The Silent Era

The beginning

A silent movie is a film without a soundtrack, a form that, historically, dates from the period before the advent of sound film, going from 1895 to 1927.
The first public screenings of silent movies were done during the intervals between the various acts of vaudeville performances, being offered and received as “curiosities”.


Soon after that, original and specific scores began to be more common in filmmaking; following the example of L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise,  composers were commissioned to write specifically for filmmaking, and it became common practice to distribute films together with their scores, to be played in the theatre. We shall cite for example the musicians Hans Erdmann for Nosferatu (1921, directed by F.W. Murnau), Edmund Meisel for Battleship Potemkin, Dmitri Shostakivich for The New Babylon (1929, directed by Kozintsev and Trauberg), and Gottfried Huppertz for Die Nibelungen and Metropolis.The idea of combining images and sound, as a matter of fact, is almost as old as cinema itself, but the first film with sound, The Jazz Singer would only appear toward the end of the 1920s, in 1927 to be precise.

“Cinema is closer to music than to painting, because it is not made of images but shots, inside which time just as in music”.
(Eric Rohmer)


Historians and scholars of the seventh art call the period before the advent of sound “the silent era”. During that time span, filmmaking nonetheless achieved a high level of quality, so much so that after sound was introduced a few years had to pass before the quality of silent movies was matched, and then surpassed. Movies, actually, were not altogether “silent”; or rather, their screenings were not:  theatres great and small, indeed, used to show them with live music accompaniment, which acted as  a soundtrack, generally played by a pianist or an organist, or even an orchestra when it could be afforded.

pr mic29Theatres were the perfect location for showing silent movies, for these required no complex equipment, just a simple screen. Screenings then would include explanations of the scenes, with a commentator reading captions, or through written comments. From the very start, however, it was clear that music played a crucial role, heightening and anticipating the strength of images, and giving the viewer hints of the emotional tone of the scenes to come.

The music of the first silent movies was taken from the works of classical composers (often mixed or arranged), from contemporary dance music, or it was improvised: this meant, of course, that directors had no control over the aptness of the music accompanying their movies; when full-length feature films made their appearance, however, because of their more complex narrative structure, matching images and sound in a more consistent way was felt as more of a necessity.

A first solution to these queries of the early directors was offered by Joseph Carl Breil’s score for the film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The director D. W. Griffith found himself in close agreement with the  musician, even though not all the music used in the film was by Breil, some of it was taken from works by Weber, Bellini, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Wagner.

“Music is 50% of a film”
(George Lucas)

It is therefore important to underline how totally new and revolutionary the concept of “synchronization” that the above entailed was: it was a type of music written specifically for filmmaking, it had to  integrate and move along with the images, not only completing but actually accomplishing the director’s general view, yet the composer was left with ample margins of creativity. Music was no longer a simple accompaniment but had become integral part of the final artistic product; indeed, cinema, as a work of art, now consisted of the fusion between images and sound.

Metropolis, a ‘Cult-Movie’

Let us take for example Gottfried Huppertz, a musician from Cologne who composed the score for Metropolis: he wasn’t a famous composer, but thanks to his creativity and far-sightedness he wrote an impressive, monumental score, thus contributing to the making of one of the finest examples of synergy between image and sound, now considered a cult movie. By working closely and in great harmony with Fritz Lang during the entire planning and realization of the film, Huppertz was able to make his music fit the director’s visual concept perfectly. Other known composers who were commissioned music for silent movies were Darius Milhaud, Camille Saint-Saëns, Arthur Honegger, Paul Hindemith, Erik Satie and George Antheil.

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Fritz Lang and Brigitte Helm (centre)
play jazz on set

Chaplin as a musician

And now we must open a chapter dedicated to the “greatest genius of cinema”: Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, he was not only an actor, but also a director, a scriptwriter, a producer and even a “musician”, writing music for many of his films. Although he could neither read nor write music notation (which, in that period was not totally unheard of – even Gershwin for a long time sought the help of assistances), Chaplin had a great talent for music. He could play the piano by ear and composed melodies by humming them. He would project the edited film on a screen and play the music he had in his mind while, beside him, an expert composer and arranger jotted down the score.
Chaplin was very demanding; if there was something that did not sound as it should he would correct it immediately; the way he created music was absolutely perfect and it represents what is nowadays defined “Chaplin’s melodic structure”.
After being the king of silent movies, Charles Chaplin was able to renew his cinema when sound made its entrance, finding new ways to put his music talent to good use. “One of the positive aspects of sound film is that it gave me control over music; it was then that I decided to compose it myself,” he declared.

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Charlie Chaplin at the piano
 

“I endeavoured to write romantic music […] wanting to give my comedies an emotional dimension. The arrangers and composers I worked with rarely understood this. They wanted entertaining music. I would explain to them that I didn’t want any competition between music and images, that melody was to act as a counterpoint to action, it had to be serious and refined, express feeling, without which a work of art is always incomplete. There is nothing that is as adventurous and exciting as to listen for the first time to a piece of music you have written played by a fifty-element orchestra. (C. Chaplin)

In Italy

In thispr mic32 panorama, we must not forget to mention two Italian films: “Cabiria” and “Rapsodia Satanica”.

Cabiria – the first Italian “colossal film” – was originally set to music by Manlio Mazza (1914 edition); in 1931 it was re-edited by the director Giovanni Pastrone – who foresaw the advent of sound movies with the music and sound effects magnetized on the actual film – who added Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Sinfonia del fuoco to comment the scene of Moloch’s sacrifice.

The score of the other Italian title, Rapsodia Satanica (1915) is by the renowned Leghorn composer Pietro
Mascagni; he was indeed the first Italian musician to compose music to be synchronized with images, a job he defined “demanding, long and very difficult”.

Whether or not initially, the purpose of music was that of covering the noise of the projector, in silent movies it came to have the more important task of giving a sense of continuity to the show, while the few moments of silence were left to underline the more dramatic moments.

The early film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo reasoned along the same guidelines when, in an essay from 1911, he states: “At the cinema all is meant to hold the attention taut, almost suspended, nothing must slack the vice-like grip that holds the viewer’s mind riveted to the screen. Fast movements, which here become monstrously precise, almost like on a clock that has images in place of numbers, excite modern spectators, who are accustomed to a faster and faster lifestyle. “Real” life is therefore represented in its quintessence: speed”.

To achieve this continuity, many composers drew inspiration from the operatic style of Richard Wagner and his leitmotiv, which places a sort of music tag on recurring ideas, attitudes, characters, objects or places; this technique, used in opera and in symphonic music, was now applied to the storytelling in filmmaking.

“Filmmaking is the language of images, yet images do not speak. The language of images is music. One ought to disconnect cinematography from literature and associate it with music, for it ought to be the visual language of music.” (Luigi Pirandello)

The Ben-Hur “case”

The importance of music specifically composed for certain images also leads us to mention single or singular cases that brought about a real revolution in the fruition of films; one of them was undoubtedly Ben Hur (from 1925). Its original sound score, signed by the then famous William Axt, has indeed been
superseded – because of its superior music quality and for being as spectacular as its visual counterpart – by Carl Davis’s 1987 version, commissioned to him on the occasion of the film’s restoration, and in which we can detect a post-Wagner – or even a Strauss-like – flavour.

pr mic33Poster of Ben-Hur,
one of the first Kolossal
considered the most expensive
silent film ever made.


And so the concept of fusing images and sound turned into a dialogue: music gave voice to the characters,  their actions and feelings; music became the sound of a siren, a cannon shot, the noise of a battle, and so on; but ultimately music turned into “words”, those words that were missing and that were admirably substituted by notes which, becoming “onomatopoeic”, wrapped the spectator in the deepest emotions, evoked by the synergic work of director and composer.


The synchronized performance

It is also interesting to underline some of the technical aspects inherent to the creative process of making a film with synchronized music: in the score it became common practice to insert a “guide” (consisting of drawn sketches or captions indicating specific points in the film – a scene, a movement, a certain action, etc.) which made it possible to produce the perfect sync between images and sound. As a consequence, the presence of a conductor specialized in the so-called “synchronized performance” became increasingly necessary, until it was considered indispensable; this specific professional skill, only attainable through a careful and detailed preparatory study and through a lot of experience, became a must in order to ensure the perfect and emotionally satisfying fruition of a film screened with live orchestral score.


THE SOUND FILMS WITH LIVE ORCHESTRA

In order to understand the full extent of this artistic skill, we must also mention the performance of Sound Films with live orchestra. With the advent of sound, the number of scores performed live drastically decreased, until they almost disappeared; nonetheless they have not lost their fascination and ability to captivate audiences. In recent times, some major studios have revived the “total immersion” experience of viewing a film with its music played live by screening special versions with live performance of the soundtrack, just like for the silent movies of old.

A famous example is Pirates of the Caribbeans, which was originally conceived with music playing a preponderant role, such as to justify a great orchestra and chorus on stage making for a highly spectacular show.
For other films of great success the opposite process took place: after the film’s release, a soundless version was produced, to be screened with live soundtrack.

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The Cine-concert – a perfect mix of entertainment and culture – is indeed something that emotionally involves the public; it wants to be a way to bring the new generations closer to forms of expression which are less familiar to them, to arouse in them the desire to investigate and rediscover a complex and fascinating form of art.

To quote once again the above-mentioned pioneer of cinema Canudo, in his essay we find this sentence, which helps us to understand some nuances from his day: “Modern audiences are admirably able to abstract, for they can take delight in the most absolute abstractions of life. At the Olympia, for example, the public frenziedly applauded the flower-bedecked phonograph that sat on stage, which, with its shiny copper horn, had just finished playing a love duet… The device triumphed, the public applauded the ghost sound of some faraway, or dead, actors. It is in this spirit that people flock to the movies.” (Ricciotto Canudo, 1911)

The objective is therefore to find a common denominator to it all, one going back to the initial idea, that is to say that culture “may become an opportunity of personal and human growth” and, increasingly, “a way to create something significant through emotions”.  

“Cinema is one of the three universal languages;
the other two are mathematics and music.”
(Frank Capra)

 

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