The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


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.
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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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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