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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
D. W. Griffith was thoughtful enough to know that there was a vast difference between concert music and film music. But even he failed to realize that changing notes in Wagner was no way to develop appropriate accompaniments for films. He was extremely proud of the fact that the score for The Birth of a Nation contained so many different classical selections, and his program notes gave the impression that he was presenting a concert as well as screening a film for the enjoyment of his audiences. Many people appreciated this double offering, but at least one critic had grave misgivings about it. Carl Van Vechten wrote in The New York Times, “It is strange, but it has occurred to no one that the moving picture demands a new kind of music.” Only with the advent of sound did the kind of music he was suggesting come into being.
As Hollywood freed itself from the conventions of the silent era, it began employing composers to write original music for its films and, for the first time, music began to become an integral part of American moving pictures. The silent era produced nothing in the United States to compare with some of the more striking scores of the early sound era: Max Steiner’s for The Informer (1935), for example, or Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), or Adolph Deutsch’s for The Maltese Falcon (1941). By the late thirties, the avant-garde composer George Antheil was commenting favorably in the pages of Modern Music magazine on the “daring advances and startling newnesses” appearing in the scores of Hollywood’s master craftsman Max Steiner; and distinguished composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson—as well as Antheil himself—were doing music for films that still continues to evoke interest. Even Charlie Chaplin, who stuck doggedly to silent films until 1940, made splendid use of the new opportunities for film music. Beginning in 1921 with his first feature, The Kid, Chaplin had distributed cue sheets with his pictures, but, like everyone else, he made use largely of established music. With the sound now available to him, he began composing music of his own and, by carefully supervising the orchestration and conducting the recording himself, he made his scores for City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) an essential and delightful part of the films as a whole.
In a way, then, Griffith, who had given film music such a big boost during the silent era, turned out to be right when he forecast its bright future. The more adventurous Hollywood composers who were exploring the exciting new possibilities sound had opened up to them may not have been doing exactly what Griffith had in mind when he made his prediction. But they were trying to do what he always tried to do himself— advance motion pictures to a higher level of artistic achievement.