In Concert

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

The music’s live! — November 30, 2017

The music’s live!

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.

Film: The Battle of the Somme (originally released 1916)

Still from the film
A still from the film. (Public domain image accessed via Wikipedia).

This film from World War 1 is a silent documentary and propaganda production, shot by two government-sanctioned cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. It shows the opening weeks of the Battle of the Somme, mostly for real, with only a few staged elements. When it was released in the UK in August 1916, it was seen by twenty million people within six weeks of its release. A phenomenal number of viewers who must have been shocked by its depictions of real war and all that entailed. As the then Prime Minister, Lloyd George’s quote below gives some idea of the impact the film had.

Somme film advertisement from 1916
Advertisement from The Yorkshire Evening Post. Public domain image sourced via Wikipedia

In 2006, the Imperial War Museums commissioned Laura Rossi to compose a new score to accompany the digitally-restored film for the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The score was revived in 2016 as part of a plan for one hundred screenings with live orchestral performances to take place in 2016/17 as part of the rolling centenary commemorations of all aspects of the Great War.

The Performance

BPO silent film concert in progress
The BPO accompanying ‘The Battle of the Somme’ in Walsall Town Hall.

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra took part in an live performance / screening at Walsall Town Hall on Saturday 15 July 2017. The building is an appropriate venue as it contains two large paintings by Frank Salisbury to commemorate the ‘never to be forgotten valour of the South Staffordshire Regiments in the Great War 1914 – 1918’.

To play film music as part of a standard concert is very different from playing a score to accompany the moving image. Orchestral musicians ( and conductors) are used to playing music in their own time, varying tempos as the conductor directs, pausing in between movements, taking time to regroup. None of this is possible when the music is written to be played with a silent film. There is a very interesting  interview  with Laura Rossi about her job of composing the score to go with what is sometimes a very disparate film. The composer wrote the music to fit with the film precisely, and it is then the musicians’ job to make sure it happens. Most of the burden falls on the conductor who is largely reliant on an audible ‘click’ track to ensure that they, and their musicians, keep to the correct tempos.

We were fortunate that the film was shown on a raised screen in Walsall, allowing the orchestra to keep to its usual positions. Another performance in the West Midlands wasn’t so lucky, meaning the orchestral layout had to be rearranged somewhat, adding in another layer of difficulty.

The Orchestra

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra logo
The orchestra’s logo

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra was founded during the early 1940s. It is now one of the country’s leading non-professional symphony orchestras, drawing its members from all walks of life throughout the West Midlands. For most of its members, playing in the BPO is a recreational activity, but for others, it is a stepping stone in their musical careers.

The BPO engages professional conductors and leaders, aiming to achieve the highest possible standards of performance. Artists who have appeared with the orchestra in recent years include Peter Donohoe (the orchestra’s Patron), Jane Eaglen, Jonathan French, Aled Jones, Piers Lane, Arturo Pizarro, Eduardo Vassallo, Peter Thomas, and Sir Willard White.

Recent guest conductors have included Richard Laing (our Principal Guest Conductor), Marco Romano, Michael Seal, Paul Spicer, Jason Thornton, and Jonathan Tilbrook. The BPO has also worked with choirs such as the City of Birmingham Choir, South West Festival Chorus, Birmingham Festival Choral Society, and the Warwick and Kenilworth Choral Society.

Michael Lloyd, principal conductor
Michael Lloyd, Music Director and Principal Conductor

Under the baton of current Musical Director and Principal Conductor, Michael Lloyd, the BPO has completed its long-term cycle of Mahler symphonies, explored the music of Elgar in some depth, and has diversified into ballet and opera, including performances of complete acts of works by Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

The orchestra is based in the Bramall Music Building at Birmingham University, where it rehearses for its regular concerts, which are given every couple of months at venues in Birmingham and elsewhere across the Midlands.

Music for silent cinema

Rodde & Galifer  L'Ile enchantee
One of the many scores in the collection

Another connection with the Music Library is through its collection of music for use with silent films. Some of the blogs in this thread look at various aspects of the collection. It would be intriguing if one day, the orchestra accompanied another silent film using the scores from the Music Library.

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The not-so-silent movies 3 — August 24, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 3

To say that French people are more passionate, is a cultural stereotype. Looking at the French publications in this collection 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 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:

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. It’s very difficult to imagine any British published title from the period including the word Ecstasy in the title. Extase langoureuse is the set of parts in our collection, so Harry T . Saunders, the then owner, must have found some use for it. 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:

Somerville Passion flower - section of score

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:

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 …

Drammafilma closeup of listings

A rather unfair comparison might be made with this listing from the famous British publisher Hawkes:

Hawkes photo-play series front cover

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:

IMG_20170819_142401

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.

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