I’m please to announce that I’ll be speaking at the University of North Texas’s ML75. UNT Symposium, celebrating the Music Library’s 75th anniversary. The Symposium takes place April 22-23, 2016. I’ll be talking about music in the library’s Special Collections–my full abstract is below.
Music for Silent “Spook Tales” in the University of North Texas Music Library Special Collections
The University of North Texas’s Music Library’s Special Collections is home to an extraordinary collection of about 300 pieces of music written or arranged between 1895 and 1929 for silent film accompaniment. This collection includes a number of pieces exclusive to the UNT Music Library, not found in any other public institution or repository. Even more remarkably, the UNT collection’s pieces contain, in almost every case, full sets of instrumental parts. Music for silent films was distributed in a number of formats, with sheet music for piano alone being the most common. However, cinemas with orchestras—ensembles ranging from 3-30 musicians—developed libraries of pieces that could be compiled into a score for accompanying a film. Often the parts for pieces were lost when such orchestras disbanded after the advent of sound, and to find so many pieces with all of their instrumental parts is unusual. Other distinguishing features of the collection are its representation of works published outside of the United States, particularly from France and Germany; and its holding of works by accomplished but little-known silent film composers whose works are not preserved in other collections. The collection also contains several full scores, complete with parts, for specific films. Thus the UNT collection offers many possible topics of research among its riches.
The majority of music in the UNT silent film music collection comprises what was known as “mood” or genre music, such as Harry Norton’s “Combat” (1919); William C. Schoenfeld’s “Dungeon Scene” (1925); and Theo Knoche’s “Love, Passion” (1926). But the collection also holds unusual and rare pieces for portraying the supernatural on film, including three pieces for extended scenes. These pieces all depict manifestations of the human afterlife: Bert A. Anthony’s “The Ghost in the Haunted Room” (1924); Walter Broy’s “Ghost Scene” (1926); and “Phantom Visions; Skeleton Dance” (1920) by Ellsworth Stevenson. While these works are influenced by earlier musical depictions of the supernatural, particularly from the nineteenth century, they also introduce new musical gestures and textures that are designed to match the ways in which the paranormal was shown on film. Ghosts, phantoms, and dancing skeletons were enormously popular with early moving picture filmmakers and audiences. For producers, “spook tales”—as early horror or macabre movies were called—offered the opportunity to exploit the new medium to the fullest. The earliest spook tale known, Georges Méliès’s Le Manoir du Diable (1896), used stop-motion and double-exposure techniques to create the illusion of witches, demons, ghosts, and other supernatural figures appearing and disappearing mysteriously and moving through solid scenery. Such technical filmmaking virtuosity demanded accompanying music that could equally convey surprise, the mysterious, and the eerie. My analysis of Anthony’s, Broy’s, and Stevenson’s works will explore the ways composers achieved these qualities and how this new music written especially for film both called upon musical references of the past and created new signifiers for the supernatural. My presentation will conclude with an example of how this music might have been used to accompany an early spook tale.