Popular Music for Orchestra – A Brief History (Part 10)

by Dick O'Connor

The orchestral context for motion pictures was established during the second decade of the 20th century and derived from their dramatic affinity with opera. Music hall and vaudeville house bands had since the 1890s increasingly provided instrumental backing for their showing, but it wasn’t until 1910, when silent films had become substantial attractions, that theatre managers, conductors, and musicians began seriously considering the appropriateness and proper timing of their accompaniment. As growing success moved them up on variety bills and out of nickelodeons and itinerant shows into larger venues of their own more care and money were lavished on musical preparation and performance.

To increase patronage by providing a positive popular theatrical alternative to vaudeville and to render the medium more attractive to the prosperous middle and upper-middle classes the first architecturally splendid and well-appointed motion picture houses seating over a thousand persons were raised in American cities between 1913 and 1920. Owned and managed by soon-to-be-famous trend-setting showman-impresarios such as Samuel Rothafel (“Roxy”), Sid Grauman, Jack Partington, and Edward Bowes, the new movie palaces offered, in addition to pictures, concert soloists, formally-trained dancers, elaborate theatrical prologues, virtuosic instrumental novelties, barber-shop quartets, and other ‘high-toned’ acts. The music accompanying the films was ‘high-toned’ as well – symphonic, dramatic, lyrical, and continuous – in other words, operatic in nature. Such exhilarating and uplifting entertainment, it was felt, would give customers “something better than what they want” and might justify higher ticket prices.

Opera furnished motion picture musicians a useful catalogue of musical solutions to the wide variety of dramatic, psychological, and mood problems encountered in a narrative production. Of the men engaged to compile and arrange suitable scores and prepare and conduct expanded theatre orchestras in these urban emporiums some of the most influential had opera backgrounds. The work of Hugo Riesenfeld, Erno Rapee, and William Axt invested silent pictures with depth, distinction, drama, continuity, color, suspense, character, and feeling, perfectly complementing the endeavors of D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and other visionary film makers who themselves aspired to the exalted position then held by grand opera in the world of popular stage entertainment. Their houses became the flagship theatres of giant chains – Paramount, Loew’s, RKO, Balaban and Katz, Fox, Warner Brothers – that would in time make that work available to the unprecedented number of orchestras that staffed similar theatres across the country. Of the well over ten thousand cinemas operating in 1928 – the last year of the silent era – many carried ensembles of 40 to 50 musicians, some used 55 to 70 pieces, and a few boasted over a hundred players.

Beginning in 1913 and continuing through most of the 1920s publishers issued sheets, folios, and orchestrations of generic mood pieces designed for silent film use composed and arranged by Maurice Baron, Giuseppe Becce, S.M. Berg, Irenee Berge, Frank Black, Gaston Louis Christopher Borch, Ricardo Drigo, Hugo Frey, Gabriel-Marie, Charles Herbert, Louis Katzman, Leo Kempinski, Albert Ketelbey, Mayhew Lake, Otto Langey, William Christopher O’Hare, W.C. Polla, Domenico Savino, Adolf Schmid, Jan Sibelius, Theodore Moses Tobani, George Trinkhaus, and J.S Zamecnik, as well as Rosenfeld, Rapee, Axt, and others – a truly international collection of reputable musicians associated severally with concert music, opera, operetta, musical comedy, military bands, light music, dance orchestras, and the music press.

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