Film music: Part one

Over the next few weeks Douglas from the Music Library says he will take us through what is probably the briefest, most subjective, and ill-informed “history” of film music you will read. In a series of posts, we will take a short hop through the “history” of how the film soundtrack became what it is today.

“In the recent weeks and months a lot of us have been working from home using the time as usefully as we can. 

I have spent my home working days in the last weeks, reading and acting on my emails, attending zoom meetings and online tutorials, writing blogs to highlight all the wonderful electronic resources we have. My colleagues and I not only write about our resources, we also use them. During these lockdown and home working periods we have all been going through, I have used our Family History resource, Find My Past, to expand my family tree and when I have been reading I have mostly used our Overdrive to either read or listen to books, and I have gone back to listening to music, to which the library’s Naxos music streaming service is such a great resource.

William Perry’s Music for Great Films of the Silent Era, Vol. 2, available on Naxos

In between all the work things, I logged onto our Naxos music streaming service and worked my way through some favourite film soundtracks. 

As I mused on the wonderful soundtracks, I got to thinking about where they came from, and about all the composers throughout the years, who provided this fine body of work.  

The first performances of the moving picture were unaccompanied by any kind of soundtrack. In an early kind of audience feedback, the two dimensional, black and white, and mostly, except for the clatter of the projector, silent images, was, said by the audiences to feel, unreal or incomplete. This was countered in early outings of silent productions, when phonograph records were sent out with the film to be played at the same time as the projection.

As the format grew and travelled the world and was adopted in many different countries, the need for sound, often music but not always, to highlight what was being watched, was introduced. In Japan, early performances were accompanied by live narration but the sounds were often the music of the countries in which the films were being viewed. In America and Europe this was western classical music.  

It is always assumed that the musician who played for these early cinematic performances were adept improvisers and they were, but this was not a complete picture of this kind of music making.  

There a few notable firsts to add to the story so far. In 1908, the first score written specially for a film was penned by Camille Saint-Saens for the short film “L’assassinat du Duc de Guise”. Erik Satie provided a frame by frame soundtrack to the short surrealist film Entr’acte by René Clair, which was given as an intermezzo for the Ballet “Relache” in 1924. 

Large volumes of music were written to accompany short sections or scenes in a film. The pianists and the small groups who provided the accompaniment, would be sent a playlist with the film, a scene by scene breakdown of the film with an indication of the characters or the moods to be conveyed at that time.

Alternatively, they watched the film they were to work with and prepared their own playlist of music snippets which they would improvise links to, to get them from one snippet to another snippet. These snippets of music were different in length from seconds to minutes, therefore, another tool in the arsenal of the film accompanist was the ability to lengthen or shorten these nuggets of music to suit the length they required.

This music was generic and ultimately disposable, which was unfortunately what happen to a lot of it. Some survives and is collected by libraries and used to recreate performances of silent film.  

Birmingham City Libraries have a collection of music for the silent cinema with titles like:
The Vampire by Sol P. Levy 
Serenade by A. E. Titl 
A.B.C. Dramatic Set No. 17 by Ernest Luz which is subtitled ‘A classy illustration of agitation with a sorrowful or plaintive aftermath’ – all of which happens in about a minute’s worth of music. 
Symphonic Incidentals No.15 which is subtitled “Sinister”.
And other titles like the Mob, Smugglers, Tender Appeal, The First Kiss, The Spectre and To the rescue. Also in the collection is a piece specifically written for an actor rather than a mood, a piece entitled Marche Grotesque for Charles Chaplin. 

In K. Kalinak’s book Film Music – A very short introduction, there is a short list of “Musical Encyclopaedias” which contain music catalogued by their dramatic mood: 

Giuseppe Becce’s Kinothek series published in Berlin from 1919 to 1929 
J.S. Zamecnik’s Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Series, 1913-1914
Erno Rapee’s Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists, 1924 
And the Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures, 1925. 

Musicians also made use of famous or well-known pieces of music. There were, I imagine, less checks by copyright enforcers so they could use chunks of a pieces of music which suited their purpose.  

To digress, an “en pointe” digression, from the, so-called, history. I attended a performance of a silent movie called “The Lodger”, an early Alfred Hitchcock film, starring Ivor Novello, which on this occasion had a recreated score performed by a small group of Edinburgh musicians. They coupled together some of the music from editions like the collections mentioned above and intertwined them with sections of “The Rite Of Spring” by Stravinsky. This live score was arranged for violin, trumpet, clarinet, cello, piano and theremin. This use was appropriate as the Rite of Spring was composed in 1913 and the film was made in 1927. This is a great point to stop, 1927 and a period of time which saw the first of the sound films, the Talkies, and the last of the silent movies. The Jazz Singer released in 1927 is credited with being, the first full length Hollywood film with synchronised sound.”

More on this and The Jazz Singer next week, when we pick up with Douglas in part two of his film music history.

4 thoughts on “Film music: Part one

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