THE SILENT CINEMA EXPERIENCE
Music and the Silent FilmMARTIN 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
MUSICAL PRACTICEMusic 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|
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Book title: The Oxford History of World Cinema.
Contributors: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith - Editor.
Publisher: Oxford University Press.
Place of publication: Oxford.
Publication year: 1997.
Page number: 183.
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