- 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
From original mood music to original scores for whole films was only a small step. But it was not until 1915 that D. W. Griffith took it with his tremendously innovative, distressingly racist epic, The Birth of a Nation. For this film, Griffith (who had studied music in Louisville and New York) and Joseph Carl Breil, orchestra leader and composer, prepared the first “full orchestral score,” constructed on symphonic lines, for an American film. Breil wrote some of the music himself, most notably the love theme for the Little Colonel and Elsie Stoneman, which, published separately as “The Perfect Song,” eventually became the theme song for the “Amos and Andy” radio show. The score also made use of traditional American tunes like “Dixie” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, in addition, lots of music from the great masters: Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” for scenes of the evacuation of Atlanta and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for the ride of the Klansmen in the last two reels. Elsewhere it appropriated Massenet, Dukas, Suppé, Weber, Bellini, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Verdi, Bizet, Offenbach, Mozart, Schumann, Flotow, Mahler, Rossini, Bach, Brahms, and Liszt. The cuing was precise and detailed throughout, and the score as a whole established standards for film music that influenced all subsequent film-makers. Griffith’s production has been called the “most discussed film and film musical score” of all time, and after its premiere at a legitimate theater on Broadway at two dollars a ticket in March 1915, film music acquired a prestige in this country that it had never before possessed.
After The Birth of a Nation, original scores for major productions became practically de rigueur. Breil did the score for Griffith’s Intolerance the following year, and special music was prepared for all of the most famous Hollywood movies of the twenties: Orphans of the Storm (Louis M. Gottschalk and William F. Peters, 1922), The Covered Wagon (Hugo Riesenfeld, 1923), Greed (Leo Kampenski, 1924), The Iron Horse (Erno Rapee, 1924), The Big Parade (David Mendoza and William Axt, 1925), Ben Hur (Mendoza and Axt, 1926), and Don Juan (Mendoza and Axt, 1926).
There was even “original” music for the silent version of La Bohéme (1926). Puccini’s estate was in litigation when the film was being made, and his music was unavailable, so David Mendoza and William Axt did a substitute score that the critic George Jean Nathan liked better than Puccini’s.
American film music had come a long way from its early hit-and-miss days. For the screening of Germany’s expressionistic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in New York in 1921, the Capitol Theater manager S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel and his musical director Erno Rapee had made use of composers never before heard (or heard of) by mass audiences—Debussy, Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Schoenberg—and Musical America heartily endorsed Roxy’s judgment that it was the “most daring musical achievement in the history of the American motion-picture theater.” When The Birth of a Nation was revived at the Capitol a little later, the original score had come to seem too elementary, and it was replaced by a more sophisticated one. “The art of musical presentation,” explained Roxy, “had progressed so markedly during the seven years since The Birth of a Nation was first produced, that different standards and methods of adaptation have educated the public to new musical values. …” By 1921 there were probably sixty theaters in the country with orchestras of thirty or more instruments; and there were hundreds more with small orchestra combinations or large organs, and thousands with pianists conscientiously consulting moodmusic collections and cue sheets. The largest theaters had huge libraries of film music and whole music staffs consisting of musical directors, conductors, associate conductors, concertmasters, vocal coaches, organists, and vocalists. Eugene Ormandy was assistant conductor at the Capitol Theater in New York and was permitted on occasion to conduct for newsreels, and Jan Peerce was one of the Capitol’s vocalists.