Music in Silent Cinema

Music in Silent Cinema: The “musica per orchestrina” Repertoires

by Marco Targa

Since its early day, cinema created a special bond with music, a union destined to last in ever-changing forms, along its century-old evolution. In the beginning of the new cinematic art, before the narrative cinema was established as a dominant paradigm, the so-called “cinema of attractions” borrowed expressive codes and modes of representation from pre-existing kinds of show: the circus, the café-concert, the pantomime, all forms of entertainment where music played an essential role. The union between cinema image and music was thus natural, later applying also to narrative cinema. Silent cinema, still foreign to the “word-oriented” sound cinema, will bestow all of its sound expression upon music. Cinema screenings were, indeed, almost always accompanied by a musical comment performed by music bands, ranging from a single musician to a large symphonic orchestra, according to the resources of the theatre. A new profession was born: the cinema musician.

As cinema industry became more and more institutionalised, studios will start to commission musical comments synchronised with the films to musicians of different standing. In Piedmont there still are some of these scores written specially for a single film: Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (composed by Carlo Graziani-Walter for the film directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi; Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria in Turin), Rapsodia satanica (composed by Pietro Mascagni for Nino Oxilia’s film; Bibliomediateca "Mario Gromo" del Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin), Sinfonia del fuoco (composed by Ildebrando Pizzetti for Pastrone’s film Cabiria; Archivio del Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin) and many more.

Original scores, however, remained an absolutely minor exception within the more common practice of making musical comments using pre-existing pieces, which were played in their original version or (more occasionally) adapted to the minute count of film editing. The choice of pieces to be played was left to the total discretion of orchestra conductors or pianists, who became the authors of the so-called “musical comment”, in other words of the choice of music compilation to perform. Which music was more commonly used to make a film musical comment? Research conducted within Cabiria Project has drawn attention to a kind of functional music, which played a fundamental role in the three decades of silent cinema: the so-called “musica per orchestrina”, that is a sort of Gebrauchsmusik used as accompaniment or music background in various places and situations: cinemas, café-chantant, seaside resorts, variety theatres, Tabarins (i.e. cabaret clubs), ballet academies.

The series of “musica per orchestrina” were the main source of silent cinema accompaniment music, both in Italy and abroad. Indeed, they were handy because they were written for a varying ensemble, which could change according to the available instrumentalists. The music was written so as to be played both by one person alone at the piano and by an entire symphonic orchestra, including all the intermediate degrees of instrumental assortment. The "musica per orchestrina" series were essentially made up of three genres: there were the transcriptions of famous opera pieces or from the symphonic 19th-century repertoire, then a considerable amount of character pieces composed by lesser authors (almost always working exclusively for these kinds of repertoires) and finally dance tunes (waltzes, tangos, fox-trot, valse-hesitation, one-step, paso doble), often provided also with a text, for the use of cabaret singers.

The surviving lists of music used for film “musical comments” show how common and important the series of “musica per orchestrina” were in cinemas. Since the second half of the 1920s, various publishers of musica per orchestrina started to provide the pieces in their series with notes and suggestions on how they could be used in specific film situations. Imitating the numerous Kinotheken which started to appear in Europe and in the States, orchestrina pieces are divided into different categories according to their expressive content and to their descriptive purpose and especially meant to be used for cinema. In Italy, the appearance of these “Cinema series” is a late phenomenon, which mostly developed in the second half of the 1920s, right when, soon afterwards, the beginning of sound cinema would have made cinema orchestrine retire. However, they were not new in the spectrum of Italian music publishing, being nothing but salon orchestra music collections, very similar to the ones which had already been around for three decades, except that they were simply provided with suggestions for motion-picture use, following the example of cinema music repertoires already common in other countries.

In Piedmont there are over thirty publishing houses for salon orchestra music working in the time of silent cinema. Series specially intended to be used in cinema presents in Piedmont libraries were published by Gori (L’orchestrina), Beltramo (Collezione Cinema), Casa Editrice Musicale Sabauda (Adattamenti cinematografici), Ricordi (Biblioteca Cinema), Casa Editrice italiana Piemonte (Repertorio Sincronis-Film), Edizioni Florentia (Commento Films).

Bibliography: Marco Targa, Reconstructing the Sound of Italian Silent Cinema: The “musica per orchestrina” Repertoires, in Film Music: Practices, Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. Studies around Cabiria Research Project, edited by Annarita Colturato, Torino, Kaplan, 2014, pp. 135-167.