Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924

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Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924

It took a while for film presentation to become standardized, and there's a lot of evidence that before a lot of theaters may have not used music, or had a musician who played to entertain the audience while the film was being rewound rather than during the film itself. But it's safe to say that by , appropriate music was expected to be played during a film screening.

The idea that early films were not always accompanied by music is supported by the fact that almost no photoplay music was published before films having been shown since the mid s , implying that there may not have been a demand in the early years. Starting around , specific books of music appear, first for keyboard solo and soon thereafter for small orchestras. There are three kinds of silent film scores: improvised scores, composed scores, and compiled scores. A "composed score" is one that is made of fresh music composed for the film.

Zamecnik and Hugo Riesenfeld, and the late 20th-century scores by Carl Davis. This is a very efficient way to present silent films, but is best suited to solo instrumentalists or small avant-garde groups, since it's hard for a large ensemble to make stuff up that makes musical sense. Improvised scores are the most common type of score in live-music silent film screenings today, but it was not always so—there are more improvising musicians now than there were in the s.

Improvisation was not part of the standard classical music education, and most musicians relied on having something written on a page. A "compiled score" is assembled from a library of pre-written music, and was the most common type of orchestral silent film score. Each scene is scored by choosing an appropriate piece—storm music for storm scenes, romantic music for love scenes, etc. Since all of the music is already composed and orchestrated, a complete orchestral score can be assembled and rehearsed in a matter of days.

The Mont Alto Orchestra compiles its scores from period theater music, often leaving a few scenes to be improvised on the piano to make the score more flexible for live performance conditions. One possible definition of silent films would be "films that have no single, definitive sound track.

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If you saw the same film in different theatres, you would hear close to different scores. It is true that many big productions had scores composed especially for their New York premieres by composers like Erno Rapee and Hugo Riesenfeld. But these scores were rarely used at many theaters outside New York unless an orchestra travelled with the film as a "road show," and I prefer to refer to them as the "New York Premiere Score" rather than the "Original Score.

The Silent Era: Crash Course Film History #9

A "cue sheet" was sort of a cheat sheet for the musical director that would be sent with or ahead of a film to give hints as to what pieces would work with the film see an example below. The cue sheet lists the "cue" action or title to watch for in the film, the title, composer, and publisher of a suggested piece to be played, and a few opening measures of the violin part. Note that this is not enough to play a score from, but just enough to give musicians an idea of the kind of music is being called for so that they can make informed substitutions. Theater music directors were expected to maintain a library of music, and either use the music suggested in the cue sheet or substitute similar pieces from their collections.

Cue sheets were ignored by some theater directors and used by others. It is maintained by some that using the cue sheet is the only way to prepare an "authentic" score that reflects what people originally heard. I feel that using a cue sheet can be an interesting academic exercise, but it mistakes the original intent of cue sheets. A paragraph from some of James Bradford's cue sheets makes his intentions clear:.

It is not intended that he should purchase the pieces suggested nor should it be inferred that without them a good musical setting is not possible.

Book Music And The Silent Film Contexts And Case Studies 1895 1924

Their purpose is rather to illustrate the style and character of the music that fits each scene and so enable to leader to select a similar piece from his library. Compiled scores are a remarkably efficient way to assemble impressive movie scores -- typically the score compiler received the film or cue sheet three days to a week before the picture was to be shown and was able to have the film score arranged and the orchestra rehearsed by opening night while still exhibiting the previous film. Mont Alto got an accidental trial-by-fire on this at the Cinecon convention, when an expected film was cancelled a week before the screening.

Susan Hall and I were able to compile a score for a different film in one day, arrange parts for each musician the next, rehearse on a third day, and then present the film "as professionally as if planned for months" according to a review of the performance in Classic Images. A typical compiled film score uses from 35 to 70 pieces of music, but you need a larger pool of pieces to select them from. Large theaters boasted of libraries with 15,, or even as many as 50, scores, typically a mix of classical works, popular dances and songs, and photoplay music.


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I would estimate that a minimum practical film scoring library should have at least to pieces, and even then some of the more useful pieces would start to repeat themselves after five or ten film scores. I have encountered many more people whose grandmothers played for the movies than people whose grandfathers played. I don't know any studies of this, but it would not surprise me at all to learn that more women than men were pianists in the small nickleodeons.

More women were trained to play the piano than men it was part of a proper upbringing , and they were probably cheaper to hire. The huge demand for qualified musicians overruled long-standing prejudices, and Black musicians such as the composers James Scott and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Louis Armstrong, got regular work in movie theaters. It seems to have been much rarer for women to be members of orchestras, although I have found some photoplay pieces that were rubber-stamped with the names of women who were presumably the orchestra leaders.

This is some of the earliest and most primitive photoplay music, written in by J. This book contains piano music well within the range of a beginning to intermediate pianist. I hope to get some more advanced photoplay music on-line, so check back.

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To hear more sophisticated music, try our CD and video recordings page, on which are downloadable MP3 files of Mont Alto's recorded performances of photoplay music. Also, check the Photoplay Music Sources page for more places that music can be found. Bodewaldt Lampe, published in by Jerome H. I have learned to never claim something as being the "first" appearance of anything in early movies, because usually someone will come up with an earlier example.

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But, this is certainly an early version of this theme. The piece almost immediately became an object of satirical imitation, and is quoted in humorous takes on silent films. Like the "woman tied to a railroad track by the villain" meme, I suspect that it appeared in silent film more in parody even at the time than in seriousness. Lampe does not take actually take credit as composer of the piece which he does for other pieces in the collection , so it may be that he got it from some older source, possibly from vaudeville or melodrama which often had live music. Also, note how short it is: movies were not very long in , but even considering that, this is not going to score very much film.

In a survey of movie theaters by Motion Picture News, exhibitors were asked about the musical accompaniment in their theaters. Orchestras were expensive and often reserved for prime-time shows, so even those theaters that claimed to have orchestras probably used theater organs or pianos at the early matinees and during the orchestra's breaks.

Pure but historically authentic American hype. In the Motion Picture News survey mentioned above, only 6.

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The unscientific nature of the survey makes extrapolation from this data risky, but if the data were assumed accurate, in the roughly 15, American theaters there would have been around "orchestras," of which around would have been larger than ten players, with six to ten players, and with three to five players. If you were to plot a graph of the data, you'd notice that five players may have been the most common configuration depending on how that category breaks down.

To be useful to the widest variety of orchestras, photoplay music was arranged so that any piece could be played by any group from a piano-violin-cello trio up to an piece orchestra. Orchestrators did this by "cross cueing," which means that an important musical line in one instrument would be placed, in small "cue" notes, in the parts for other instruments, so that for instance in the absence of the oboe, the clarinet or violin could play the oboe's solos. The piano was used to cover the usual "filler" work of the basses, violas, and second violins.

The "piano-conductor" score was used by the conductor as well, since there was no full score published. Considering that most conductors in small groups were playing an instrument, a full score would have had an unwelcome number of page turns.


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If the orchestra was large enough, all of the piano's notes were covered by other instruments, and the piano could be omitted entirely. Advertisements for the Sam Fox Photoplay Editions, state "Arranged for full orchestra and effective in any small orchestral combination which includes violin and piano. Most photoplay music was sold in "large orchestra" and "small orchestra" versions. The "small" orchestra's parts consisted of:.

But the parts are identical.


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A cellist would read from same part whether in a piano trio, a small orchestra, or a large orchestra -- but in the small group, he or she would have to play the bassoon and trombone cue notes. Most photoplay music composers were serious classical musicians, working in what they felt was a novel and economically viable new field of classical music.

Gaston Borch had studied with Jules Massenet and had played in and conducted symphonies across Europe and America. Zamecnik, who studied for two years with Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory, voiced the attitude of many composers. If the great composers only realized the opportunities in the motion picture field they would be knocking on the door for an opportunity to write this music.

I am of the opinion that essentially dramatic composers, such as Wagner and Tschaikowsky, would have been vastly attracted by the motion picture. Wagner's ideas were always dramatic and always conceived on a tremendous scale. They were so vast and called for such technical resource that he had to have a special opera house constructed to properly present his music dramas. The motion picture has no such limitations as the stage.

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