Monday, March 15, 2010

A Musician's Complaint

Besides the usual musical suggestions, this week's "Music for the Picture" column also contains a long letter from a pianist complaining about his treatment by managers. Indeed, the writer goes so far as to place a large portion of the blame for poor music in the theaters on managers and their lack of knowledge on or inattention to musical matters. Sinn, while acknowledging the validity of some general points, seems generally unpersuaded by the specific complaints against managers as a class.
A correspondent who does not wish his name given offers the following:

“So much has been printed in this valuable paper concerning suitable music for pictures that one might think all has been said, especially as many writers have gone into great detail, that could not but help the pianist, but I think there is still a great deal to be said that might be of interest to the manager as well as the pianist.

“It is true that the public, on the whole, is getting used to better things and good music is appreciated by the majority of picture patrons. Bearing this in mind, it is sad to state that very few managers know anything about music—many cannot tell the difference between a selection of grand or comic opera—and so long as this condition exists it is not strange that the average music seldom rises above a few waltzes, rags, and the popular airs of the prevalent type with suggestive words and wretched airs.

“And those managers who are seeking better things; what can they expect from a pianist who works longer than a bricklayer and gets less remuneration? Many a manager spends five dollars a week advertising a show with bad music who begrudges an extra dollar or two to get good in its place. It would be well to remember that poor music is not cheap at any price, and that good music is always worth the money. And this brings me to another point. The pianos supplied in many of the best picture houses are relics of the pioneer days, decrepit and worn out by years of toil—patched and repatched to prolong their miserable existence.

“No pianist, however, can do himself justice on such an instrument whose retail value would probably be between five and ten dollars. There is many a manager, whose ear for music can scarce distinguish between the dinner gong and the fire alarm, who seeks to cover up his deficiency by an insane interference with the pianist. If the pianist is good he or she will probably not put up with it, but if circumstances are otherwise they may do so in order to hold down the job. The manager should either decide for himself or seek the advice of his patrons on the merits of the performance; if unsatisfactory a change should be made. If satisfactory the pianist should be left to use his own judgment, free from useless criticism or perpetual harassing. It should be remembered that a pianist is an artist with temperament and high strung nerves uppermost, whose work calls for both mental and physical energy all of the time, and if in uncomfortable surroundings he loses that ambition so essential to produce good music or play pictures correctly.

“And just a word for those who think an orchestra, violinist or drummer an improvement. While a good orchestra is pleasure to listen to, as an accompaniment to pictures it is a woeful failure. The leader can of course choose suitable music—that is, something that will fit the subject on the whole, but it ends there; if the music does not blend in perfect harmony with every scene and action portrayed on the screen, the greatest charm is lost and the interest of the audience is centered either upon the music or upon the play instead of an undivided attention to both. In some places where they have an orchestra or violinist they make frantic efforts to play the pictures with ludicrous result, for no matter how carefully the music is selected or how quickly they switch from one piece to another, the effect is always ragged, the picture is never properly played and the music is usually spoiled in the process of cutting to fit the scenes. A lesser evil is a drummer, inasmuch as he can follow the pianist, but even he can be well dispensed with. A drum is the only instrument that has absolutely no music in it and whose only place is with a brass band or large orchestra. With a lone pianist it is nerve racking and irritating to a degree, especially if the house is small and the sound has no room to expand. The greatest fault of drummers is that they play too loud, drowning the pianist and all attempts at finesse he might put into his playing. It will be a great stride forward when managers realize that there is no music in this barbarous instrument, and drums are forever banished from picture theaters.

“It is when the pianist not only plays appropriate music, but enters into the spirit of the play shown on the screen; accentuating the action and emotions of the actors, working up the climaxes and making the music characteristic of the situation at all times that the picture is well played. And this along is not sufficient, for the successful picture pianist must not only use his head and hands, but he must throw his whole heart and soul into the subject. When he does this, then he can make the picture “talk” to such an extent that scraping feet and wagging tongues will cease and the audience with bated breath will watch the unfolding of the play. When the manager can hear the proverbial pin drop, he may be sure his picture is well played.”

The writer of the foregoing letter has evidently thought intensely on all his subject and bitterly upon a part of it. The indications are that his experience with managers has not been a happy one. One can imagine that a nagging employer who did not know what he was talking about could make things very unpleasant, but fortunately they are rare. At least, I never happened to run across any. Out here in our neck of the woods, most of the managers are too busy, managing, to waste time trying to educate piano players. If the musician is satisfactory, well and good; if not—and speaking on the other side of the case, some employers must be easily satisfied, as some of these piano-and-drum combinations ought to be interfered with; if the manager can’t do it alone he should call in the police to help him.


F. Edgar Ray, musical director of the Grand Theater, Newark, Ohio, is here again with another welcome contribution. He says: “Am sending musical program of two films that impressed me as worthy of attention, namely: ‘In the Days of Witchcraft’ (Selig); ‘Longing for a Mother’ (Lubin). I trust these suggestions may be of value to some one in the business.”

“In the Days of Witchcraft” (Selig).
  1. “Dorothy” (Old English dance; Seymour Smith), until title: “Lady Bersford, An Old Sweetheart, etc.”
  2. “Pull for the Shore, Boys” (old song) until title: “Yorke Introduces Anne, etc.”
  3. “La Danse De Souvenir” (Loren Bragden) until foster father dies.
  4. “On Wings of Love” (Bendix) until title: “Lady Bersford Accuses Anne, etc.”
  5. “Melody in F” (Rubenstein) agitato until title: “The Trial.”
  6. “Sextette from Lucia” until Yorke and sailors come to rescue Anne.
  7. Mysterious pp. until Yorke attacks guard.
  8. Agitato until old man stands on beach watching receding boat.
  9. Waltz—rather bright, until end of reel.


“Longing For a Mother” (Lubin).
  1. Bird of Paradise” (J. V. Mathews) until title: “At the Reception.”
  2. “Enchanted Nights Waltzes” (Moret) until title: “Day Dreams.”
  3. “Dreams, Just Dreams” (Berlin—Snyder) segue: “Nothing Like a Mother’s Love” until boy awakes by portrait.
  4. Waltz pp. until ball room scene, then f. until Mary Evers joins boy at portrait.
  5. “In a Red Rose Garden” (Billy Gaston) until fairy disappears.
  6. “All Aboard for Blanket Bay” until dark scene.
  7. Waltz f. until end of reel.


A correspondent wants the names of some pieces similar to “Tam O’Shanter.” Something adapted for long scenes of an agitated nature. I cannot now recall anything just like the number mentioned. The allegro parts of some overtures are often useful. Eduord Holtz’s “Dance of the Demon” is a fast, noisy gallop. No doubt our constituents will come forward with suggestions in plenty.
Clarence E. Sinn, “Music for the Picture,” Moving Picture World 28 June 1913, 1362.