Music lessons

Background notes: How the not-so-silent cinema created a love for music

In the earliest years of cinema, sound-less films were often played with musical accompaniments.

Film music began, wrote Kurt London in 1936, “not as a result of any artistic urge, but from the dire need of something which would drown out the noise made by the projector”. But when the offending contraption was finally settled in a sound-proof box, a different sort of problem surfaced – silence.

So “just as music had instinctively been used to neutralise the noise”, it was now used to mask the “intolerable” silence. But the use of music soon became an aesthetic choice. Silent cinema needed music, London evocatively argued, “to give it an existence at all, as a vital factor in its make-up, to give the film depth and a reality which its lack of voice demanded… It was the task of the musical accompaniment to give it auditory accentuation and profundity”.

In other words, the silent film was never really silent. Or so we were repeatedly told.

In a landmark 1996 essay titled The Silence of the Silents, the American film historian Rick Altman knocked significant holes in this founding assumption. Citing evidence gathered from trade journals and newspaper reports which suggested that “at least some early films were exhibited… without either musical accompaniment or sound effects”, Altman wrote, “Everything I had learned about silent film exhibition seemed to disappear in these few examples: silent films were in fact sometimes silent, it seemed, and what’s more it did not seem to bother audiences a bit.”

Play
American organist Gaylord Carter shares some tricks of the silent film musician’s trade.

However, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, some kind of musical accompaniment had become the norm. In India, even by as early as 1900, a multi-purpose theatre like Tivoli (which later became Capitol Cinema) in Bombay was screening as many as 25 shorts in a day, all accompanied by a string band. “By the time the story films started coming in here, from around 1907-08 onwards, even films in makeshift maidan cinemas played with some kind of accompaniment,” said Suresh Chabria, film historian and a former director of the National Film Archive of India.

JBH Wadia, the legendary founder of Wadia Movietone, mentions the use of “a solo instrument like the piano and often a semblance of an orchestra with a harmonium, tabla, and sarangi or violin”. Anupama Kapse, a New-York based film historian who is currently working on a book on Indian silent cinema, says she has "found a few references to the organ, an instrument which carried over into the cinema from the stage”. The musical accompaniment would vary according to the nature of the venue. It also depended on which part of the country you were watching the film in, suggests Chabria as “local flavours would come in”.

Music in silent films did not just mean background music. The early silent films were shorts, so people didn't just come in to watch a film; they came for what essentially amounted to a variety entertainment show. And music was always an integral part of that show. When films became longer, in many theatres, especially the Indian ones, often ran with only one projector. This necessitated a short break as the reel was being changed. Music was used to fill this break, Chabria said: “It may not have been connected with the film; it could have been a popular song or a folk number, but that entertainment was provided in between the reels."

And how much do we know about the musicians who accompanied the silent films? There are only tantalising glimpses. “One Mr. De Costa used to play the piano in The Empire (in Bombay),” JBH Wadia wrote, while “Mr. Patlu and Mr. Pirosha Mistry, both Parsees, played the piano and harmonium respectively in other cinema houses… Stock melodies were availed of to go in harmony with the action on the screen. I remember how Mr. Pirosha Mistry, who was a stage artist and a music composer earlier, would sometimes become enthusiastic and sing a refrain himself…"

Talking about Goan musicians in Bombay, historian Teresa Albuquerque writes, “Sebastian Fernandes and Martin Pinto used to recall how they came to Bombay at a tender age and secured part-time employment either in the orchestras of the theatres or of the numerous Italian restaurants like Monginis, which proliferated at the time.” And then there is the classical pianist Olga Craen who as a child “was inspired by hearing the rich music while she waited behind the scenes for her mother, who played the piano for the orchestral accompaniment of the silent cinema.”

Stock music tailored to specific situations came to the aid of the silent film accompanist.
Stock music tailored to specific situations came to the aid of the silent film accompanist.

While there is no known example of a special music score written for an Indian silent film, this had become a regular feature for big films in Hollywood and Europe. In fact, by 1920, film music had spawned a flourishing sub-industry in the West with musicians, composers and music publishers all riding the wave. The boom also gave rise to a new breed of experts.

“The player will do well, first of all, to ‘size up’ his audience,“ advise the authors of Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures – just one of the many manuals and guides that were published during that era specifically aimed at the burgeoning tribe of silent film accompanists. Mental alertness and musical resourcefulness were key ingredients for success:

“As the musical interpreter of the emotions depicted on the screen, the player himself must be emotional and respond to the often quick changes in the situation. In fact, if not his knowledge of life, his knowledge of the picture must enable him to anticipate, so that his music is always slightly ahead of the film, preparing rather than reflecting. Therefore the player's eyes should be on the screen as constantly as possible, and never for too long a stretch on the music or on the keyboard. His attention should be riveted on the turn of events, his emotions should promptly respond to pathos or humor, to tragedy or comedy, as they may be interwoven in the picture play.”

Pages from the manual ‘Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures’.
Pages from the manual ‘Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures’.

“I awoke to music, as it were,” said the great music director Naushad Ali in an interview in 1977. “Next door…was a theatre, Royal Cinema, so that the whole soundtrack of the film showing there was heard in our home. What must have registered upon me from that soundtrack, even then, must have been the silent film’s music, played ‘live’ by performers sitting in a ‘hollow’ before the silver screen.”

Despite the stern warnings of his father, a respected court munshi in colonial-era Lucknow, the young Naushad found himself drawn “closer and closer to that orchestra” and the man who led it. “Laddan Sahab… was able to get his baton to match every single action taking place upon the screen. This – though I did not know it that time – was the art of background music demonstrated to me first-hand.”

The coming of sound devastated this musical world. In Britain, something like 20,000 musicians lost employment at the end of the 1920s. In India, however, where the period of transition to sound was much longer (1931-34), musicians seemed to have escaped the bloodbath.

“Unlike Hollywood, when the talkies arrived in India, musicians here found more work,” Kapse contended. “Even in the heyday of silent era films, singers and composers continued to work on the stage as it was more lucrative. And in the early talkie era, theatre and cinema continued to share this dynamic relationship.” Thus the excitable Mr Mistry mentioned in JBH Wadia's account became the music director of India’s first talkie, Alam Ara.

The talking (and singing) films also offered up new opportunities for many. “Traditional musicians from smaller areas moved to urban (film-producing) centres like Poona and Bombay,” Kapse said. She cited the example of Govindrao Tembe, who “travelled around Maharashtra and neighbouring areas for sangeet nataks, then shifted from Kolhapur to Poona where he became part of Prabhat Studios”. Kapse added, “Similarly, nautanki artists and playwrights moved from Kanpur and Jalandhar to find film work in Lahore and Bombay.”

According to Albuquerque, many of the Goan musicians working in silent film orchestras in Bombay joined hotel bands, while others found work in another brand new medium: “As early as 1924, a Radio Club had been formed in the city. Three years later the Indian Broadcasting Company was inaugurated at Radio House, Apollo Bunder. This became the Mecca of Bombay’s musicians, mostly Goans.”

While the coming in of sound in India might not have had the devastating impact it did in the West, it was a major disruption nonetheless. This was period of flux, Kapse argued, “a decade marked by artistic ferment and the formation of new cultural hierarchies”. This is a story still waiting to be told.

Play
The restored version of Franz Osten’s ‘A Throw Of Dice’ (1929) with a contemporary score by Nitin Sawhney.

In 1994, a retrospective of Indian silent films was organised in the Italian city of Pordenone. It’s the oldest and most prestigious silent film festival in the world, where films are screened to the accompaniment of live music. Chabria, who had originally proposed the idea for the retrospective, was then heading the NFAI. Initially, the plan was to take musicians from India – “We wanted at least a tabla, a harmonium and a violin.” But there were budget constraints and “then the Italian organisers suggested that there are enough Indian musicians living in Europe whose services could be called upon”. Chabria took the composer Kshama Vaidya from India. “We had one musician from Italy and two from France,” he said. “They all gathered in the hotel room in Pordenone two days before the first film was to be shown, sat with the video monitor and created the music.”

Even two decades later, Chabria has vivid memories of the festival. “The musicians performed almost 20-22 hours of live music in that festival,” he said. “After watching Shiraz [a historical romance set in Mughal India], a delegate from the legendary French studio Pathé came up and thanked me and said he hadn’t enjoyed a silent film screening so much in a very long time.” Viewing those films with live music for the first time was a reminder that “silent cinema was a performative as much as a recorded experience”. Chabria said, “It was a characteristic of the lost beauty of silent cinema.”

This is one of the reasons why Luke McKernan, a curator with the British Library who for many years ran an excellent blog on silent cinema, believes interest in silent cinema will endure: because “we have to add something of ourselves – our music, that is – to bring the films back to life”.

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