Going to the movies in the first decades of the C20 was anything but a silent experience. The film itself may not have had sound, but each cinema had its resident musician or group of players to provide a live soundtrack including sound effects.

The Library of Birmingham has a large collection of music scores and instrumental parts which were used to accompany silent films. These are not compositions married to a specific film, instead, they are short pieces for use with any film that came along. They might be generic pieces which were specially written, popular dance music, snippets of classical music, anything, really, which an enterprising musician could recycle to create a soundtrack. This led to a mini publishing boom with many music publishers producing whole series of compositions billed as written specially for the silent movies.

Giuseppe Becce (1877-1973)

Giuseppe Becce was an Italian-born composer who was heavily involved in the German film industry in the 1920s. He continued to compose for films far into the sound era, as well. He wrote the scores for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Der Letzte Mann and many other films, but what I’m going to look at is a collection of his generic pieces. Issued by the German publisher, Robert Lienau, the Kinothek series was aimed at the busy cinema musician, offering a choice selection of dramatic musical snippets. Although they are only short, they are also quite complex for the genre – demanding wide instrumental ranges, and well developed techniques to cope with his German late-romantic style.

You don’t need to have a great knowledge of silent film to understand how evocative these titles are. Resignation, for example, the hero awaiting his fate, or Tragedy, the heroine slumped in despair … Notice that the publisher helpfully lists how long each piece lasts, although they could be cut or stretched to fit as required. Improvisation was an important skill for any cinema musician – even if you had sheet music, there were still bridging passages needed to get you from one piece to the next without an awkward break or a change of key. The goal was to achieve a seamless accompaniment which matched what was on the screen, though I wonder how often it actually happened.

Here are a couple more listings from the same series:

Wild chase and Help! Help! are two which immediately bring pictures to my mind – Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, perhaps, being pursued by a mob, or pleading for help as a building is destroyed by fire. As for Supreme peril or Love’s yearning … they hardly need any introduction.

I shall return to this fascinating collection in future issues of this blog.

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