Photoplay music refers to music created specifically for the purpose of accompanying silent films. Motion pictures were registered as “moving photograghs”, hence during the silent era they were referred to as photoplays. The earliest films of the silent era (pre-1910’s) were mostly exhibited without musical accompaniment. During this time, people attended nickelodeons, vaudeville theaters, and even converted store fronts when going to motion pictures. Conditions under which these early films were shown varied. If music was presented at all, it often took the form of illustrated songs or piano solos featured separately between films to entertain the audience – not as film accompaniment. Eventually, in the years leading up to the early teens, pianists had begun to accompany films. And as the art of film storytelling became more sophisticated, so the role of musical accompaniment in films began to gain more importance.
Thus by the early teens there had emerged a demand for music to be composed specifically for accompanying motion pictures. Music publishers such as Joseph Remick, Sam Fox Music and Academic Music began to issue their own folios of photoplay music as an aid to pianists and organists playing for motion pictures. These folios, or books of music, contained a variety of descriptive musical moods, with titles such as “Mysterioso”, “Love Theme”, “Furioso”, “Comic Hurry”, “Storm Music” “Andante Dramatico”, and “Agitato”. These were essentially musical cues which could be used to underscore various scenes in a motion picture. The new medium would also attract a number of gifted and prolific composers, such as Mayhew Lake, Gaston Borch, J.S. Zamecnik and Otto Langey.
The Emergence of Orchestral Accompaniment in Motion Picture Theaters
1914 was a milestone year for the growth of the motion picture industry. A surge in construction of new, magnificently furnished and ornately decorated movie palaces would signal a new era in which exhibitors could offer the movie going public a prestige upscale experience. This new activity centered in New York on Broadway with The Strand theater leading the way, being the first to present motion pictures in conjunction with a high class musical program featuring a large orchestra, complete with vocal and instrumental soloists between films. The man responsible for pioneering and developing the appeal of these fabulous movie palaces was Samuel Lionel “Roxy” Rothafel, an American theatrical impresario and entrepreneur. Prior to taking over The Strand, Roxy had managed The Regent, where he had made notable improvements, adding musical programs, stage shows, and lighting effects. The Strand theater opened on April 11, 1914 in New York at 47th Street and Broadway and quickly became a huge success. It seated an astounding 3,500 people and at the time was the largest and most ornate theater ever built exclusively to show movies.
The idea of seeing a film program in conjunction with a large orchestra was an exciting novelty for audiences at this time. The musical selections in these early programs typically included works from the standard symphonic classical repertoire, often featuring whole movements from symphonies, and as well as popular operatic overtures. In these instances, more consideration was given to providing audiences with the grand experience itself – that of hearing a large symphony orchestra, rather than actually playing musical selections which specifically served the needs of the motion picture. Over the next two years, larger theaters in cities across the US would begin modeling themselves after The Strand, offering programs on a similar scale using large orchestras. Roxy would go on to oversee more Broadway movie palaces: the Rialto (1916), the Rivoli (1917), the Capitol (1919), the Roxy (1927), and, finally, Radio City Music Hall (1932).
The picture palaces were a commercial success. Between 1914 and 1922, over 4,000 new theaters opened in the U.S. The success of The Strand indicated that motion pictures were not only gaining popularity, but that orchestras were to play an important role in the overall prestige experience of movie-goers.
The advent of feature length films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) would further establish this, as these films were released with their own specially composed/compiled scores by Joseph Carl Breil and shown with the accompaniment of large orchestras. Briel created a score for The Birth of a Nation which was a combination of original music and excerpts from Grieg, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Beethoven, Lizst, and Verdi, as well as well-known traditional and popular American tunes such as, “Dixie,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”. In April 1915, twenty-two road companies traveled the country performing Breil’s The Birth of a Nation score. Within its first year, The Birth of a Nation was shown to some 3 million people. The film was heavily promoted as a grand spectacle, always promising audiences the forces of a “big” or “augmented” symphony orchestra. This was achieved by combining the traveling orchestras with local formations. In the years immediately to follow, more photoplay music would be published with orchestras in mind.
Pianos, pipe organs and mechanical instruments such as player pianos and FotoPlayers still remained a consistent means of accompaniment until the end of the silent era. This was true for both economic and practical reasons as orchestras could not be expected to perform 5 or 6 two hour shows per day. Thus orchestras usually performed featured or evening showings while pianos or theater pipe organs played most other times. Movie theater orchestras varied in size and more often were smaller. A lot depended upon the theater, its economic situation and the availability of musicians in any given locale. Movie theaters featuring orchestras usually had libraries containing large collections of cinematic music as well as classical, semi classical and popular music. Upon the release of a new film, the theater’s musical director would select appropriate pieces of music from the theater’s library in order to suit the mood of each scene in the film.
By 1918, it was a common practice that cue sheets were issued upon the release of a new film and distributed to a theater’s orchestra leader or other solo accompanists i.e. organists and pianists. A cue sheet specified or at least suggested which pieces of music were best to use in the film along with their appropriate placement in the scenes according to stated timings. Cameo Music Service Corporation patented a “Thematic Music Cue Sheet” format which included several opening measures for each selection in addition to other identifying information. Many of these cue sheets were prepared by James C. Bradford. Others who prepared cue sheets for various studios included Ernst Luz, Michael P. Krueger, Max Winkler, Carli Elinor, George W. Benyon and S.M. Berg.
The end of the silent era would bring general upheaval throughout the movie industry. By 1929, the advent of talkies, preceded by the Movietone and Vitaphone systems, would eventually bring the demise of live film accompaniment. Thus, as movie theaters converted over to sound, these music libraries immediately became obsolete, and most of the music was discarded in the process. And since photoplay music was rarely recorded, and the composers mostly unknown, this important chapter in cinema history has remained practically forgotten.