In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham – quirky, practical, historical, contemporary

The not-so-silent movies 2 — June 29, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 2

Looking through our collection of silent movie music, it’s fascinating to see which titles got used many times, and then coming across sets which still look pristine. The two main owners of the material, Harry T. Saunders, and Louis Benson, both bought widely. Whereas the main collections in the US have mostly American publications, our collection has a greater proportion of scores from continental Europe than either the UK or the US. The differing ways that the publishers produced their wares is also interesting, although I have to say, it does sometimes feed into perceptions of national stereotypes as well.

 Ludwig Siede Der erste Kuss

Siede Der erste Kuss

To me, in fact, to anyone, it should be entirely unsurprising that this set looks rather the worse for wear. How many hundreds, thousands of films across the years have featured a first kiss? It’s probably a set that hardly left the musicians’ stands. This impression is confirmed by looking at the part for the first violin.

Siede Der erste kuss - showing cues

The cue written on it is only the most recent of many. Louis Benson’s sets are frequently marked with cues – apparently from the intertitles of whichever film the music was being used for. The boss is away – that, to me, suggests some kind of office setting where his (at this period, it almost has to be a man) employees are free to ignore their work in favour of a more tempting and delicious occupation.  The flirtatious, teasing nature of the possible scene is evoked beautifully by the music. The skittish trills and fast staccato scales fit exactly.

Ludwig Siede was a German composer with a very long list of compositions similar to this one – characteristic intermezzos which could be used for films, or simply for background music to all sorts of events. Other titles in our collection include Glückliche liebe  (Happy love) and Padischah – Turkisches charakterstück. Somebody equally prolific in this area was the American composer J.M. Zamecnik .

J.M. Zamecnik Samarkand

Zamecnik Samarkand - series front cover
Samarkand – series front cover

This sort of branding gives the impression that photoplay music was big business – as it was for a few short years. The whole cover sheet here has listings of four different series available from Sam Fox. The listing for the Paramount series makes an interesting claim: A musical interpretation for every motion picture situation … Really? Every available space has an advertisement, wanting to sell the cinema musician more and more music.

Zamecnik wrote a vast amount but it’s interesting that the collection here only has a small quantity (30 sets out of 850). This particular series was obviously written for news reels, so the music had to set the atmosphere almost immediately. No room for an introduction or building up themes. It was more for reinforcing the images were on the screen rather than suggesting or highlighting the drama – other titles include Oriental scene, Head of the parade, In the stirrups.

Zamecnik Samarkand excerpt

Compared with the Siede set, this looks unused. It was part of Harry Saunder’s collection and it’s easy to tell those sets which he used regularly. Maybe he didn’t have much call for Turkish scenes, or, more likely, he had something else which he preferred to use. The music does suggest what might be loosely termed Middle Eastern music by the use of the key in particular. The actual music might be termed a parody by our standards but it was quite common to write like this in the early C20.

I’ll look at French and English publications next time.

The not-so-silent movies 1 — May 4, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 1

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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In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham - quirky, practical, historical, contemporary