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The Sound Of Silents

April 2024
15min read

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

If I ever kill anyone,” D. W. Griffith once exclaimed, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” He had been arguing with Joseph Carl Breil, his collaborator on the score for The Birth of a Nation. Griffith wanted to change some of the notes in the music they were planning to borrow, and Breil was outraged. “You can’t tamper with Wagner!” he cried. “It’s never been done!” But Griffith insisted the music for his picture “wasn’t primarily music”; it was “music for motion pictures.”

Griffith was as interested in motion picture music as he was in every other aspect of movie-making. “Watch a film run in silence,” he once said, “and then watch it again with eyes and ears. The music sets the mood for what your eye sees; it guides your emotions; it is the emotional framework for visual pictures.” Griffith was the first American director to engage a professional musician to help prepare a complete score for a motion picture, and he was the first to include the musical director’s name in the film credits. For the premiere of The Birth of a Nation in Los Angeles in February 1915 and in New York City the following month, he arranged for the Breil score to be performed by a symphony orchestra and for program notes to be printed with a list of the classical numbers that had been included. After The Birth of a Nation, musical scores arranged in advance for important feature pictures became customary in the United States. Music as a “cinematic ally” had finally arrived.

From the very beginning, the association of music with film seemed natural. Thomas A. Edison thought so; when he first became interested in movies, he wanted to unite his Kinetoscope with his phonograph so as to make grand opera available to everyone “for a dime.” But early film-makers were unable to synchronize sound and sight satisfactorily, and the idea of sound pictures quickly died. Silent films became the rule. And all of them—even the earliest, shortest subjects featuring cockfights, acrobats, and the like—had music of some kind accompanying them.

This was not due to any aesthetic leanings on the part of the exhibitors; music was necessary to drown out the clatter of the projector, usually stationed in the midst of the audience. Then, after projectors were put in soundproof boxes, music served to drown out the noise of the audience. Without music, wrote the Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg in 1916, “the onesided engagement of the senses would produce an intolerable tension,” which manifested itself in coughing, restlessness, rattling candy wrappers, and incessant chatter. But music could do more than quiet things down. As films developed in length and sophistication, it became clear that music was indispensable for clarifying the emotions behind certain scenes. There were moods and feelings and nuances and overtones in some of the better early films that simply did not come across to audiences without music; the facial expressions, physical movements, and printed titles were not enough. Irving Thalberg, the great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production head, went so far as to say: “There never was a silent film. We’d finish a picture, show it in one of our projection rooms, and come out shattered. It would be awful. We’d have high hopes for the picture, work our heads off on it, and the result was always the same. Then we’d show it in a theatre, with a girl down in the pit, pounding away at a piano, and there would be all the difference in the world. Without that music, there wouldn’t have been a movie industry at all.”


But the earliest film music was horrendous. Hand organs, music boxes, and phonographs supplied it at first, and then exhibitors abandoned mechanical music in favor of live pianists. This was a step upward, but only a short step.

The early pianists usually had little training and played whatever they knew, whether or not it fit the mood of the film. Comedy would be accompanied by Schumann’s “Träumerei” and winter scenes by Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.” Often enough, inappropriate music converted tragedy into farce. In one theater it got so bad that when the movie’s heroine threw herself into the water, someone in the audience yelled, “Take the pianist with you, while you’re about it!”

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.”

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 fifty-five 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 Borch-Bergé-Zamecnik-Riesenfeld music in the movie theater.

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.

The 1928 Guide to Motion Picture Music listed more than six thousand tunes.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1920s, compilations, encyclopedias, guides, and manuals of film music poured from the presses. In 1925 Erno Rapee published the Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures, listing even more moods than his collection of the previous year and offering advice on how to handle special problems: two characters with different musical themes appearing in the same scene; long and short flashbacks; and different kinds of villains (sneaky, boisterous, crafty, powerful, and evilminded). Maurice Borodkin’s 1928 Guide to Motion Picture Music was still more ambitious; it listed more than six thousand musical numbers and classified them into more than one hundred and fifty different categories. In Motion Picture Synchrony for Motion Picture Exhibitors, Organists and Pianists, Ernest Luz proposed something entirely new for film-music classification. He assigned different colors to the basic human moods and suggested attaching gum tabs of the appropriate color to all musical selections. “Always remember,” he concluded his explanation, “that the Love Theme is White; the Villain’s Theme is Red; the Vampire’s Theme is Dark Green; the Heavy Agitated Motif is Dark Blue; the Light or Hurried Suspense Motif is Light Blue; the Lullaby, Pastorale or Characteristic is Brown; the Regal is Purple. …”

In Musical Accompaniment of Motion Pictures, Edith Lang and George West suggested different keys for different moods: A-flat and E-flat suggested warmth or languor; B-flat minor and G minor fit moods of sorrow or grief; A and D major lent themselves to “brilliancy”; E minor suggested “clear skies” or “the ocean’s wide expanse”; and the key of F was appropriate for scenes of a meditative or religious nature. “The key of C has nothing to commend it,” they concluded, “except that after long wanderings through the rich realms of sharp or flat tonalities, it is most gratifying to hear the crisp and bright ‘key of keys.’” May Meskimen Mills tried something different to help the overburdened accompanist. In her book on “photo-playing,” she linked some of the major Hollywood stars with music of a certain kind. Constance Talmadge and Billie Burke, she reported, required “music of the dainty 4/4 Moderates, with a broad and melodious theme.” For Douglas Fairbanks, she recommended a “humorous, snappy, fast and furious style of music”; for Mary Pickford, the “old fashioned type of eccentric comedy” music; for Theda Bara, music that was “cold, sensual, emotional and heavy dramatic”; for Lillian Gish, a “demure, plaintive, and heavy dramatic” music; and for Mary Garden and Geraldine Farrar, music that was “intensely dramatic and of the grand opera style.”

George Beynon, the most primly pedagogical of all the film-music instructors, predicted great things for the accompanist who took picture-playing seriously: “It has been said that genius is the art of taking pains. Every theatre can have a genius if the leader so desires it. A genius in the orchestral pit means a full house, a full house means a successful business and a satisfied employer, and the last two mean a raise in salary. It pays to be a genius.” Beynon went on to forecast a great future for silent-film music: “The future holds a promise, stupendous in its magnitude, that picture music will rank favorably with grand opera and symphony.” But while aspiring young film musicians were busily plowing through Beynon’s manual and consulting Rapee’s encyclopedia, motion-picture technicians were renewing their efforts to synchronize sound and sight and produce the kind of “talking pictures” that Edison had envisaged in the 1890s. By the mid-1920s they had succeeded in coupling projectors to sixteen-inch phonograph records with a fair degree of success. The fruits of their efforts, Don Juan (which opened in New York in August 1926, using a prerecorded musical accompaniment) and The Jazz Singer (which appeared the following year, containing a bit of song and dialogue), signaled unmistakably the beginning of the end of the silent era. The playwright Robert E. Sherwood, for one, was glad of it. Reviewing Don Juan, he noted that “it will be possible in the future to dispense with orchestras and organists in movie theaters.” He added: “Well, I for one will shed no tears. I’m tired of hearing ‘Hearts and Flowers’ during the views of the United States Cavalry riding to the rescue, and ‘Horses—Horses—Horses’ during tender love scenes.”

One movie musician lamented that Beethoven lived too early to write for films.

Sherwood was harsh. But even so dedicated a film-music specialist as George Beynon warned that much of the mood music written especially for the screen “holds no great merit,” and he lamented the fact that Beethoven, Liszt, and Berlioz “lived too early to furnish picture music.” Indeed, many of the great masters took quite a beating for their posthumous contributions to movies. Much fine music came to sound hackneyed and silly through overuse in movie houses, and some of it remains impossible to listen to even today. There was a great deal of truth in the charge of critics that silent-film accompanists “raped” and “murdered” some of the great music of Western civilization.

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.


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