques, and procedures from Bach and beyond, but one of Reger’s own champion also had done the same.     Reger completed the organ Suite in 1895. In a letter written to his teacher Riemann Reger wrote proudly of the work, telling his teacher that his Suite “would not bring you any dishonor”. Reger dedicated his Suite, not to a living figure he admired, but “To the memory of Johann Sebastian Bach”. Brahms reaction to this dedication is most telling of the raised stature Bach had amassed through the century. Reger wrote the aging German composer just a year before his death along with the score of his Suite. The letter asked permission of Brahms to be a dedicatee of a symphony in progress. Brahms writes in return, “Permission for that is certainly not necessary, however! I had to smile, since you approach me about this matter and at the same time enclose a work whose all-too-bold dedication terrifies me!” (Frisch 154-55) It is interesting to note that at the time of receiving the letter Brahms had not yet composed his final work of 11 Choral Preludes, Op. 122. (Frisch 159)     

The Organ Suite No. 1 of Reger is comprised of four movements: I. Introduction and Fugue, II. Adagio assai, III. Intermezzo – Trio, and IV. Passacaglia. The Suite’s design Reger may have adopted from both Rheinberger and Brahms. Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 8, which, for its four movements, have similarities in both keys, tempos, and formal procedures which include an Introduction an Fugue as the first movement and passacaglia in the last. Brahms first three symphonies contain “larger outer movements in both scale and nature, and inner movements which are smaller and more intimate”. This is structure is evident in both the Rheinberger and Reger organ works. It is the last symphony of Brahms, the E-minor, which warrants the most comparisons. In addition to the key similarities within the movements all three of the works share a similar “Bachian” feature, the passacaglia as the final movement. (Frisch 155-56, 303)     Elements for a standard passacaglia include the triple meter and following an eight-bar pattern. Example 1 shows passacaglia subjects from Bach, Brahms, and Rheinberger (a contemporary of Brahms generation). Drawing elements from these Reger formulated his own. From Bach and Rheinberger he adapts the contour of large leaps followed by half-step or whole-step motion. From Brahms he takes the initial rising stepwise accent and the introduction of a single chromatic note (aside form the leading tone) the raised fourth (A-sharp). The tradition of adopting aspects of other works and creating a new work out of amalgamation is what Reger is achieving.

Deeper into the final movement of the Suite noticeable comparisons in form arise. The 29 variations Reger sets down are akin to Bach’s 21 variations, Brahms’ 30, and Rheinberger’s 24. (Frisch 149-50) The first variation of Bach’s C-minor passacaglia introduces rhythmic syncopation in the upper voices. Where Bach abandons the syncopation in his second variation Reger continues and develops it. Reger similarly develops features as he moves the ostinato into the middle and upper voices and stages a “return” to the bass, Frisch asserts this as a stylistic adaption of a Brahms procedure. The ostinato remains in the bass until variation 12, where at the first dynamic climax, it moves into the top voice, it then retreats into the bass again through the major key variations.  For the return to the minor in variation 22, another critical moment in the work, the ostinato return to the melody voice. Bach and Brahms do the exact opposite in their return to the minor. Reger brings the ostinato to the bass in variation 25 for the remainder of thee work. Frisch calls this treatment “a sophisticated synthesis of Bach and Brahms”. This “synthesis” is an important aspect of Reger’s output and has placed him as a historicist composer. (Frisch 159-60)

Example 1. Passacaglia Ostinatos, Frisch, 307


The defining feature of a historicist is the ability to consciously reach back to a generation that was not directly behind ones self. Composers for centuries had been building and creating off of existing music of their day. It is through analysis of music of Johannes Brahms that this historicist matter came to light. Repeatedly through Brahms’ works there are stylistic procedures and formal processes that connect to generational styles and manners beyond his foregoing generation. From workings of Palestrina-like counterpoint heard in his choral works, conservative orchestration techniques reminiscent of composers in the early middle 1800’s, to his baroque influenced passages in his symphonies relay a conscious effort to work through and with musical practices from far-reaches of the past. The increasing emergence of availability of scores and musicology which continued to “unearth” these scores helped to fuel the fire of this phenomenon and helps to explain why this had not arisen to such a great extent with earlier composers. Reger’s historicist alignment may have been encouraged through his knowledge of Brahms works but was formed most likely early on from his teacher Riemann, who was a musicologist. This initiated him to be quite prolific in his active years as composer (1895-1916). Aside from his own works he edited, arranged, or transcribed 428 pieces of Bach. (Frisch 300) In his own works though he set out not to arrange or reassemble works of Bach and other masters of his but to create. Walter Frisch further closes in on the term by adding “relativistic”. Relativistic historicism celebrates its distance with the past rather than attempting to collapse it (the collapsing he calls sentimentalism). Reger faced the historical gap and sought to bridge it, not cross back over to it. (Frisch 150)

The 1906 New York Times article stated Reger had his supporters but also non-admirers. The New York Times article points to how different Reger’s music was, “They [the modern composers] are trying to out-Baireuth Wagner in music drama, or out-Weimar Lizst in symphonic tone poems and realistic effects… But Reger has made no concessions to the modern taste.” Reger’s music is rich with a non-conservative amount dissonances but dislike was perhaps taken with his enthrallment with forms and styles of the distant past. Not all understood his wanting to bridge the historical gap when there were new frontiers being explored.   While it also makes mention the high praise Reger receive in his town of Munich where he taught counterpoint by 1920 his non-gravity toward “modern tastes” promoted this review by Paul Rosenfeld in Musical Portraits,

"This Reger is a sarcastic, churlish fellow, bitter and pedantic and rude. He is a sort of musical Cyclops, a strong, ugly creature bulging with knotty and unshapely muscles, an ogre of composition. He has little delicacy, little finesse of spirit. In listening to these works with their clumsy blocks of tone, their eternal sunless complaining, their lack of humor where they would be humorous, their lack of passion where they would be profound, their sardonic and monotonous bourdon, one is perforce reminded of the photograph of Reger which his publishers place on the cover of their catalog of his works, the photograph that shows something that is like a swollen, myopic beetle with thick lips and sullen expression crouching on an organ bench. There is something repulsive as well as pedantic in this art.....There is a sort of brutal coldness, the coldness of the born pedant...with Reger creation becomes routine...His works are stereotyped; stale terribly quickly."(Wey)

Although deceased four years prior to the printing of the seemingly slanderous review Max Reger held to his firm to his musical philosophy during life aligning himself as a sort of spiritually musical chosen one, "I can say with a clear conscience that of all living composers, I am perhaps the one who is most closely in touch with the great Masters of the past". Bach, Reger’s most revered master, coupled him to the baroque tradition of modeling and synthesis as exhibited through his Organ Suite No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 16 and to acknowledge and bridge the historical gap between the two German composers.

references + sources

Frisch, Walter. “German Modernism: Music and the Arts”. University of California Press. 2005. pp. 138-161.

Frisch, Walter. “Reger's Bach and Historicist Modernism”. University of California Press. 19th-Century Music, Vol. 25, No. 2-3 (Fall/Spring 2001-02), pp. 296-312

Wey, Joseph. “String Trio Op. 141B (1915)”, Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes1994-95 Season, Program III, Sunday January 22, 1995.

“Max Reger and His Music” New York Times (1857-1922); Mar 11, 1906; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2008) pg. X1