Silent Film Music
Silent Music? No, it's not ridiculous. Silent films were not often actually
silent in performance.
Silent films were often accompanied by music, played live by a
piano or band or small orchestra -
quite a feat!
In the early days of film, musicians improvised - live - to the film. It was
common to beg, borrow and steal music from everywhere, blending it into the
accompaniment. Later on, musicians also began to use collections of "standard
tunes" to evoke particular emotions in their audiences. One of the most
publications they used (from 1923) is shown below, listing the kinds of things on offer.
The image of the lone pianist is the one most people relate to in the context
of silent films, and cost considerations surely dictated that this was the most
common music to be heard in early cinemas. In practice, small orchestras were
also occasionally found, and in the north of England, brass bands were sometimes
known to be engaged to accompany the films too.
What these ensembles actually played remains somewhat of a mystery at the
moment, but written or printed music must have been essential.
Arranging it to suit was an art. The
Dorman Hundling Silent Motion Picture Music Archive
and other places contains such music, however. Costs of hiring musicians
doubtless led to experimentation with using gramophone records to accompany
films, (including Hepworth's own Vivaphone system).
It was only a short step from there to synchronise a sound track with the film,
containing speech, background sounds as well as music. Ironically this trend for
recorded music continues to this day, with musicians struggling to maintain a
presence in the theatre and elsewhere.
In Hepworth's biography, he says that the famous British composer
Louis Levy wrote the music to accompany
"Comin' through the Rye" and had a large orchestra
to perform it.
Hepworth made favourable comments about this music. It would be great to
hear this score again. Sadly despite investigation, Levy's family have said that
they knew very little about him and had no music scores. Louis Levy (20
1957) was an
English film composer and
music director, who worked in particular on
Alfred Hitchcock and
films. He was a bandleader and music arranger for Gaumont-British and
Gainsborough studios. Film scores directed by Levy include The Wicked Lady
(1945), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The 39 Steps (1935)
and many others. However there is some uncertainty about whether much of the music attributed to him was actually composed by him.
The Henry Edwards film "The Flag Lieutenant" was provided with a full score composed byAlbert Cazabon, one of several films being researched byThe Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project.
Whilst this project seeks to understand what was written back then, in the twenty first century,
commissioned new music to accompany several Hepworth films, performing them live
in the last remaining building of the studios, the Walton
Playhouse. The Elysian Quartet have developed remarkable skill in improvising live soundtracks to silent films too. And the Silent film music lives on!
See the References for more
information about Silent Film Music. Fascinating stuff, rarely heard today.