Saturday, March 27, 2010

How and What to Play For Moving Pictures

The catalogues of Seredy, Rapee, Borodkin and Hastings all date from the 1920s and they emphasize orchestral music. The same is true for the most elaborate of these catalogues, the Allgemeines Handbuch der Film-Musik of Erdmann and Becce.

The idea of a list of music catalogued by topics occurred early, however. Numerous times in the early days of his column, Clarence E. Sinn had mentioned a list he had compiled and was willing to share with correspondents for the cost of postage—though he declined to publish it in his column and so the extent of its coverage remains unclear.

The first publication I’m aware of that sees cataloguing music by topic as key to the whole enterprise is Lyle C. True’s How and What to Play for Moving Pictures: A Manual and Guide for Pianists (1914), which, aside from a two page introduction (reproduced below), consists almost entirely of a list of compositions catalogued by topic. Earlier publications had also contained topically arranged lists of compositions as part of longer works, but these lists were initially fairly short and clearly conceptualized as appendices rather than a primary order of musical knowledge.

The primacy given to the categorization is what changes with True's collection, even though his treatise remains relatively short: 11 pages of catalogue proper divided into about a dozen categories (some with subdivisions). In addition, he includes 7 additional pages that analyze well-known operas, operettas, and overtures into categories and also provide a list of some common, useful popular songs.

Here is the preface:

How and What to Play for Motion Pictures

The motion picture pianist who would be above the mere mechanical devices in playing for the picture must, first of all, take his work seriously. He should be able at once to recognize the dramatic possibilities of a picture and to augment and support them through the medium of his art.

It is obvious, of course, that the solo pianist has an advantage over two or more musicians through being able to watch the pictures and play at the same time. He can instantly follow each change of mood and character, and support the climaxes as it becomes desirable.

It is not sufficient, in many cases, merely to select a number of compositions of a given character, and to play them through as the drama is shown on the screen. To do so is to miss completely the scores of opportunities that arise for fitting the music to the action.

The pianist should create a tone poem that forms a frame, as it were, for the picture: and this involves a true test of his musicianship. To do this well, he should have at his finger tips a large and varied repertoire, and the ability to improvise, so as to unite several, or the fragments of many compositions into a pleasing and effective whole.

As a good accompanist merges his work with that of a soloist to a degree that the hearer is entirely oblivious of his work, so the good picture pianist makes the music so intregal [sic] a part of the picture that the two become one perfect, inseparable, and harmonious whole.

Of course there are scenes and situations requiring no particular kind of music, and yet even here, lack of judgment and taste can work to disadvantage.

After having read the synopsis of the picture in the "Moving Picture World", which is, of course, an essential guide in his work, and having gotten an idea of its general atmosphere, he can select from the particular group of compositions required,


those single numbers that his taste tells him are best suited. It is needless to say that often his second performance will be an improvement on the first, as some details, not forseen [sic], are sure to suggest more accurately fitting accompaniment.

It is the object of the classified lists and notes on the following pages to aid the player in the selection of suitable material, but he must use good judgment in fitting his selections, whole or in part, in modulating smoothly, and in playing through a picture without break or interruption.

Many songs are included, and these he will, of course, transcribe into piano solos, as they form one of the most valuable groups of his material.

The classification of the following numbers does not mean that they cannot be used for other situations, as, for example, numbers like the Grieg Nocturne, while pastoral in character, would be fine for a sad, or a love scene. The classification simply shows what they are originally written to picture. This is left to the judgment of the pianist.

Time and money spent in acquiring a good library of music is well spent, and this is a part of the preparation for those better positions that are sure to appear when the possibilities of the picture pianist's work are fully recognized, and when he will have developed with the demand created by the higher conception of this offices by the public.

In the better houses the ill-toned and often blatent [sic] mechanical instrument has given way to the grand piano and the ten thousand dollar pipe organ, played by an ambitious artist who is not satisfied to "get by" with a few stock tunes of questionable fitness.

The ambitious picture pianist is proud of his work, and glad of the opportunity never before so favorable, of bringing really good music to countless millions who are in a receptive mood and have no other opportunity of hearing music of lasting merit.

The following list, which includes many gems in piano literature, contains nothing which the author has not used often, and every class embraces the most suitable selections for its character and mood.


Because it emphasizes categorization, the book appears almost entirely devoted to “what,” with the “how” covered mostly implicitly, through the act of choosing from the catalogue on the one hand and the presentation of a brief exemplar on the other.

This is a scan of the first two pages of the catalogue:

Here is True's example musical interpretation for Vitagraph's The Mystery of the Hidden House (1914).
The object of this book is to deal with the standard music and the serious pictures.

The following synopsis of the Vitagraph release, "The [Mystery of the] Hidden House" will serve as a model to the pianist showing what type of music to use for woodland or forest scenes, poetic fantasy, contrasts of sorrow and gladness, dancing and love scenes.

This two reel subject also demonstrates how much music is required (with no improvising) playing the music successively from beginning to end of the second reel.

There Is so much good music of this type, that the improvising of the average pianist would suffer in comparison.


"The Mystery of the Hidden House"
The music was played as follows:

Reel 1
Who is Sylvia. Song—Schubert
Moon Moths (entire suite; 3 numbers)—Kussner
Song of the Waternymph—Rhode
Festival in the Fields—Bachmann
The Lake of Como—Galos
What the Pond Lillies [sic] Whispered—Betts
Scarf Dance—Chaminade

Reel 2
Dance of the Hours (from ''La Gioconda")—Ponchielli
Pas de Fleur (Nalla)—Delibes
Venezia (complete suite; 4 numbers)—Nevin

While tramping the hills of Virginia on his vacation, Dick Marston, a young minister, sprains his ankle. Moina Jardine, a demure little mountain maiden, assists him to her grandfather's home, "The Hidden House." Marston learns that Moina is subject to great stress of mind, at times. She tells him she and her sister, Robina, take turns caring for Mr. Jardine. Marston falls in love with the beautiful Moina. but Mr. Jardine and Mercy, the colored servant, say "Wait until you see Robina!" One day, Moina turns from Marston and begs her grandfather to explain the Mystery, but is angrily told to keep silent. That night Marston, walking in the grounds, meets Moina. She seems dazed, tells him that Robina comes! She disappears, leaving him greatly puzzled. The next morning Robina, beautiful and bewitching, comes dancing in.

Mr. Jardine and Mercy decorate the house and at night, before the blazing logs the colored servant tells witch stories. Marston, in his room, sees Robina dancing through the grounds in the moonlight. She pouts and goes straight up his room, laughing at his displeasure. Seeing a picture of Moina, she angrily tears it in pieces and rushes out. Marston is fascinated by Robina and one day, seizing her in his arms, he kisses her passionately. Suddenly her expression changes. She cries out that Moina is coming and falls unconscious. The girl is cared for by Jardine and Mercy, and when Marston next sees her, finds she is once more the sweet and gentle Moina. Appalled at the strange phenomena, he Is overcome with emotion. The grandfather explains that Moina is a dual personality, possessed in turn with the soul of Moina and that of Robina, which explains why Marston has never seen the two girls together, but he now knows that Moina and Robina are one and the same. Marston later meets Moina in the garden and tenderly takes her in his arms, telling her of his love. The mystery of the "Hidden House" is solved and Robina is only a memory of the past.

A scan of the whole book is available here [8 MB].