Photoplay music refers to music created specifically for the purpose of accompanying silent films. Motion pictures were registered as “moving photograghs”, thus 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.
By the early teens there had emerged an industry 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 playing for motion pictures. These folios written for piano, 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 inter-changeable stock musical cues which could be used to underscore various scenes in motion pictures. 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 with a large orchestra was new and exciting 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 as well as popular operatic overtures. In these instances, more consideration was likely given to providing audiences with the grand experience itself – that of hearing a large symphony orchestra, than actually playing selections which 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 epic-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 on a grand scale employing large orchestras. Breil 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, not every feature film release would be treated on such a grand scale with its own specially written score. However more photoplay music would be published with theater orchestras in mind.
Pianos, pipe organs and mechanical instruments such as player pianos and FotoPlayers remained a consistent means of film accompaniment throughout 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. Ensembles performing in less populated regions could vary in size from 1 – 2 players up to 20 + musicians. This depended upon the economy and availability of musicians in a given locale. Movie theaters featuring orchestras usually had libraries containing large collections of cinematic music as well as classical, semi classical and popular music. Classical standards were commonly adapted for theater orchestra and used in Photoplay accompaniment. Film scores were compiled by means of selecting appropriate musical pieces from the theater’s library.
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 musicians i.e. organists and pianists. A cue sheet specified or at least suggested which pieces to use in the film along with their appropriate placement in the scenes according to stated timings. Ultimately, the problem of how and what to do about presenting a score fell upon the exhibitor. Thus cue sheets were a practical solution to this problem as they saved countless hours in the process of compiling a score. Using a cue sheet, a theater musician was equipped to more quickly and efficiently compile a score from the suggestions made on the cue sheet and drawing upon the resources of a music library. It would be inaccurate to suggest that a cue sheet constituted a films “original score” or that strictly adhering to a cue sheet was the only true and “authentic” way to present a score for a particular film. Cue sheets were primarily an aid. Theater musicians were certainly free to substitute selections on the cue sheet with similar pieces as necessary or simply not use the cue sheet at all. 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.