J.S. Zamecnik (1872-1953)

Photo courtesy of the Robert S. Birchard collection

John Stepan Zamecnik (ZAM-ishnick) was a remarkably prolific American composer of the early 20th century, and was a major composer of "photoplay music," the vast, forgotten genre of music used by silent film theater orchestras. Zamecnik was born and raised in Cleveland, studied with Antonín Dvorák in Prague, and returned to America as a professional musician and composer. He composed music in many genres including songs, dances, salon music, and pieces to be used in compiled silent film scores, composed a few significant complete film scores, and retired not long after the arrival of sound movies. Zamecnik was one of the few film-music composers who was working during the entire period from vaudeville through silent film to the coming of sound. Zamecnik's career encompassed the 15-year existence of photoplay music as a distinct genre (roughly 1913 to 1928), and his developing sophistication as an artist coincided with the development of film music, and of film itself.

Biography

Zamecnik was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 14, 1872. His father was a musician, and J.S. also showed a natural aptitude for music. In 1893 Zamecnik began the study of harmony, counterpoint and fugue; and three years later left for Prague, Bohemia where he was admitted to the Prague Conservatory of Music and assigned to a class in composition under the famous symphonist, Dr. Antonin Dvorák. Zamecnik returned to America and took a job with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Victor Herbert from the fall of 1901 through the Spring of 1904. In 1904 Zamecnik returned to Cleveland. He married Cleveland resident Mary Barbara Hodous in 1904, and they had two children-Edwin in 1905, Walter in 1907.

On December 31, 1907, Zamecnik became the music director of the newly constructed Cleveland Hippodrome theater. He wrote and conducted music for grand spectacles, and when the Hippodrome started showing films, he may have written music for the silent films there.

From 1908 comes the first piece I can find published by the Sam Fox Publishing Company--a march called The College Yell. Zamecnik quickly became Sam Fox's major composer and music director for the company. In 1913, he composed Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Volume 1, one of the first collections of music written specifically for movies. This was followed by three more volumes of music for piano, as well as more advanced music for orchestra (some of which can be found on our recording Cinema: Silent Film Music by J.S. Zamecnik). Free MIDI samples of some of the "Photoplay Edition" pieces can be found at the bottom of this page. Zamecnik's music is extremely useful for film score compiling, and so can also be heard on all of our video recordings except Blood and Sand.

According to the 1920 census, Zamecnik lived at 1430 West 84th Street. The neighborhood has fallen on hard times in the years since, and here is how it appeared in October of 2002.

In 1924, to develop his film music career, Zamecnik left Cleveland and moved to Los Angeles. He continued to compose photoplay music for general use, and as specially composed scores for films became more common, he worked on full film scores. His first effort was a collaboration with established New York composer Hugo Riesenfeld for the Paramount picture Old Ironsides (1926).

 

Richard Arlen, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, and Clara Bow in Wings (1927).

Zamecnik's composed film scores:

Old Ironsides (1926), with Hugo Riesenfeld

The Rough Riders (1927), with Hugo Riesenfeld

Wings (1927)

Abie's Irish Rose (1928)

The Wedding March (1928)

Betrayal (1929), with Louis deFrancesco

Redskin (1929), with Louis deFrancesco

The Power and the Glory (1933).

In 1927, Zamecnik was interviewed by Gordon Whyte of Metronome, and described his methods for scoring the film Wings.

"I go into the projection room in the morning and synchronise the picture. That is to say, I hold a watch on the various episodes and make notes of the action. By the time this is through, I have a fair idea of the nature of the music which must be written to fit the situations.

"Then comes the job of writing it. This I do in the afternoons and go back the next day and see how it fits. In other words, I test it under actual projection conditions. Fortunately I react quickly to the mood of a situation and generally the necessary music comes easily. Also, I naturally write in a dramatic style and this makes the task easier than it might otherwise be.

"I wrote the score of Wings in four weeks, which was less time than I would have liked to do the job in. Originally, I was scheduled to have eight weeks and it was my intention to compose an entirely original score for the picture. However, the opening date was put forward four weeks and I had to do the best I could in half the time I calculated on having.

"I immediately saw that I would not be able to write a complete original score, so I chose those episodes which most imperatively called for original music and used other compositions for those parts of the film which they fitted. Then I came to New York to put the finishing touches to the music.

"It was necessary to do some cutting of the picture and of course, the orchestra had to be rehearsed. I would see the cuts that were made and fit the music to the altered action. This took a good deal of time and much work but I am happy to see that the score has been accepted as a suitable accompaniment to this very great picture."

Wings, The Wedding March, Betrayal, and Redskin were all silent films, but the scores were recorded for theaters that were "wired for sound." Unfortunately, none of these scores have been used on home video versions of these films to date (and as Betrayal is considered a "lost film" its score will likely never be performed again). Zamecnik retired not long after the arrival of talkies -- according to his sons, he did not care for sound movies, where instead of glorious live orchestral music in the theater, audiences heard low-fidelity recordings played behind dialog and sound effects.

Zamecnik's silent film cues were reused in many lower-budget sound films and newsreels throughout the 1930s. Zamecnik died in 1953 in Los Angeles. He is credited with nearly 2,000 compositions. During his lifetime, his music was played in hundreds or thousands of film theaters every night for almost 15 years. His influence on musical development, and on the musical tastes of America, has been almost completely ignored.

Zamecnik Aliases

Zamecnik published pieces under as many as 21 different pseudonyms -- possibly in an attempt to make Sam Fox Publishing look larger than it really was. Zamecnik never used pseudonyms for photoplay music, only for songs, dance music, and salon music. The following 14 have been confirmed either by Sam Fox Co. or ASCAP. There are several other composer names that I suspect of being Zamecnik pseudonyms, but I can find no firm evidence. The known Zamecnik pseudonyms have the following characteristics: (a) all pieces with these names are published by Fox, and (b) the orchestrations of these pieces credit J.S. Zamecnik as arranger.

Lionel Baxter
R.L. (Robert) Creighton
Arturo de Castro
"Josh and Ted"
J. (Jane) Hathaway
Kathryn Hawthorne
Roberta Hudson
Ioane Kawelo
Dorothy Lee
J. Edgar Lowell
Jules Reynard
Gene Scott
F. (Frederick) Van Norman
Hal Vinton
Grant Wellesley

There is disagreement about whether Paul Du Pont is a pseudonym for Zamecnik or a different composer, Walter G.(or Gus W.) Haenschen.


Sample music

The entire Sam Fox Moving Picture Music volume 1, from 1913 can be found elsewhere on the site. MIDI files are very small and use your computer system's internal synthesizer for sound. MP3 files are larger, and are actual recordings of the Mont Alto Orchestra.

MIDI file of "Agitato," piano solo version, from Sam Fox Photoplay Edition Volume 1, 1919.

MIDI file of "Dramatic Tension," piano solo version, from Sam Fox Photoplay Edition Volume 1, 1919.

MIDI file of "The Sacrifice," piano solo version, from Sam Fox Photoplay Edition Volume 2, 1922.

MP3 file of "A Gruesome Tale," orchestra version, from Sam Fox Photoplay Edition Volume 2, 1922. From Cinema: Silent Film Music by J.S. Zamecnik.

MP3 file of "Storm Music," orchestra version, from Sam Fox Photoplay Edition Volume 2, 1922. From Cinema: Silent Film Music by J.S. Zamecnik.

The Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra Web Site

 Home Schedule About Mont Alto Recordings About Photoplay Music Dance Music