Can you hear the music?

Buster Keaton in "Sherlock Jr" accompanied by cinema ensemble (Public domain)

I’ve recently been cataloguing a silent film score. Yes – you did read that correctly; odd as it sounds music played a huge part in silent films. Most cinemas had their own orchestra or instrumental ensemble, with only the smallest or most remote restricted to a pianist. Many had their own in-house music library : the Avenue Pavilion in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, had over 7000 pieces of music, and its own orchestra and conductor-pianist.

Camille Saint-Saens (Public domain)

Music was sometimes specially commissioned for a perfomance. In 1908, Saint-Saens composed the score for L’assassinat du duc de Guisebecoming the first major composer to write a film score.  Another option was to compile a score for a production. Using this method a musician would be contracted to search through music libraries, and select chunks of music for use in the film. He could either work completely from scratch or could use a sort of cheat book such as Giuseppe Becce’s Kinothek (short for Kinobibliothek), published in 1919, which was widely used in Germany and influential worldwide, or the later American equivalent Motion picture moods for pianists and organists by Erno Rapee (available as a reprint at the University Library, classmark M735.b.95.2).

Among the interesting musical items in the Manuscripts Department at the University Library are two compilation film scores for silent films compiled by Eugene Goossens and his brother-in-law Frederick Laurence. These scores for The epic of Everest, a poignant documentary following Mallory and Irvine’s attempt to conquer Everest, and a score for the opening night of the London Film Society in 1925 were probably the last compilation scores that Goossens worked on.

In 1921 he had been asked by the American producer, Walter Wanger, to compile and conduct a series of film scores, in conjunction with Laurence, who worked for the Goodwin & Tabb Music Hire Library. Wanger had hired the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for a season, and Goossens was paid £600 for the season’s work. 

The London Symphony Orchestra provided musicians for the performances, who worked on a sort of shift pattern in order to attend both the LSO’s own concerts, and the film season. Frustrating for conductors (but presumably beneficial financially for orchestral players) this could have its comical side, as Goossens comments in his autobiography:

…the conductor…preparing a concert with a London orchestra, had been confronted at each successive rehearsal by a constantly changing personnel. In desperation, at the last rehearsal, he pointed to a venerable double-bass player. ‘There at any rate, is one gentleman who faithfully attended all the rehearsals”‘ ‘Yes,’ replied the oldster, ‘but I can’t come to the concert!’

Leonid Massine and Lydia Lopokova in "Le boutique fantasque", and stars of the "Theodora" divertissiments (Public domain)

The movie season took a while to attract audiences, but matters improved after showing a series of “Supermovies.” Leonid Massine, fresh from the triumph of the London premiere of The rite of spring, conducted by Goossens, and with Massine’s choreography, had temporarily broken with Ballet Russes, and was asked by Wanger to provide divertissements for the film shows.  Screenings of Theodora were followed by a programme of Johann Strauss, Cimarosa, and Stravinsky’s Ragtime.

Conducting commitments meant that Goossens would not be involved in film music for another three years, although Frederick Laurence would go on to compose the only known silent film score by a British composer. Then in 1925 came the opening night of the Film Society, and a new compilation score, which I now happen to be cataloguing. More on that in my next post.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to Can you hear the music?

  1. Pingback: Sound and silence | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. Pingback: Favourite music related reads at the UL | MusiCB3 Blog

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