- Historic Sites
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 more useful for film musicians than collections of mood music were “cue sheets” containing suggestions for specific films. As early as 1909 Edison Company began sending out “Suggestions for Music” sheets with its films; for its one-reel Frankenstein (1910)—a “liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s story, made to carefully eliminate all the actually repulsive situations”—Edison suggested music like “Melody in F,” Der Freischutz , “Annie Laurie,” and Lohengrin for the picture’s twenty-five scenes. But fully developed cue sheets, listing individual scenes in their proper sequence and indicating length, basic mood, and appropriate music for each, did not become common until two or three years later. Max Winkler claimed to have invented them, but other filmmusic specialists—Schirmer’s S. M. Berg, the “cue-sheet man,” and Vitagraph Studio’s Bert Ennis—conceived the idea about the same time. Spurred by the Nazimova fiasco, Winkler drew up a plan for analyzing a film’s musical needs and making a list of musical suggestions fitted with precision to the action on the screen. As he conceived it, a cue sheet would go something like this:
The movie La Bohème had a new score; one critic preferred it to Puccini’s.
1. Opening—play Minuet No. 2 in G by Beethoven for ninety seconds until title on screen “Follow Me Dear.”
2. Play “Dramatic Andante” by VeIy for two minutes and ten seconds. Note: Play soft during scene where mother enters. Play Cue No. 2 until scene “hero leaving room.”
3. Play “Love Theme” by Lorenze—for one minute and twenty seconds. Note: Play soft and slow during conversations until title on screen “There they go.”
4. Play “Stampede” by Simon for fiftyfive seconds. Note: Play fast and decrease or increase speed of gallop in accordance with action on the screen.
Winkler sold his idea to Universal Film Company and was soon busy preparing cue sheets that contained musical suggestions for every “scene, situation, character, action, emotion, nationality, emergency, windstorm, rainstorm and brainstorm, every dancer, vamp, cowboy, thief and gigolo, Eskimo and Zulu, emperor and streetwalker, colibri and elephant—plus every printed title that flickered in the faces of the five-cent to twenty-five-cent audiences.” Not surprisingly, cue sheets became enormously popular among pianists, organists, and orchestra leaders throughout the country. In large theaters, musical directors set about collecting and filing huge libraries of film music, and trade magazines inaugurated columns offering suggestions for music for forthcoming films.
With cue sheets, as with compilations, film musicians continued to raid— or, as some critics put it, “rape”— the works of the great masters. From Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner emerged adagio lamentosos, sinister misteriosos, weird moderatos, and majestic pomposos. Wagner’s and Mendelssohn’s wedding marches were used for divorces as well as marriages by “souring up the aisle,” that is, playing them out of tune. Meyerbeer’s “Coronation March,” played slowly, accompanied criminals to the death room. Delibes’s “Pizzicato Polka” was used for “sneaky” sequences by counting “one-two” between each pizzicato. And music featuring trombone solos invariably accompanied drunk scenes—“no other instrument,” said Winkler, “could hiccup with such virtuosity.” But the great masters did not always have what it took, and film-makers started seeking original music, as well, for their productions. Music publishers began to assemble a group of moviemusic specialists, among them Gaston Borch, Irénée Bergé, Maurice Baron, Hugo Riesenfeld, and the prolific J. S. Zamecnik, who turned out nine volumes of Sam Fox Moving Picture Music between 1913 and 1929 and was so adept at “hurries” and “agits” (agitato) that some of them were still being used in serials and newsreels in the 1930s, long after music had gone onto the sound track. Before long the American public was hearing huge quantities of BorchBergé-Zamecnik-Riesenfeld music in the movie theater.