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Music For The Silent Films

Music in film has always been used to heighten the emotionality and environment of the characters’ feelings and script tone. It all began with the modest grandeur of the scores used in silent film. The tunes were wildly theatrical, deeply emotional, and most importantly, linked the audience’s vital thoughts and emotions to a scene or character. Though many original scores have been lost, some masterpieces such as “The Phantom of the Opera” (1926) and "Metropolis” (1927) have survived and been preserved for future generations.

Before loudspeakers, amplifiers and the Vitaphone were invented, every movie theater received the music sheets with the distribution of the film reel. The average cinema’s sound system was only a live three-piece orchestra or organist -- sometimes both. Some countries brought sound to silent films in another unique way. In addition to live music, narrators often appeared in-person and provided the voice-overs for the dialogue displayed on the screen.

For Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera”(1926), Gustave Hinrichs replaced composer Joseph Carl Breil during the re-shooting of the picture. Briel’s original concept required a 60-piece orchestra, which stretched the limits of the then-modern technologies available for the cinemas. Hinrich’s version was simpler but still held a dramatic appeal. When the film came to its climactic scene of revealing "The Phantom"'s face, the combination of Lon Chaney's grotesque make-up and Hinrich's use of the organ and his orchestra caused women to faint in the movie theaters.

For Fritz Lang’s expensive science-fiction masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927), Lang collaborated with composer Gottfried Huppertz. The film score put smaller film theaters in trouble because it was only fit for the larger movie theaters who could afford full-scale orchestras. At times, Huppertz’s score is whimsical and light despite the film’s dark perspective of industrialization and capitalism and at other times, Huppertz score plunges into deeper tones to exemplify the hellish environment of the film. Although there have been numerous composers who have tried to re-score “Metropolis,” Huppertz’s work of aural art continues to compliment Lang’s dark and fantastical vision of his wife’s novel on film.

Today, there is a resurgence of silent films being played with live music. All over the world, composers and organists contribute their own interpretations to silent films. For the non-talkies whose music has been lost, musical and film historians are eager to reconstruct their wondrous content. Thanks to the invention of DVDs, both original scores and film reels have been preserved and are being enjoyed by avid movie buffs across the globe, and hopefully will continue to be enjoyed for many years to come.

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