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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 popular 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 November 1894 18 August 1957) was an English film composer and music director, who worked in particular on Alfred Hitchcock and Will Hay 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, Surrey Brass 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!

Zamenik Moving Picture Music Contents Page

See the References for more information about Silent Film Music. Fascinating stuff, rarely heard today.



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