Composer profiles

As I find out information and pictures of photoplay music composers, I'll be posting information here. This is not easy information to find, so some of these pages will be pretty lean. However, each will have samples of music composed for photoplay use, either as MIDI or as mp3 files.

Photoplay Music FAQ

"Photoplay Music" is the vast, forgotten genre of music written for compiling silent film scores between about 1913 and 1929. Eventually I hope to have short biographies and sample sound and MIDI files from notable composers of photoplay music. For now, I've set up a silent film music FAQ. Feel free to email me new questions or corrections. And if this is too casual for you, a bibliography of rigorously academic works on silent film music can be found at the bottom of this page.

They're called silent films. Weren't they silent?

They were not called silent until talkies came along -- they were called movies, motion pictures, flicks, photoplays (and, okay, sometimes "silent drama"). People nowadays usually think of silent films being accompanied by a solo pianist or organist, but in the teens and twenties, deluxe houses would have had an orchestra (although often a rather small one). In many ways, the silent film era was the golden age of film music, since the music was presented live and did not have to compete with dialog or sound effects. In those days, it was "foreground music," not "background music." Talkies were not a good development for film music.

Were silent films always presented with music?

It's a mistake to look at the "silent film era" as a uniform time. It took a while for film presentation to become standardized, and there's a lot of evidence that before 1910 a lot of theaters may have not used music, or had a musician who played to entertain the audience while the film was being rewound rather than during the film itself. But it's safe to say that by 1913, appropriate music was expected during the film. The idea that early films were not accompanied by music is supported by the fact that almost no photoplay music was published before 1913 (films having been shown since the mid 1890s), implying that there may not have been a demand in the early years.

How is a silent film score put together?

There are three fundamental kinds of silent film scores: improvised scores, composed scores, and compiled scores. Improvised scores are created off-the-cuff by a musician while watching the film, usually a soloist on organ or piano. Composed scores are made of new music written freshly for a specific film, usually for a specific combination of instruments. Compiled scores are assembled from a library of previously written music. In real-world scores, the three techniques are often combined in one score. Excellent scores can be made using each technique, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Many theater organists and pianists improvise their scores, occastionally using pieces or songs that they have memorized. Some excellent improvisors are Jon Mirsalis, Phil Carli, and Hank Troy. Some musicians compose new scores for silent films, notably Carl Davis in England and Phil Carli in the U.S. The Mont Alto Orchestra compiles its scores from period theater music, often leaving a few scenes to be improvised on the piano to make the score more flexible for live performance conditions. There are only a few other people reviving the "compiled score" technique, notably Robert Israel and (with computerized instruments) Eric Beheim.

Why doesn't Mont Alto use the original, authentic score for silent movies?

One possible definition of silent films would be "films that have no single, definitive sound track." Most theaters in America in the silent film era created their own scores, so there was no single "original, authentic" score. If you saw a film in 1000 different theatres, you would probably hear 1000 different scores. It is true that many big productions had scores composed especially for them for their New York premieres by composers like Erno Rapee and Hugo Riesenfeld. But these scores were rarely used at many theaters outside New York unless an orchestra travelled with the film as a "road show," and it would be better to refer to them as the "New York Premiere Score" rather than the "Original Score." Mont Alto's score compiling approach is historically authentic, even though these exact scores are unlikely to have occured during the silent era.

What's a cue sheet?

A "cue sheet" was sort of a cheat sheet for the musical director that would be sent with or ahead of a film to give hints as to what pieces would work with the film at certain cues (starting spots). It lists the cue to watch for in the film, the title, composer, and publisher of a suggested piece to be played, and many give a few opening measures of the violin part. Theater music directors were expected to maintain a library of music, and either use the music suggested in the cue sheet or substitute similar pieces from their collections. Cue sheets were ignored by some theater directors and used by others.

It is maintained by some that using the cue sheet is the only way to prepare an "authentic" score that reflects what people originally heard. I feel that using a cue sheet can be an interesting academic exercise, but it mistakes the original intent of cue sheets. A paragraph from some of James Bradford's cue sheets makes his intentions clear:

"The purpose of this musical setting is to aid the leader in selecting appropriate music for the picture. It is not intended that he should purchase the pieces suggested nor should it be inferred that without them a good musical setting is not possible. Their purpose is rather to illustrate the style and character of the music that fits each scene and so enable to leader to select a similar piece from his library."

Here is a sample cue sheet from the film Napoleon.

What are the advantages to compiled scores?

Compiled scores are a remarkably efficient way to assemble impressive movie scores -- typically the score compiler received the film or cue sheet three days to a week before the picture was to be shown and was able to have the film score arranged and the orchestra rehearsed by opening night while still exhibiting the previous film. Mont Alto got an accidental trial-by-fire on this at the 2000 Cinecon convention, when an expected film was cancelled a week before the screening. Susan Hall and I were able to compile a score for a different film in one day, arrange parts for each musician the next, rehearse on a third day, and then present the film "as professionally as if planned for months" (according to a review of the performance in Classic Images).

How many pieces do you need to compile a film score?

A typical compiled film score uses from 35 to 70 pieces of music, but you need a larger pool of pieces to select them from. Large theaters boasted of libraries with 15,000, or even as many as 50,000 scores, typically a mix of classical works, popular dances and songs, and photoplay music. I would estimate that a minimum practical film scoring library should have at least 500 to 1000 pieces, and even then some of the more useful pieces would start to repeat themselves after five or ten film scores.

My grandma played piano for silent films. Was it unusual for women to do that?

I don't know any studies of this, but it would not surprise me at all to learn that more women than men were pianists in the small nickleodeon theaters. More women were trained to play the piano than men (it was part of a proper upbringing), and they were probably cheaper to hire. I have encountered many more people whose grandmothers played for the movies than people whose grandfathers played. The huge demand for qualified musicians overruled long-standing prejudices, and Black musicians such as the ragtime composers James Scott and Jelly Roll Morton got regular work in movie theaters. It was much rarer for women to be members of orchestras, although I have found some photoplay pieces that were rubber-stamped with the name of a woman violinist who was presumably an orchestra leader.

I'm a musician, or my browser at least plays MIDI files. Is there some photoplay music I can try out?

Volume 1 of Sam Fox Moving Picture Music is available here. This is some of the earliest (and most primitive) photoplay music, written in 1913 by J.S. Zamecnik. This book contains piano music well within the range of a beginning to intermediate pianist. I hope to get some more advanced photoplay music on-line, so check back. To hear more sophisticated music, try our CD and video recordings page, on which are downloadable MP3 files of Mont Alto's recorded performances of photoplay music.

Did many movie theaters have orchestras?

In a 1922 survey of movie theaters by Motion Picture News, exhibitors were asked about the musical accompaniment in their theaters. Of those who answered the question, 46% used theater organ, 25% used piano only, and 29% had an orchestra. Orchestras were expensive and often reserved for prime-time shows, so even those theaters that claimed to have orchestras probably used theater organs or pianos at the early matinees and during the orchestra's breaks.On the other hand, the 29% of theaters with orchestras were also likely the largest, so probably well over 29% of the movie-going audience any night was seeing an orchestrally-scored movie presentation.

Where does Mont Alto, a mere salon quintet, get off calling itself an "orchestra"?

Pure (but historically authentic) American hype. In the survey mentioned above, only 6.6% of the orchestras had more than ten players, 29% had from six to ten, and the remainder were "orchestras" with five (18%), four (13%), three (22%), or two (11%) players. The unscientific nature of the survey makes extrapolation from this data risky, but if the data were assumed accurate, in the roughly 15,000 American theaters there would have been around 3700 "orchestras," of which around 250 would have been larger than ten players, 1100 with six to ten players, and 2000 with three to five players. If you were to plot a graph of the data, you'd notice that five players may have been the most common configuration (depending on how that 6-10 category breaks down).

What is the proper instrumentation for photoplay music?

To be useful to the widest variety of orchestras, photoplay music was arranged so that any piece could be played by any group from a piano-violin-cello trio up to an 80-piece orchestra. Orchestrators did this by "cross cueing," which means that an important musical line in one instrument would be placed, in small "cue" notes, in the parts for other instruments, so that (for instance) in the absence of the oboe, the clarinet or violin could play the oboe's solos. The piano was used to cover the usual "filler" work of the basses, violas, and second violins. The "piano-conductor" score was also used by the conductor as well, since there was no full score published. Considering that most conductors in small groups were playing an instrument, a full score would have had an unwelcome number of page turns. If the orchestra was large enough, all of the piano's notes were covered by other instruments, and the piano could be omitted entirely. Advertisements for the Sam Fox Photoplay Editions, state "Arranged for full orchestra and effective in any small orchestral combination which includes violin and piano." The folder containing Carl Fischer's Loose Leaf Motion Picture Collection reads "All parts are carefully cued and specially arranged so as to be playable for violin and piano[,] trio, quartet, or any other combination of instruments with violin and piano."

What were the large theater orchestras like?

Most photoplay music was sold in "large orchestra" and "small orchestra" versions. The "small" orchestra's parts consisted of violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet 1, trumpets/cornets 1 and 2 (sometimes on the same score), trombone, percussion, and piano/conductor. The "large" orchestration added oboe, bassoon, 2nd clarinet, and two horns (usually on the same part) and sometimes harmonium. But the parts are identical: a cellist would read from same part whether in a piano trio, a small orchestra, or a large orchestra -- but in the small group, he or she would have to play the bassoon and trombone cue notes. The piano/conductor score was also sold separately, and theater organists played from these parts, using cue indications to choose appropriate stops.

Were photoplay music composers any good, or were they tin-pan-alley hacks?

Most photoplay music composers were serious classical musicians, working in what they felt was a novel (and economically viable) new field of classical music. Gaston Borch had studied with Jules Massenet and had played in and conducted symphonies across Europe and America. J.S. Zamecnik, who studied for two years with Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory, voiced the attitude of many composers:

"I believe the biggest composers will be attracted to this field, for there is a scope to it hitherto unknown to music. If the great composers only realized the opportunities in the motion picture field they would be knocking on the door for an opportunity to write this music. I am of the opinion that essentially dramatic composers, such as Wagner and Tschaikowsky, would have been vastly attracted by the motion picture. Wagner's ideas were always dramatic and always conceived on a tremendous scale. They were so vast and called for such technical resource that he had to have a special opera house constructed to properly present his music dramas. The motion picture has no such limitations as the stage. Nothing is too vast for the screen. I think that Wagner would have reveled in the idea of fitting his music to the motion picture for that reason alone. Then there was Berlioz, whose ideas were even vaster than Wagner's. Had he been able to he would have used thousands of people in tremendous musical spectacles and he could have done this in the films. As it was, he died without realizing any but a small part of his vision. Again, take Tschaikowsky. His music is always dramatic and always emotional. It is also most melodious. I believe that he would have written unparalleled music for the screen and would have been enchanted by the problems the pictures set up for solution. Likewise, I believe that any future Wagners, Berliozs and Tschaikowskys will be led instinctively to the screen for the proper exploitation of their talents."

In reality, classical composers such as Stravinsky who tried motion picture scoring often did as poorly as famous novelists did with screen writing. And although writers on silent film music have made much of compiled scores being made up of the standard classical repertoire -- usually mentioning Breil's use of the Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in his score for Birth of a Nation -- such classical pieces are quite rare in actual cue sheets. Photoplay music was more useful.

Was photoplay music just a backwater in the development of American music?

Considering that America alone had 15,000 movie theaters, many giving two to four daily programs, it's clear that the presentation and attendance of films vastly surpassed the presentation and attendance of opera, ballet, and classical music concerts -- possibly even church music. Weekly attendance in 1926 was 47 million people, or about half the population. ASCAP reported that silent film theater orchestras were responsible for more royalties than any other type of musical performance. In the days before radio was widespread, photoplay music was probably the most commonly heard form of music in America, and contributed greatly to the development of the general public's musical taste.

Borch? Riesenfeld? Zamecnik? Why haven't I heard of any of these composers?

Because they didn't get any credit, their music wasn't recorded, the medium died overnight, and no one bothered to remember it. This does not mean that these were not significant composers. In the words of Gordon Whyte, a columnist for Metronome, "This is a field of musical writing in which the composer may not be known to the outside world, as the composer of popular songs or musical comedies may be known, but if he is able to write the sort of music which is demanded by the pictures it is safe to say that no other branch of musical writing will yield more performances of his works than this."

Were any silent movie scores recorded during the silent era?

This might seem like a silly question, but there are some interesting recordings of silent film-type scores that were made at the tail end of the silent era. Some theaters were wired for sound before the studios had converted all of their productions to sound, so a number of films from 1928 and 1929 were released as silent pictures -- with intertitles and silent-style production techniques -- but with recorded musical scores for those theaters that wanted them. These films give an idea of how silent film scores sounded at the best theaters in the late 1920s, although unfortunately these scores are hard to find on video. While some films, like Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, are considered incomplete without their recorded scores, others like Wings or The Wedding March are re-released on video with new organ scores as though the original score was expendable. My personal opinion is that in live performances it is valid to present these films either with the recorded score or with live musicians, but if you're going to watch a recorded film on a video it might as well use the original score. As Hugo Riesenfeld, composer of the excellent score for Sunrise, said in 1926:

It is not probable that the Vitaphone will ever entirely replace the orchestra, but it does make it possible for certain films requiring the finest musical accompaniment to be shown in places where there is no orchestra available.

The fact that he was wrong about the death of the theater orchestra is irrelevant to the fact that he obviously prefered live orchestras to Vitaphone scores -- presumably his Sunrise score was likewise only intended for theaters where there was no orchestra (including, eventually, our living rooms).

I'm tired of reading on this darn CRT screen, and I'm worried that you're just making some of this up. Where can I find good books or articles on silent film music?

Most of these answers come from my article on photoplay music (where the facts are properly referenced). I'm afraid it's rather hard to find, but try Interlibrary Loan.

Rodney Sauer, Photoplay Music: A Reusable Repertory for Silent Film Scoring, 1914-1929, American Music Research Center Journal, Vol. 8/9, 1998-99.

The most complete book to date on silent film music and other practices (such as lectures, sound effects, etc.) is

Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound. Columbia University Press, 2005.

A good illustrated overview of silent film music practices, as well as listings of the contents of the Library of Congress collections and some other silent film music archives, is given in

Gillian Anderson, Music for Silent Films 1894-1929, Library of Congress, Washington, 1988.

A remarkably detailed analysis of early composed scores (though little on compiled scores, and nothing on the significant 1925-1929 era of composed scores) is given in

Marks, Martin Miller, Music and the Silent Film, Contexts and Case Studies 1895-1924. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Contemporary perspective on the economics of theater music can be found in

Hugo Riesenfeld, "Music and Motion Pictures," in The Motion Picture in Its Economic and Social Aspects, issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November, 1926, pages 58-62. Also available online on the silent film bookshelf.

How to make an orchestral arrangement work for any size of orchestra is discussed by the master in

Gaston Borch, Practical Manual of Instrumentation, The Boston Music Company, New York: G.Schirmer, 1918.

What to expect as a theater organist is explained for you in

Edith Lang & George West, Musical Accompaniment of Motion Pictures, The Boston Music Company, Boston, 1920.

Putting together an orchestra, a music library, how to approach compiling your own film scores, and a huge list of some 10,000 useful pieces (titles, authors, and publishers; but no actual musical scores) organized by theme is given in

Erno Rapee, Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures, Belwin, NY, 1925. Reprinted in 1974 by the Arno Press.

A basic repertoire of piano/organ scores to suit 52 "moods" can be found in

Erno Rapee, Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists, G. Schirmer, NY, 1924. Reprinted in 1974 by the Arno Press.

Several items written during the silent film era are available at the silent film bookshelf. particularly June, 1998 on the composer J.S. Zamecnik, March 1997 on Music in Motion Picture Theaters, and October 1996 on Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s.

Where can I find silent film music for my orchestra?

Keep your eyes open, and visit nearby university music libraries, and ask about their special collections. Be very nice to the librarians! A few places have catalogs on line, but -- and it's a big but -- you need to know what you're looking for, and the titles are rarely an indication of the quality or usefulness of the piece. Browsing through the actual music is the most efficient way of searching.

University of Colorado

The Alvin Layton collection is online now as a PDF file.

University of North Texas Collection

You can search the collections of the University of North Texas by author or by title. I've had good luck ordering music from UNT for the costs of photocopying and postage.

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Music Library

The Music Library has several collections, not all of which are on line.

The Capitol Theater (New York, NY) Music Collection claims, unfortunately, to consist mostly of piano parts. With its 71+ piece orchestra, one would have expected the full orchestrations; and being one of the premiere venues in America for live-orchestra film (directed by Erno Rapée, William Axt, and David Mendoza; all of whom were involved in publishing the Capitol Music Series), it should be an excellent collection. Note that some of the Capitol material is at the NYPL (see below), and this finding aid does not give instrumentations or copyright dates.

The Schnauber collection (originally from the Film Music Society) is stored off-site, and when you place an order they have to send someone out to find things -- so it's smart to place one large order rather than a bunch of small ones. The catalog is particularly detailed, and has authors, titles, and arrangers. If you click on a number, it will show you the orchestration, and often the catalog includes film cues that are pencilled on the first violin part.

The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library has a collection that originally belonged to the Capitol Theater in New York. (I don't know the relationship between this and the Capitol collection at UCLA.) I haven't tried to get things from here yet. If you do, please report to me how it went.

Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville.

These are very helpful people. The Rader collection leans heavily towards classical music, but photoplay and popular music are scattered throughout. There are several other collections at SIUE that are not on line yet.

University of Pittsburgh

The collection at the U of P includes a lot of orchestrated photoplay music in the Mirskey Collection as well as other music. As far as I can tell, you have to search their entire library for composers or titles you're interested in. Searching for "silent film music" (in quotes) brings up a lot of the titles.

The Dorman Hundling Archive at Drake University

Drake University's Dorman Hundling Archive is a collection from a Newton, Iowa movie theater, quite comprehensive. They currently charge $1 per page, and can scan to PDF.

Cleveland Public Library

There are some small orchestra pieces at the Cleveland Public Library, which also has a large collection of popular sheet music.