Albert Ketèlbey was a phenomenally successful composer in the inter-war years of the twentieth century. Yet nowadays, this Birmingham composer’s music is little known, only rarely getting live performances or broadcast time.
Albert Ketèlbey (1875 – 1959)
Ketèlbey was something of a musical prodigy, joining the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of music (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ) aged eleven. Then he took up a place at London’s Trinity College of Music at the age of thirteen, entering the college at the same time as Gustav Holst. Studying composition and piano, Ketèlbey was a successful student, but on graduation he didn’t take quite the career path we might now expect.
Here is another of our guest blogs about musicians making music. This time, we hear from the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, one of our local orchestras with whom we work closely. They borrow a lot of material from us, but on this occasion, Ursula tells us about a special performance which didn’t involve the library.
To say that French people are more passionate, is a cultural stereotype. Looking at the French publications in our collection of silent cinema scores certainly reinforces that. Even more so, when I compare them with the bland, twee, or merely prosaic titles from UK composers and publishers.
Last time in this thread, I looked at American and German publications, and their differences – both in their presentation, and how they were used by their one-time owners. I find it fascinating to get some sense of which titles were used, and which weren’t, or, at least, not so much.
Take these two publications, one French, the other British:
Dyck ‘Extase langoueuse’
Somerville ‘Passion flowers’
[clicking on the images will enlarge them.]
They both use imagery from the ancient classical world, yet they’re very different. The clean, restrained background framing, and the female muse, contrast starkly with some of the titles listed: Extase langoureuse, Sur une tombe, Douce intimité. I can’t find anything online about the composer, J. Dyck. It may have been a pseudonym; something that happened with other composers of silent movie music. It’s very difficult to imagine any British published title from the period including the word Ecstasy in the title. Extase langoureuse is a set of parts in our collection, so Harry T . Saunders, the then owner, must have found some use for it in and around Glasgow. Or, perhaps, he hoped to find some use for it, because the set looks in suspiciously good condition.
Compare that with the British published set of parts next to it. Reginald Somerville was an actor and composer, mostly known for his drawing room ballads and a handful of operas. Passion flowers is an example of a piece of music which wasn’t written for cinema use, but found its way into a soundtrack simply because it fitted. A large number of sets in the collection come under this heading. I love the way both the figures on the cover, while trying to appear classical, instead look like a bored husband and wife, sitting on either side of the hearth.
It’s all too easy to be dismissive of a popular melody called Passion flowers, but Saunders evidently found it very much to his taste. And useful. The melody is sweet and tuneful, but hardly the epitome of passion. Although the restless accompaniment does suggest emotional unease of some kind. Take a look at this piano conductor score, protected with copious amounts of brown paper tape:
This has the appearance of a score that was employed often, and was an essential part of Saunder’s working collection.
Looking at our collection, it appears that French publishers were more likely to employ images on their front covers. Take a look at this one on the left:
Rodde & Gallifer ‘L’ile enchantee’
[clicking on the image will enlarge it.]
L’ile enchantée, indeed, although it does look a bit more like a jungle as well. Not that French publishers were against series covers, which listed all available titles. In a competitive market, this sort of cover made commercial sense – if you’d bought one title and liked it, seeing a list from the same publisher would hopefully make you buy more. But once again, just the simple list with its French titles seems much more exciting, and visceral, than its British equivalent – with its talk about hurricanes, ambushes, revolution …
A rather unfair comparison might be made with this listing from the famous British publisher Hawkes:
Notice that Reginald Somerville makes an appearance again, this time writing music specifically commissioned for use with silent films. Often, it appears that this was a young man’s game, their first foray into composing music, and earning a living. Somerville, as an older man, was writing music for what purpose? A new experience, perhaps? Or, a comparatively easy way to make some money – certainly easier than trying to get an opera staged.
Take a look at the listed titles by one Frederick Noyes:
Agitato is a word that appears in three titles. Although is it descriptive to a certain extent, a Heavy agitato has nothing on the Guet-apens (Ambush), L’assassinat (Murder) or Violence of the Dramafilma listing. As for Jollifications – I’m afraid my eyes roll in a particularly twenty-first century way.
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.
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.
One of the covers listing Becce’s pieces
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:
More evocative offerings
‘Exciting’ seems an understatement
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.