88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

When instrumental sound is wedded to words or visual imagery, the musical outcome is usually programmatic; when the imagery is explicit, as became the case with pianos being used to accompany a motion picture, even “pure” music or selections from music with an implied drama like the Beethoven, run the risk of becoming programmatic.

(Though over the course of several centuries, the piano keyboard itself had already been employed somewhat like a movie screen—or a Rorschach blot, Ouija board, tabula rasa, star-filled sky, not to mention any person, place, thing, or memory—upon which feelings and “images,” albeit not of the directly visual variety, were projected.)

The first recorded presentation of cinema with piano accompaniment took place on December 28, 1895 in Paris when some of the earliest “trick” films of the Lumiére brothers were screened. By April 1896, orchestras were already providing soundtracks for films in England. Silent films were never actually silent: besides piano, organ, and orchestral accompaniment, handbells and sound effects of varying success and taste, there were scripts published for some films, so actors (“talkers”) would read lines behind the screen.

Until 1908, when Camille Saint-Saëns wrote an original score for L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise, most accompaniments were constructed by regional pianists from their own selected excerpts of classical works and well-known songs together with improvised effects: one early reviewer recalled a pianist who even could make a convincing “sneeze” (see The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. by Abel and Altman). In 1909, the Edison Film Company began to issue “specific suggestions for music,” and these were soon followed by cue sheets that would establish a sequence of certain pieces, giving a specific timings along with visual and interpretative cues: speed up, slow down here, etc. Musical pieces were collected in volumes like The Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Volumes (1913) and the Handbook of Film Music by Erdmann, Becce, and Brav, which catalogued the selections by the kind of emotional and programmatic effect that was intended: catastrophe, agitato, solemn atmosphere, night: threatening mood, impending doom, heroic combat, pursuit, etc.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox