Scores of scores

A music score likely to have accompanied the British film The Guns of Loos (1928), from Colman Getty (via The Guardian)

Last week the discovery was announced of a quite extraordinary treasure trove of silent film music scores. Lurking the the basement of Birmingham (UK) city council’s music library has been found a collection of some 500 music scores designed for accompanying silent films. Anyone who knows about the paucity of surviving silent films scoes generally, particularly in Britain, is going to be stunned at such an announcement. Ten or twenty would have been exciting – 500 is just jaw-dropping.

However, it appears that the vast majority are not scores for specific films but rather scores for generic scenes, which were far more usual for standard silent film accompaniment. They have titles or descriptions such as ‘grave situation’, ‘mysterious shadows’, ‘in the church’, ‘supreme peril’ and ‘angry crowd scenes’. They were used by jobbing musical directors who would tour cinemas with their sheaf of scores, ready to match music to the films required. This gives us quite a different picture to the only commonly thought of, where a musical director would be attached to one cinema. The Birmingham collection identifies a number of such directors, among them Louis Benson, H.T. Saunders, Harry T. Ramsden and and the splendidly-named Purcell Le Roi, and while some were connected with just the one cinema or area, others hit the road to organise small orchestral music for silent wherever they would be paid to do so. They would usually be the musical leads – and not always violin or piano, as the collection makes clear.

There is a piece in The Guardian which gives a short account of the collection, but the Bioscope has turned to celebrated silent film pianist Neil Brand, who has briefly examined the collection, and who has kindly provided us with his first impressions of the collection:

There is nothing particularly surprising, ground-breaking or game-changing in what they’ve got – what is new, to my mind, is the extraordinarily broad light it throws on what cinemagoers between 1914 and 1929 actually heard. All the pieces, British, French and American (roughly a third of each), are uniquely written for cinema use, published by commercially operating music publishers and are nearly all in sets of parts for a band of 7-11 players (a ‘salon orchestra’ as it was known). They all have generic titles (‘Bizarre March’, ‘The Onslaught’, ‘Emotional Waltz’, ‘Desert Monotony'(!)) or numbers, and often suggestions for their use (‘for Eastern pictures’, ‘For Pathetic or Tragic scenes’, ‘Fire or Torture scenes’ etc etc). There are a few owners names or rubber stamps and these are what particularly interest me – the Sherlock Holmes stuff begins with these; Louis Benson, who owned at least a quarter of the material we looked at, was obviously a jobbing musical director and as we looked through ‘his’ music sets I noticed visual cues written in pencil, not on the piano part as one would expect, but on the cello part. Only one cue, each time, which made me suspect that Louis hired himself out as MD to different orchestras for a specific film (which film we couldn’t guess from the sketchy pencil notes) which he then conducted / synchronised from the cello. I’ve always assumed the piano always led a band but cello also makes sense – easier to remove the hands from the instrument, less distracting when the instrument stopped playing and the bow doubled as a big, obvious baton for beating time or conducting.

This is the sort of very new inference one can make from this huge collection – Harry T. Ramsden of 12 Monteith Rd Glasgow, the biggest donor of material, had hundreds of pieces from ABC Dramatic and Carl Fischer Publications which would allow him to instantly provide a compiled score for any film – when you look at some of the music the pages have been turned so many times they have been taped up all round, edges and spines, until they are virtually cardboard – those are the pieces he used all the time – obviously he either really liked them or they fitted the bill in a huge number of contexts. And Purcell Le Roi, solo violinist, could provide his own music sets as well as his expertise, thus begging two questions – were these music sets with either easy or virtuosic violin parts, and was his name really Percy King?

We weren’t able to make more than a cursory sweep through the material but we did find one piece that could be linked directly to an actual film – Richard Howgill, later a music director and producer for the BBC, wrote a generic piece called The Onslaught, published by Lafleur Motion Picture Edition in 1928. On the violin part for this piece in the Birmingham set is scribbled ’25th September 1915′. That is the date of the start of the Battle of Loos, and in 1928 a movie called The Guns of Loos was a huge success throughout Britain – the movie exists in the archive (I’ve played it) and I’ll just bet that intertitle appears in it.

Some of the music is to get its first run through in eight years this Tuesday, when pianist Ben Dawson will plays some at a free pre-concert event at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s film music festival. Then, we understand, the collection is likely to disappear for a time while the Birmingham music library transfers to a new building.

However, I don’t think we will have heard the last of this collection, and if I can get more information that I am able to share with you, I will.