A musician, compiler and composer explains how he scored a silent film for today’s audience.
by Rodney Sauer
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was commissioned to create two new scores for the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, one of which is the newly restored 1926 film Silence. It shows at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, June 4 at 12:00 Noon.One print of Silence is known to survive at the Cinémathèque Française. The Cinémathèque, Rob Byrne, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival collaborated to have the surviving print scanned, digitally repaired and cleaned, translated from French back into the original English, then printed to film for exhibition and preservation.
Silence is a melodrama based on a stage play. The tone is dark through much of the story, though there are a few light moments. I was particularly struck by the love story, and knew immediately that a powerful love theme would be needed to underscore both Jim’s love for Norma Drake (played by Vera Reynolds) and later his love for his illegitimate daughter Norma Powers (also played by Vera Reynolds). The sacrifice that Jim makes in the framing story only makes sense if — despite being just a petty crook — his love for his family is deep and powerful enough to overcome his instinct for self preservation.While looking for the original English intertitle text, Rob Byrne found the musical cue sheet for Silence at an archive, but was not allowed to copy it because of its fragility. He wrote down the English wording of some of the titles from that cue sheet (which was of course his principal interest), but he did not write down which musical cues were recommended (which would have been my principal interest).
Fortunately, Andrew Greene of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra sent me a scan of his copy of the cue sheet, though it is missing the first page and the bottom of the last two pages.
What is a musical cue sheet? It was not uncommon for films to be tightly scheduled. A film might finish its run at one theater, then be shipped to another theater and open the very next night. That made it very difficult for a theater’s music department to prepare a score ahead of time. So for most films, a cue sheet was sent ahead of the film. It would contain a list of scenes in the film, with a small sample of music suggested by the cue sheet compiler as appropriate for that scene. The theater’s music director would compile a score, perhaps using some of the suggestions (if the theater had them in its library), and making substitutions of similar music for other scenes.
Cue sheets were not prepared by the movie producers, but by people working for music publishing companies. Often you can catch the cue sheet compiler pushing his own compositions, or other pieces recently published by his publishing house. While I find cue sheet suggestions interesting and informative, I do not feel any great pressure to use the recommended pieces if I can’t find them, or if I can find them but don’t care for them. An orchestra leader in 1926 would have done the same.
Since I’m missing the first page of the cue sheet, we don’t know who compiled it. But a glance at the selections suggests that this particular compiler was “coasting” a bit, choosing pieces that were very familiar classical works or recent popular songs whose titles are references to on-screen characters.
I realized that a strict reconstruction of the cue sheet score would lead to a score that — for me at least — would be unsatisfying.
One of the familiar classical pieces — Jules Massenet’s “Elegie” — is called for in the cue sheet no less than five times. I didn’t want to be that repetitive, but I did leave it in the score in two places, as it is an effective and evocative piece.
Schumann’s “Traumerei” I ejected as too familiar, since such familiar pieces can pull the audience out of the story; and “Mighty Lak a Rose” is unfamiliar to modern audiences, who in any event don’t need to be told in music that there’s a baby on the screen when they can see with their eyes that there’s a baby on the screen. Instead I used a sweet cue by J.S. Zamecnik, “Heart o’ Dreams.”
The love theme would have been Tchaikowsky’s “One Who Has Yearned Alone,” which is serviceable but a bit overused. I had recently come across a salon orchestra arrangement of the Andante Cantabile from Schumann’s piano quartet, and felt that its highly emotional melody suited the love story in this film much better. It also is pretty memorable — an ear worm, to be honest — which is useful for a piece that you plan to have recur at significant places through the film score. So, it appears when we first see Jim and Norma together discussing their future child, next when a picture of Norma is shown in a locket, and a third time when Jim steels himself to face the gallows to save the younger Norma.
Two of the characters in the flashback sequence are given stereotypical Irish songs (“The Irish Washer Woman” and “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”). These choices seem to only indicate that the characters are Irish, and do nothing to match the tone of the scenes in which they appear. One of the characters doesn’t appear in the surviving print of the film, so no music needed to be chosen for Alderman Connley.
For Mollie Burke, I used a short snippet of a turn-of-the-century cakewalk to establish the scene of a 1904 saloon, then quickly changed to a dramatic piece of underscoring (J.S. Zamecnik’s “Reproach”) that matches the drama on screen much better than “The Irish Washer Woman” would have.Perhaps the oddest choice is for the villain of the piece, Harry Silvers, who gets “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Yes, he’s a weasel. I concede that. But the folk song is jaunty and childish, and Harry Silvers is a slime ball whose blackmailing and extortion schemes lead to murder. Three straight minutes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” while Harry oils his way into Phil’s home is about three minutes too much “Pop Goes the Weasel.” One of the pieces recommended in the cue sheet was “Shadows in the Night,” by Gaston Borch. I was unfamiliar with the piece, though I know and respect the composer. I was able to find it at the Silent Film Sound & Music Archive’s website, and used it for several of the scenes involving Jim or Harry. “Pop Goes the Weasel” does not make an my score.
The last half dozen pieces on the cue sheet really bring up the action with fast music like Bergé’s “Panicy Agitato,” Gabriel Marie’s “Angosciosamente,” and Zamecnik’s “Furioso No. 2.” These are the sorts of pieces I usually use for battles, desperate chases, or runaway trains. My reading of this film is totally different: the wheels have been set in motion when Jim confesses to the murder, fate has been determined, and Jim is coming to peace with his sacrifice. So I changed out all of the cue sheet selections for ominous but rhythmic “funeral march” pieces that are consistent with that take, and ending with the Schumann love theme from earlier in the score.
An interesting twist in this film is that the first five minutes of a silent film are obsessed with sound. We see three men hammering on a gallows, then we meet a condemned man who is being driven crazy first by the hammering, then by a series of other repetitive sounds: a tapping pencil, a prison guard’s footsteps, a ticking clock, and finally the tolling of a huge bell.
I would be curious to see how this dramatic directorial decision is dealt with on the missing first page of the cue sheet, though my hopes are not high. It was clear to me that the best accompaniment would be the sounds shown on the screen, so I scored this for only “Foley” effects that will be carried out by a sound effects pit crew while the orchestra stays silent.
When the frame story comes back to the prison towards the end of the film, none of the “sounds” are shown on screen again (though the cue sheet indicates that in the original print the bell was shown). So rather than repeat the cacophony of noises, we just bring back the large bell.
I am, of course, very interested to see how the score goes over in San Francisco, but I feel that it is a very effective score for this film. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has also commissioned us to record the score, so it should eventually be available for audiences beyond those at the Castro Theater at the premiere.
May 19, 1926 New York Times review.
The Complete San Francisco Silent Film Festival schedule with detailed program essays is here.
Rodney Sauer, pianist and score compiler, studied at the Oberlin Conservatory while majoring in Chemistry at Oberlin College, and has appeared as piano soloist with the Boulder Sinfonia. He is an avid student of silent film music, and his article on the history and use of “photoplay music” was published in the American Music Research Center Journal. He is a frequent performer in various participatory dance genres from early 20th century ballroom dance to morris and contra dance. He also plays solo improvised silent film scores, although the Mont Alto Orchestra is his major musical endeavor. In 2001 he won a Musical grant from the Arts and Humanities Assembly of Boulder.
Read an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle with Rodney.
Visit the Mont-Alto Orchestra’s website.
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