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The Sound Of Silents
The men and women who labored in the ghostly light of the great screen to make the music that accompanied silent movies were as much a part of the show as Lillian Gish or Douglas Fairbanks
August/september 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
Even when accompanists began taking their function more seriously, the music was not always good. Clichés quickly became common: chase scenes were always accompanied by Rossini’s William Tell Overture , night scenes by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata , sleep by “Rockabye Baby,” winter by “Jingle Bells,” and scenes of “blighted love” by the tearjerker “Hearts and Flowers” (so overworked that it began to provoke laughter). And even though accompanists were trying harder, mishaps continued. In October 1909 a writer for the New York Daily Mirror saw a movie in which a pathetic scene, showing a man mourning his dead wife, was accompanied by the strains of “No Wedding Bells for Me.” “Bad judgement in the selection of music,” he complained, “may ruin an exhibition as much as a good programme may help it.” The music publisher Max Winkler witnessed a similar incongruity in War Brides , a 1916 movie starring Nazimova as a pregnant peasant woman who, at the high point of the film, threw herself in front of the king, hands raised to heaven, and cried (according to the screen title): “If you will not give us women the right to vote for or against war, I shall not bear a child for such a country.” When the king disdainfully swept past her, Nazimova drew a dagger and killed herself. Up to this point, according to Winkler, the pianist had been doing fairly well, but, just as Nazimova drew her last breath, he began to play a lively old favorite entitled “You Made Me What I Am Today.” Winkler asked him about it afterward. “Why, I thought that was perfectly clear. Wasn’t it the king’s fault that she killed herself?”
The basic problem was that musicians could not preview the films they had to accompany.
Another accompanist saw soldiers marching in the distance and started playing “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue,” bringing the audience to its feet. It turned out to be the German army.
The basic problem, of course, was that musicians did not get to preview films. This meant they sat in the dark watching the screen and playing whatever came to mind at the spur of the moment. “It was a terrible predicament,” Max Winkler recalled, “and so, usually, was the music.” Compilations of music for films, which began appearing just before World War I, were some help. Sam Fox began publishing volumes of classified “mood” music in 1913, and Carl Fischer and other music publishers soon followed suit. These collections listed the basic moods (love, hate, passion, joy, sorrow, anger, fury, fear, terror, tension) and supplied appropriate music for each. The word mood was loosely defined to include atmospheric music (seasonal, scenic, and national) and action music (chases, fire fighting, storms at sea). Moods can be complicated things, even in silent films, and the basic ones were usually subdivided into additional categories, and the subcategories themselves further split. Under the classification Dramatic Expression, for example, there might be four categories (Climax—Tension; Misterioso—Tension; Agitato; and Climax, Appassionato); Climax, Appassionato, would be broken down into Despair, Passionate Lament, Passionate Excitement, Jubilant, Victorious, and Bacchantic, with appropriate music for each. There were many kinds of Hurry Music: for struggles, duels, mob, or fire scenes, combats, sword fights, great confusion, and general use. Never before in the history of the world had music been pigeonholed in such a fashion.
What kind of music? Just about every kind. It came from grand opera, light opera, symphonies, musical comedy, folk music, popular songs, jazz, ragtime, and piano music of the great masters of the nineteenth century. One of the most interesting compilations came out in 1924: Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists , prepared by Erno Rapee, musical director at New York’s Capitol Theater. It not only included an enormous number of musical selections (mostly classical) for fifty-two moods; it also presented an index of all the moods on every page so that pianists could quickly turn to any of the 694 pages in the book. When, in the 1930s, Rapee’s huge collection was remaindered for a couple of dollars a copy, a New Yorker correspondent was struck by the fact that there were the same number of moods as there were cards in a deck and weeks in a year, that Grieg was the “movie pianist’s best pal and surest bet,” and that Mendelssohn was the “aeroplane man.”