Last month, I was poring over traditional Appalachian carols, characteristic French noels, German Lutheran alternative tunes to well-known carols, English hymns by Arthur Sullivan and Gustav Holst, even a carol by jazz great Dave Brubeck (in 5/4 time, no less, with drums). From my pile of Christmas music, out popped a little carol for voice and piano inscribed to me by American composer David Diamond. Entitled “A Christmas Tree,” this 1970 composition is a setting of a poem of the same name by E.E. Cummings. The music is most appropriately dedicated to Hildegarde and Sibley Watson.
Suddenly my thoughts leapt to an entirely different topic: the movie The Fall of the House of Usher filmed in 1928 in Rochester, NY. David Curtis calls directors James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber “the first truly avant-garde American filmmakers.” This 14-minute film and the later Watson film Lot in Sodom remain landmarks in filmmaking. The cinematography is by Watson and goes beyond the effects used by Murnau and other German expressionists. The use of miniatures, superimposed images and the almost total avoidance of subtitles are outstanding for the silent film era. The adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story is by Sibley Watson, Webber and E.E. Cummings.
In 2000, The Fall of the House of Usher was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry to preserve America’s best films. Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center remarked on the relationship of the films to Watson’s other major achievement, the literary journal The Dial. Along with Scofield Thayer, Sibley Watson had revived the transcendentalist political magazine The Dial and converted it into a literary journal that was without equal in its period (1920-1929). The journal was the first to publish E.E. Cummings and Marianne Moore’s poetry and the first to publish T.S. Eliot in America. Ezra Pound, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Thomas Mann reported from Europe, as The Dial published American authors Hart Crane, Amy Lowell, Kahlil Gibran, Sherwood Anderson, and Van Wyck Brooks during the first year alone. It was from that aesthetic background that Watson entered filmmaking.
My first exposure to The Fall of the House of Usher is unforgettable. In 1975 James Sibley Watson seldom left his house in Rochester due to illness, but his vivacious wife Hildegarde was very much present in artistic circles. Discovering one day at a dinner party that a number of her younger friends had never seen her husband’s movies, Hildegarde arranged a special showing at the George Eastman House for a month later. Hermine Weill, another grand lady of Rochester, hosted a dinner after the screening, and (almost fifty years after the filming) two-thirds of the cast attended! Melville Webber had passed on, but Hildegarde Watson and Herbert Stern came to dinner and reminisced about the filming. Herbie even wore the very clothes that he had worn for the film.
Composer David Diamond (in the 1970s on the faculty of Juilliard School of Music but living in Rochester five days of the week) knew of the intimate connection of E.E. Cummings to the Watsons. Scofield Thayer, James Sibley Watson, and E.E. Cummings had attended Harvard College together, and Cummings had lived at the Watson house in Rochester for several years to assist with The Dial. So it was particularly meaningful for Diamond to dedicate a setting of a Cummings poem to Sibley and Hildegarde Watson. And my copy of “A Christmas Tree” will always bring back to me a rush of memories of composers, poets, filmmakers, and actors that I knew during my twenty-five years in Rochester.