Music For Silent Films [1894 – 1929]
A Guide (1988)
Compiled by Gillian B. Anderson (Music Division)
Music for silent films is a fundamental part of the films themselves. Preservation of the scores and cue sheets should go hand-in-hand with preservation of the films. Unfortunately, this music has been too long neglected by film archives overwhelmed with the burden of transferring thousands of nitrate films to more durable safety stock before they deteriorate. The Music Division of the Library of Congress has performed an outstanding service by microfilming the silent film music of two very important collections, their own and that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Music Division should be congratulated for its efforts to make music scores for the silent film more widely available. We hope the present publication will make it possible for silent films to be presented throughout the world in the way that they were originally shown, with musical accompaniment. This will lead to a better understanding of the art of the silent film, which we all know was never really silent.
Curator, Department of Film – Museum of Modern Art
D.W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation, and Way Down East
D.W. Griffith was one of the first American directors to maintain careful control over the selection and distribution of the musical accompaniment for his films. They premiered in only one city at a time. He travelled with the film and the orchestral parts to each new theater, overseeing the whole presentation of each new premiere. He participated in the selection of the music, and then organized the images, the music, and the sound effects for his film presentations. He firmly established the practice of using a full orchestral accompaniment in American movie theaters. Musically, he also may have been the most knowledgeable of the early directors. Karl Brown in Adventures with D. W. Griffith tells many stories about Griffith’s knowledge of music: Griffith’s personal habits of shadowboxing, dancing whenever Miss Geesh [LillianGish] was available, or singing at the top of his lungs went on as usual. Up to this picture he had been content to sing the most effective parts of the more flamboyant operatic arias. Canio’s famous “Vesti la giubba,” from I Pagliacci, got a thorough working over, but only in open tones, not Italian. He would sometimes also observe, in full voice, that the stars were brightly shining, this from Tosca. Another time Griffith’s obsession with music showed itself was when we took a very long shot of the battlefield strewn with dead and with Lillian Gish running from corpse to corpse, looking for her beloved. Correction: she fluttered from corpse to corpse. A lot of little quick steps, a pause, a look, then some more quick little fluttering steps, another look, and so on. It was during the making of this scene that Griffith exclaimed, with a sense of sudden inspiration, that the Lohengrin Wedding March, the familiar “Here comes the bride,” was in exactly the same time and rhythm of the equally familiar Funeral March from the Chopin sonata. It seemed to astonish him that two such opposite sentiments, the extreme of happiness and extreme grief, should be couched in exactly the same musical terms, except that one was in the major mode, the other in the minor.
On the opening night of The Birth of a Nation (1914), Brown heard both of these tunes in the accompaniment for this scene. Griffith not only knew a lot about music, he knew enough to be able to articulate his desires to composer Joseph Carl Breil during the production of The Birth of a Nation. The two men had many disagreements over the scoring of the film. “If I ever kill anyone,” Mr. Griffith once said, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” The greatest dispute was over the Klan call, which was taken from “The Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner. Mr. Griffith wanted a slight change in the notes. Mr. Breil fought against making it. “You can’t tamper with Wagner!” he protested. “It’s never been done!” This music wasn’t primarily music, Mr. Griffith explained. It was music for motion pictures.
Art historian Irwin Panofsky elegantly summarized these problems of collaboration: It might be said that a film, called into being by a cooperative effort in which all contributions have the same degree of permanence, is the nearest modern equivalent of a medieval cathedral .. .And if you speak to any one of [the] collaborators he will tell you, with perfect bona fides, that his is really the most important job—which is quite true to the extent that it is indispensible…
Karl Brown, apprentice cameraman to D. W Griffith during the shooting of The Birth of a Nation, had read Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, upon which the movie is based.
Throughout the shooting he had doubted that Griffith could make this racist story into a successful film. However, his account of opening night speaks worlds about the impact of a musical accompaniment (although his description may be in error on certain points):
My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary.
Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture. Not that I hadn’t known about a special score having been prepared for the production. Joseph Carl Breil had been around the studio a lot, talking with Griffith, so I knew what was up. But Carl Breil was no Beethoven. Thus far he had produced only one song, “The Song of the Soul,” which had become a great favorite among those who like that kind of music, but he was no great shakes as a composer in the grand manner. Oh, he was capable enough in his own limited way. He was a musician, there was no denying that. He could arrange, he was good at instrumentation, and he could conduct. He could do just about anything known to music except think up tunes. Well, maybe Griffith had supplied that lack. We’d soon find out, because the orchestra pit was crammed to overflowing with the finest performers in Los Angeles and more, many more instruments of different kinds than I had seen anywhere before except at fulldress, all-out symphony concerts. He had the big doghouses, as we called the double basses, and a lot of little doghouses, as the cellos were called, with as many fiddles as there was room for and enough brass to make up a full brass band all by itself. And as for the kitchen, or hardware shop, as the drum section was called, there was everything known to percussion, while at the console of the massive pipe organ sat a little man lost in a maze of stops and manuals, ready to turn on the full roar of that monster at the tip of a baton. Yes, it was a complete orchestra, all right, I even glimpsed two or three banjos in that crowded orchestra pit, but what they could be doing there was more than I could imagine.
The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise. The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same moment Breil’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before… The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to assure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then . . . the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, . . . What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this and to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another, and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps. I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest bloke, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.
The Confederate charge was simply magnificent. Once again, there was nothing choppy about it, no sense of scenes being cut into another. That whole line of men simply flowed across the field, stumbling and dropping as they ran somehow into solid sheets of rifle fire from the Union entrenchments, while bombs, real bombs and not Fireworks Wilson’s silly little powder puffs, burst with deafening roars among these charging heroes. Oh yes; I knew. I knew perfectly well that the backstage crew was working furiously to create these explosion effects just behind the screen, but I was too caught up in the magnificence of the spectacle to care how it was achieved.
And that scene with Walthall snatching up the flag and racing forward with it: holding it high and waving it defiantly as he ran with it in one hand and his drawn sword in the other straight at the cannon, to mount the parapet, and then— in a single, magnificent, overwhelming glimpse of one man, alone against a sky full of bursting bombs, thrusting that standard down the cannon’s throat and shouting his defiant yell, while the trumpets in the orchestra split the air. Nor were those trumpets alone. I think every man in that packed audience was on his feet cheering, not the picture, not the orchestra, not Griffith but voicing his exultation at this man’s courage— defiant in defeat, and all alone with only the heavens for his witness. . .
I was forced to admit to myself over again how pitifully little I knew about anything at all. There was that scene of Lillian Gish fluttering and running, fluttering and running over the death strewn battlefield looking for her beloved, not as any human being would make such a search but as a ballet dancer might pictorialize it. I thought it was awful when it. was being shot. But it was heartbreakingly effective on that night upon that screen before that particular audience, especially with the orchestra, that beautiful orchestra, interweaving the twin themes of love and death, just as Griffith had thought of them at that one magic moment on the battlefield. For she wasn’t a woman at all but a spirit, a will-of-the-wisp, floating over the field of death. She was even more than that: she was the spirit of all the women of the Civil War, who still lived in the memories of their daughters and granddaughters, whose hearts had been searching among the dead for the living after every one of the many major battles . . .
And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove gray, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine?… Since this was an army hospital, there had to be a sentry on guard… Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed.
In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene . . . Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter . . ,
Brown cites a number of other such examples and then concludes: Somewhere in this welter of… images came a new concept of Griffith . . .What he really was—it seemed odd to think so—was a great composer of visual images instead of notes. What I had seen was not so much a motion picture but the equivalent of Beethoven’s Eroica or his Fifth. That picture had been perfectly orchestrated and the instrumentation flawless.
In 1914 The Birth of a Nation established the use of a full orchestra for film accompaniment in the United States. The East Coast premieres had a score that was a combination of original music by Breil and arrangements of popular and classical music. The score on the West Coast was by Carli Elinor and although it is lost, it must have contained a similar combination of music.85 Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) also had a specially fitted score that: didn’t consist of the usual hackneyed, thumb-worn numbers. Most of it seemed to have been written for the production, except the old tunes directly called for. Scores are apt to be slapped together in a hurry, a mechanical routine of publishers’ lists and cardindexes. The storm and ice music was the weak spot— bald and crude of content.
The fragments from Flying Dutchman and Les Preludes were the only blood and thunder touch in the score. There should have been the maximum sonority, but that of a symphonic orchestra—whirring strings relieving the boiler-factory din of the brass, and easing up on the huskies back-stage. The gatling-guns and bombs still surviving behind (or before) the scenes in some houses are a public menace. Otherwise the music was a marvel of repose and placidity. No lashing of tempos, blurring of passage-work, hurrying-to-catch-a-train spirit. This hectic, neurasthenic style has a bad effect on the individual and collective playing of orchestra and organists. The pause was used often and effectively. The picture being well directed, it was possible to have a smooth and flowing score. The leit-motif system was used to advantage, although it is capable of unlimited development, following the interweaving of emotions and mental states. A motif can be varied in instrumentation, introduced stealthily and subtly in one part, like the baleful movements of the villain. But the course of this story is simple and direct, far from metaphysics or psychoanalysis. The gossip’s theme was characteristic and expressive. Especially appealing were the several themes for the mishaps and tribulations of Anna. The youthful Innocence motif was delightful. How much better than using some sentimental melody already played to death . . .
Way Down East
The music of “Way Down East” seemed written for this play alone; the next time we went the play seemed written for the music. The music and the story were like ivy clinging to a tree. The score was always on the job, fitting the action, like skin-tights, all the time, not like a hoop-skirt, touching only here and there. Score-makers, conductors, and organists, should throw themselves into the work as the great actors do, and make themselves the creators of the characters and story, till it becomes a living flesh and blood organism. But they need better pictures to project themselves into… The natural evolution of the picture business then points to a renaissance of the Greek drama, with Wagnerian music-setting. The screen reveals the actors, dialogue, and stage-settings, the orchestra gives a continuous tonal version of the story.
Clearly, the carefully chosen and well synchronized music of William Frederick Peters and Louis Silvers, although rather lightweight musically, was refreshing and impressive to a musically sensitive, frequent filmgoer. One can infer from this account that the constant reuse of the same music was common and tedious and that sloppy synchronization or abrupt transitions between keys detracted at least a little from some people’s enjoyment, A British presentation of Way Down East in 1923 elicited a totally negative reaction to the music: most of the music was of such undistinguished character that [ Mr. Albert Marchbank, conductor of the orchestra at the Tower Cinema, Rye Lane, Peckham, London] had to practically rescore the musical fitting. . .The music for the big storm-scene especially was bad, and this was replaced entirely by him. In addition to the music being of a low standard, the score is “peppered” with leit-motifs for each of the six main characters. The airs of “I love you” and “Believe me” are scored each time the heroine appears. There is a further theme announcing the arrival of the chatterbox neighbour, and this theme alone appears forty times in the original score. If this is supposed to be the latest advancement in film-music, I look with apprehension to its future! It is appalling to see these blundering attempts at imitating great masters. Truly, a little knowledge is dangerous. I am glad Mr. Marchbank refused to perform this rubbish and made a clean sweep of both the music supplied with the film and the innumerable cues which appeared about every ten bars or so. The inevitable result was a veritable musical victory, for the house has been playing to capacity night after night and thousands of people had to be turned away as there was no further accommodation. This success was due in a large measure to the masterly musical setting by Mr. Marchbank. The storm-music provided the greatest sensation, and this, together with the wonderful effects supplied with the film, absolutely “brought the house down.” There were, for instance, realistic lightning effects for which a special electric installation had been laid on.
This lightning Mr. Marchbank—like Zeus—controlled (from the organ), evoking thunderous replies from the lower regions of the orchestra. There were also ice-breaking machines, waterfall, rain, wind effects and what-not. All these effects, manipulated in the right way, combined with the wonderful setting of the music, played superbly by the orchestra, as a musical illustration of the drama on the screen, produced a whole which was a stunning triumph of perfect film-presentation and worthy of the highest praise.
D.W. Griffith never could leave any of his pictures alone. After their initial release, he constantly cut and rearranged them. (Even after he gave his collection to the Museum of Modern Art, he still recut the films in the projection booth after each screening until finally the Museum ordered the projection booth locked.) By 1923, probably as much as 25 percent of Way Down East had been cut or changed. Cut marks through the score and parts testify to the constant tinkering. In all probability, the score no longer fit the 1923 version like “skin-tights” or “ivy clinging to a tree,” and Mr. Marchbank was well advised to use different music. Although the tastes in the two reviews differ with respect to the Peters-Silvers score, the ideal for film music is the same—”continuous tonal version of the story” and “musical illustration of the drama on the screen.” The scores for D. W. Griffith’s films were compiled, arranged, and created by knowledgeable composers, but the majority of the scores for his films relied heavily on arrangements of preexisting music. Intolerance (1916), for example, uses an entire chorus from Verdi’s Aida (twice), a vocal quartet version of “My Wild Irish Rose,” and music from Delibes’s ballets. By comparison, the commissioning of totally original scores, especially for feature films, became increasingly common in the 1920s. It led to such landmark scores as Mortimer Wilson’s for The Thief ofBagdad (1924), William Axt’s for Don Juan (1926) and Leo Pouget and Victor Alix’s for La Passion de Jean D’Arc (1928).