The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview
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THE SILENT CINEMA EXPERIENCE

Music and the Silent Film
MARTIN MARKSSilent films were a technological accident, not an aesthetic choice. If Edison and other pioneers had had the means, music would probably have been an integral part of filmmaking from the very start. But because such means were lacking, a new type of theatrical music rapidly developed; the wide variety of films and screening conditions in Europe or America between 1895 and the late 1920s came to be matched by an equally wide range of musical practice and musical materials. With the coming of synchronized sound this variety disappeared and a whole past experience was lost from view. Since the 1980s, however, with the renewed interest in reviving silent performance, film musicians and historians have begun to rediscover the field and even to find new forms of accompaniment for silent film.
MUSICAL PRACTICE
Music in silent cinema has long been of interest to film theorists, and a number of explanations have been proposed to account for its apparently indispensable presence right from the start. These have tended to concentrate on the psycho-acoustic functions of music (well summarized by Gorbman 1987), and only recently have historians begun to pay close attention to the theatrical context of film presentations and in particular to the debt owed by film music to long-standing traditions of music for the theatre, adapted as necessary to suit the new medium.Consider, for example, the remarkable variety and richness of so-called 'incidental' music for stage plays throughout the nineteenth century (a variety that becomes still richer if one looks further to the past). At one end, lavish incidental works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and Grieg, though somewhat atypical, proved highly useful for film accompaniment -- or so we can presume, since excerpts from these works were repeatedly published in film music anthologies and inserted into compiled scores (often for scenes quite unlike their original contexts). But most theatre music was the work of minor figures, who, like their successors in the field of film music, continually had to compose, arrange, conduct, or improvise functional bits and pieces -- 'mélodrames', 'hurries', 'agits', and so on-on the spur of the moment, for one ephemeral production after another.Relatively little of this music is known today, but what has been seen (like the collection of Victorian-period examples published by Mayer and Scott) bears a strong family likeness to the seemingly 'new' music later published in film anthologies. Thus, the practitioners of incidental music supplied a triple legacy -- of pre-existent repertoire, stylistic prototypes, and working methods -- just as did those who specialized in the genres of ballet and pantomime. The latter genres sometimes came very close to anticipating the peculiar requirements of scores for silent films, owing to their absence of speech and need for continuous music, some of it consisting of closed forms suitable for patterned choreography, some of it open-ended and fragmentary, intended to mirror the smallest details of stage action.Paradoxically, the theatrical genre with perhaps the most powerful influence on film music was the one with which its affinity was the weakest, namely opera. Instrumental arrangements from many hundreds of popular works (Italian, French, German, English) were called for in silent-film cue sheets of the 1910s and 1920s; moreover, by that time Wagner's development of a symphonic approach (the orchestra supplying a continuous commentary), characterized by the use of symbolic themes, long-range thematic transformations, opulent tone colours, and romantic harmonies, was so much admired that many leading composers of film scores (including Joseph Carl Breil, Gottfried Huppertz, and Mortimer Wilson, all discussed below) either explicitly acknowledged his influence or implicitly imitated his style, albeit with less than Wagnerian results.As was true of film music's antecedents, accompaniments to silent films were of many types, so the popular image of the lone pianist improvising (badly, on an out-oftune relic) to whatever appeared on the screen is only the smallest and darkest part of a much broader and brighter panorama. All told, musical ensembles fell into four distinct categories, determined largely by the time period and theatrical milieu.
1. Viudeville/music hall orchestras accompanied films when seen as part of variety shows during the early years

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