Talking about the role of the voice in cinema means questioning what, despite appearances, can be said to be one of the cinematic text’s most complex and problematic components. Today’s consumer of the film industry’s products, addicted to the modern code of audiovisual texts, can hardly imagine the alienating effect of a type of show that, in its early form, was instead completely devoid of the voice and almost total renounced to the verbal medium, except for small intertitles.
As Rudolf Arnheim wrote in his Film as Art (1957), the silent cinema, with its exaggerated facial mimicry and gestures, had nonetheless coined a universal language, one that was immediately understandable in all parts of the world, regardless of linguistic barriers: a gestural language, impossible to replace with words.
The art of silent cinema had introduced a new existential paradigm: Der sichtbare Mensch (The visible man), as in the title of Balázs’s book of 1924. This man could be neither listened to nor read since he was forced to express himself through a visual language. Now, by putting verbal language and words at the center of the film medium, sound cinema determined the rise of a new medial language.
Francesco Finocchiaro, Il cinema parlante. Spunti per una drammaturgia della voce da Fritz Lang a Terrence Malick. In La voce mediatizzata, edited by Marida Rizzuti and Stefano Lombardi Vallauri. Milan: Mimesis, 2019, pp. 69–92 (read it here).
Es war gewiss kein schlechter Gedanke, den kinematographischen Vorführungen das Klavier (im engeren Sinne als Orchester) beizugeben. Betrachtet man nun dieses Tun etwas näher, so kommt man unwillkürlich zu dem Ergebnis, dass hier Zweck und Wirkung in schönster Opposition stehen. Diesen Eindruck erhält ein verständiger, aufmerksamer Beobachter, sobald er die nebensächliche, untergeordnete Stellung sieht, welche das Klavier heute im Kinematographentheater einnimmt. Mit grösstem Unrecht! Dasselbe hat nicht nur in den Pausen der Vorstellung etwas zu sagen, sondern es hat auch zu den stummen Bildern eine beredte Sprache zu führen.
Henry Sonatore, Das Klavier im Kinematographen-Theater, “Der Kinematograph”, I/14, 7 April 1907.
Music-related articles from 1923 to 1930 in film trade magazine Reichsfilmblatt have been fully inventoried and digitally disclosed. Journalistic sources are available online, in the form of a full-text transcription, in the open-access database FMJ Archive.
Another milestone for the FMJ Project and its remaining research team. Italian people say: “Meglio soli che mal’accompagnati!”.
Francesco Finocchiaro and Elisabeth Trautwein-Heymann
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.
L’ascolto di musiche d’atmosfera per il cinema muto sarà possibile martedì 23 luglio, nella suggestiva cornice del Cortile della Fortezza di Montepulciano, nell’ambito del 44° Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, in occasione di una conferenza-concerto dal titolo L’UOMO VISIBILE, Musica e passioni nel Cinema muto, a cura di Francesco Finocchiaro, con la partecipazione di Julie Brown (Royal Holloway, University of London) ed Elisabeth Trautwein-Heymann e con la performance del Montfort Quartet.
Elena Minetti, Montepulciano: musica e passioni nel cinema muto, Amadeus Online, July 18, 2019. Read the article here.
Renata Scognamiglio, Festival di Montepulciano – Il 44° Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, Rai Radio3 “Qui comincia”, July 21, 2019. The podcast is available here:
At the IAML 2019 Conference, Francesco Finocchiaro presented the FMJ Archive. The paper outlined the database’s concept, design, and scope, with a particular focus on research methods, technical concerns, and theoretical issues.
Francesco Finocchiaro, FMJ Archive: a Digital Database for German-Language Film Music Journalism, IAML 2019 Conference, Jagiellonian University Kraków, 14-19 July 2019.
Trauer, Leidenschaft, Verzweiflung: Aufgabe der Kinomusik der Stummfilmära war es, das ganze Spektrum menschlicher Gefühle abzubilden. Am Donnerstag, 13. Juni 2019, präsentiert Francesco Finocchiaro im Rahmen eines Lecture-Recitals den umfangreichen Stummfilm-Musikbestand der FB Musikwissenschaft.
B. Ralser (Interview): Die Stummfilmmusik als Stimme der Gefühle,«Uni-View Magazin», June 6, 2019