The Sound of Silents - Music and Movies Week


BAFTA winning conductor and composer Carl Davis conducts the SMS orchestra through the scores for two classic Charlie Chaplin films, The Immigrant and The Rink. Photo by Paul O’Mahoney.

Written by: Margaret Jacobi

For over 100 years, a variety of mechanisms have radicalized the film viewing experience. Modern technologies have become an inspiration and crutch for contemporary filmmakers. Yet on a fundamental level, the two most core features to engage audiences remain effective visuals accompanied by complementary music.

The incredible success of The Artist exemplifies this point. Almost completely free of dialogue, it offers nostalgic recognition for the foundations of film and proves that quality acting, directing, and music are foolproof elements to create a poignant and entertaining experience. Nominated for 10 Oscars, The Artist, in lieu of traditional silent film, relies solely on music to give the action emotional context for the audience.

In an age where Hollywood is still crazy for 3D super-hero sequels drenched in video game-worthy CGI effects, The Artist explores a more primal cinematic experience – one that relies on an efficient and passionate marriage between action and music that was forged at the very birth of silent film.

Musical scores intended to accompany films date back as far as 1890, around the time when narrative film first appeared. Music was always necessitated, but not yet standardized when the medium was first maturing. Cinemas in more wealthy neighborhoods occasionally employed an orchestra, but the majority of small town theaters provided their own pianist who was left to improvise alongside the film reel. Musical performers’ influences were largely a combination of the Romantic era, popular music of the day, and geographic location. Some theaters later attempted to replace these performers with player pianos when they were first invented. However, this substitution was not well received because of the mechanical piano’s inability to realize scene-appropriate music.

Eventually, a means to standardize film music was created. A list given to the cinema musicians called a “cue sheet” called for improvisations to be suited for mood or dramatic situations at certain points in the film. When they were first created, cue sheets merely noted shifts in the film where the music should change. Later on they included actual clips of specific musical suggestions. This development led to the mass printing of inventories of classical music that could be referenced for specific circumstances in films (i.e. bad guys enters, couple falls in love, etc.).

By the 1920s, silent film accompaniment had become a legitimate profession. Different varieties of pianos and organs, such as Wurlitzers, remained the basis of popular film music until the late silent era when orchestral scores began to develop. Their repertoires consisted of compilations of existing orchestral music, most notably Richard Wagner’s works. Sections from his opera Die Walkure were used in the first American orchestral score compiled by Joseph Carl Breil for, perhaps one the most famous and innovative films of its time, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

At twelve reels long, Birth of a Nation was also the longest film of the era. An extremely controversial film given the sensitive nature of its subject (and unapologetic racism), Birth of a Nation remains a cinematic milestone. When the film opened in March of 1915, it not only presented new camera techniques, but also a fifty instrument-strong orchestra with a fully arranged score.

About 3 million people saw Birth of a Nation in its first year, making it the most successful film since the industry’s inception. Film studios began to follow in Breil’s steps, producing large orchestral scores as accompaniment. Most of these scores were also compilations, which incurred the chagrin of composers, such as Victor Herbert, who disagreed with this practice and insisted on writing original orchestral scores.

During the ’20s, music directors became savvy to the idea of specifying characters and emotional patterns in music through the use of leitmotifs, or repetitive musical themes. Around this time, the orchestra was moved from their location on stage to the orchestra pit to allow for more continuity in the film-going experience.

In 1927, The Jazz Singer, largely considered the first film to use synchronized dialogue, was released and irrevocably transformed the industry. In this moment, dialogue took the forefront cinematically from music for most films.

Because of disorganization regarding the first original music scores and the passage of time, most of these manuscripts have been lost. However, a resurgence of interest in silent film preservation in the 1970s resulted in the salvaging of original scores and the commissioning of new scores in the place of those lost. Once forgotten in time, silent films can again be enjoyed with new musical accompaniment.

Composer Ludovic Bource created an original score for The Artist, but also commemorated the past in a similar manner to the director, by including a segment of the love theme in Vertigo. Some predict the success of The Artist will instigate a new wave of modern silent film. Let’s hope that, if this is the case, these new films will employ the rudimentary elements of cinema and music as skillfully as their silent predecessors.