Music of Silents

The BBC is doing a lot on music from cinema, and the other night Mark Kermode did a wonderful piece on music from the silent era.

I had always thought that music was to cover the sound of the noisy projectors, but it was, from the outset, an integral part of the whole early film experience. In part this was because the films were screened in the old music halls that had been losing their popularity, so there were plenty of musicians and the pit for them to play in, and people were used to going out to see a spectacle, and music had to be part of that.

Music was not just entertainment. It created a mood to add to the acting and dialogue, and also helped keep the drama going when the action had to pause for the written dialogue to appear. It was also played when the actors were filming, and there were instances of filming on location up in the Hollywood hills where a harmonium was carried to ensure the actors got into the mood. One of the musicians from the time claimed: “back then they were really acting, emoting, not like today when they just read their lines. ”

The music was mostly light classical, and the musicians were experienced enough to come up with suitable pieces, but books were produced with music suitable for various topics such as aeroplanes, dull, fire fighting, grotesque, hunting, mysterioso, pulsating, sea storm, sinister. Kermode got modern day accompanist to try out the selection, with a piece from page 250, monotony, then switching to the orgy piece, which didn’t sound much like an orgy to me, but maybe I haven’t been to the right ones.

Orchestras were replaced by church organs, then larger organs were built, with a wide range of specialist sounds, which allowed them to replace the orchestra, with bells, whistles, car horns etc. Several composers did pieces specifically for the movies such as Shostakovitch, but the real change came with jazz, which allowed far more range of tunes, and faster changes, with lots of pure improvisation. The increased speed of the music allowed the drama to increase in speed and complexity as the audiences became more sophisticated.

What surprised me was how good Charlie Chaplin was as a composer. There were people who claimed that cinema’s gain was music’s loss. I knew he was a musician, but never knew how big a role music played in many of his films . He was described as the essence of a dignified tramp; others showed the poor as broken people but through his music, he added another level to their characters. His music was romantic, and heavily reliant on strings, with lots of violin solos. the end of City Lights, the music was as important and as memorable as the acting.

Another surprise was the significance of the introduction of sound. It was nothing to do with speech; the studios wanted to control their product, so wanted to produce their own music, so Hollywood got large orchestras, while about 50,000 musicians in the states, and probably as many in Britain, were unemployed, and this was in the Great Depression. The talkies were also disorienting, as some of them were based on British history, but the characters spoke with American accents.  The first talkie was famously the Jazz Singer; by the end of 1928 the silent industry had ended.

It is claimed that only 30% of silent movies survive, but to me this sounds impressive; given how fast they made them, the fragility of the films and the fact that they soon became worthless. Hollywood furiously rejected its own history, and made no attempt to preserve it. The past was history and good riddance to it.

One of the great survivors of the silent era was Abel Ganz’s epic Napoleon. He had intended to make 6 films of 6 hours each,but lack of funding limited it to one of five and a half, ending in 1797 with the liberation of Italy.  Kevin Brownlow restored it and got American Carl Davis to score it by researching the music of the time,which fortunately included Beethoven, Hayden and Mozart. They were fortunate to have a section where Danton was talking in a forge and it fitted exactly with a piece by Beethoven.

The silent era is long gone, and yet it is not forgotten. In the 1980s Mel Brooks made ‘Silent Movie’ which is the only talking film with only a single word, Marcel Marceau saying ‘non’. And more recently of course was the French film, The Artist’, and Scorsese’s film, Hugo is another which harks back to the period with much affection.

There is an increasing interest in silent films, with festivals being held around the world.

A few years ago in Bristol I saw a truly horrific event when Will Gregory of Goldfrapp fame and some friends did a soundtrack to a silent film, but it was so discordant and loud I left within minutes. He is a fine musician, but he had no idea how to score a silent film.


The only copy of a 1911 Mary Pickford film has just been discovered in a New Hampshire barn, called ‘Their First Misunderstanding’ The Library of Congress is funding its restoration and it will be shown next month. It was a turning point in the star’s career as she was given credit for the first time. Before that, actors were uncredited as the studios didn’t want them to be come famous,as they would want to be paid more.

There is something truly magical about silent film, and the distance of time seems to give it more potency, more magic. As cinema tries to become more in your face and realistic, there is much to recommend sitting in a darkened space and watching what was once considered to be magic, and continues to be so.


2 thoughts on “Music of Silents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s