Great uncertainty surrounds the status of film music in the silent era. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the musical accompaniments of film screenings were mainly made in the form of compilation, i.e. collages of pre-existing music, taken freely from the operatic and symphonic repertoire, also from operettas, dance, variety songs, and matched to the story in a crude and rather predictable way.
From the second decade of the twentieth century, the major European and American publishers began to publish and distribute ready-made pieces for music accompaniments. These pieces of music were not specific to a particular film, but were designed to accompany common film situations (e.g. Short Storm, Chase, Night Vision, Dangerous Situation) or to give a scene a generic emotional mood (e.g. Desperation, Mystery, Anguish, Dramatic Climax). Each piece of music was accompanied by a more or less detailed description, referring to the context in which it could be used in the film. Music was used to express the whole spectrum of human feelings, from “amorous passion” to “profound desperation,” from “lyrical expression” to “dramatic conflict”: the musical component was left to portray the inner emotions of that Visible Man – the title of a famous work by Béla Balázs (1924) – conditioned to express himself on-screen only through gestures.
A considerable number of these compilation repertoires was archived in the research project “Film Music as a Problem in German Print Journalism (1907-1930),” carried out at the University of Vienna. The collection comes from a bequest of composer Edgar Haase (1901–1967), a specialist in film music and director of various salon orchestras. The legacy was augmented by donations from heirs and further research in European libraries, including the Musiksammlung of the National Library of Austria and the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. The archive contains over 500 sets of orchestral parts, from the most important collections of German, English and American mood music (Kinothek, Preis-Kino-Bibliothek, Boheme Kino-Lexikon, Sam Fox Film-Gebrauchs-Musik, Bosworth’s Internationales Kino -Orchester, J.S. Zamecnik’s Photoplay-Edition, Universal-Film-Musik, Robbins Red Seal Concert Series, Filmharmonie). Such a vast compendium provides a reliable historical picture of the daily practice of musical accompaniment in cinemas and stands as an informative document with enormous potential for the reconstruction of the art and aesthetics of film composition in the silent era.
As director of the Viennese research project, Francesco Finocchiaro presented the musical background as part of a conference/concert, with the participation of Julie Brown (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Elisabeth Trautwein-Heymann. The Montfort Quartet, together with some Poliziano instrumentalists, performed a selection of pieces from the mood music collections.