Sound and silence

In my last post Can you hear the music? I wrote about the use of music in the screening of silent films, and mentioned the silent film scores for The epic of Everest  and for the opening night of the Film Society of London, both held here at the UL.

A number of films were shown at the Society’s first night including Paul Leni’s Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett), a Charlie Chaplin film Champion CharlieWhy Broncho Billy left Bear Country – an episode in the popular Broncho Billy series, Typical Budget, a burlesque by Adrian Brunel, one of the founder members of the Film Society, and Walter Ruttman‘s Absolute Films – probably his Lichtspiel shorts.

Part of the Waxworks score

A snippet of a Rubenstein arrangement used in the Waxworks score. Note the red and blue pencil cues, and the instruction to “Play till=”
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The manuscript for the opening night consists of a compilation score for Waxworks, with some cues early on for another film – almost certainly the Broncho Billy serial. Waxworks consists of three short unrelated stories – Haroun al Rashid, Ivan the Terrible, and Springheel Jack (a Jack the Ripper like character) with an over-arching storyline to unite the whole. Unlike the score for The epic of Everest there are no original bridging passages, the score simply leaps from one unrelated work to another. The idea of this sounds rather alarming, but actually works amazingly well in practice; as the arranger, possibly Eugene Goossens, but more likely his brother-in-law Frederick Laurence, has carefully placed works so that they are juxtaposed harmoniously. It is probably also helpful that the film has a segmented structure as this can be reflected in the music without producing a jarring effect.

A variety of composers are featured in the Waxworks score including some who would have been relatively new to the British concert scene. Goossens was very keen on promoting new music, and some of the more modern elements may very well have been a reflection of his own musical tastes. The score includes excerpts from works by Richard Strauss, Sibelius, MussorgskyCui, and Saint-Saens, among others.

Conrad Veidt, as Ivan the Terrible, measures the span of a man’s life in Paul Leni’s Wachsfigurenkabinett (Public Domain)

As far as is known after the opening night of the Film Society this score was never used again. Waxworks  had already fallen foul of the censors, and was banned for several years. It was only given a general release in 1928. Newspaper reports suggest that the film was substantially cut and edited for its public showing. However although it appears to have been shown, with this particular score to a limited audience, the score itself appears to have been oddly influential. It features a very early use in film of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition including a mesmeric use of Baba Yaga illustrating Ivan the Terrible’s descent into madness. The use of a ticking motif from Boris Godunov, although now a film cliche used countless times to build suspense, demonstrates how the sounds that accompanied early silent film would continue to be influential on musicians who would spend most of their careers working in the world of “talking pictures.”



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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