Kendra Preston Leonard

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Harry Ransom Center Fellowship

I’ve just learned that I’ve been awarded a 2016-2017 Harry Ransom Center Research Fellowship in the Humanities for research on silent film music in the HRC’s Hoblitzelle Interstate Theatre Circuit Collection. I hope to be in residence in Austin this autumn. Here’s a little about my research project there:

The Hoblitzelle Interstate Theatre Circuit Collection at the Harry Ransom Center is an invaluable source for research into the history of the use of music on the vaudeville stage and in the early silent cinema. Between 1915 and 1930, when “talkies,” or films with synchronized sound, became standard, the Interstate Amusement Company’s Palace Theatre in Dallas amassed some 27,000 pieces of music for vaudeville acts and silent film accompaniment. According to my research, this is the largest collection of such music in the United States.[1] It is the only collection of music known to include music that was used for both genres of entertainment in the same theatres during the period in which vaudeville first incorporated silent films as the final act of shows before declining and being replaced almost entirely by motion pictures. The music from this unique period at the end of vaudeville’s popularity and the beginning of cinema’s success offers a singular opportunity to study the heritage of music for silent film, which in turn led to the development of the modern film score as we now know it. My proposed project will examine a large sample of music from the Collection, including pieces used in both vaudeville and film, and document the ways in which music from vaudeville was re-used in, adapted for, influenced, or was rejected in favor of other or new music for silent film accompaniment. I will establish how the musics for these genres were related to one another and what their specific functions and uses were in the theatre before, during, and after this transition period. In the process of studying this repertoire for with these purposes in mind, I will also be able to examine the music for markings and notes made by players, conductors, arrangers, and composers, which offer insights on the performance practices of the ensembles and solo performers who accompanied both live shows and films at the Hoblitzelle theatres. This research, in conjunction with some preliminary research I have done at the Ransom Center and in other collections, will inform a significant portion of a planned monograph on music for silent film and its performance practices, uses, and functions; and a digital humanities project on early film music encompassing online exhibits of music, recordings, film, still images, and other materials.

My research on early film music and its overlap with music or musical genres from vaudeville will contribute to a more thorough understanding of this musical repertoire including its compositional, formal, and stylistic attributes; the way it was used to denote race, gender, class, ethnicity, and other factors; and its function as a marketing tool for vaudeville and film talents. While scholars have explored the institutions of vaudeville and silent film, music for these chronologically overlapping and mutually influential genres has received less attention, particularly in relation to one another. Performance practices, regional variations in presentation and performance, and other areas also remain uncharted, leaving open questions about the composition and use of the music and the social and professional conventions surrounding vaudeville and early cinema music. Through my work at the Ransom Center, I will be able to address some of these gaps in the current knowledge of music for vaudeville and silent film music. Such findings will be important for musicologists, film historians, historians of popular culture, and performers who use period practices in accompanying silent films today.

[1] Kendra Preston Leonard, Music for Silent Film: A Guide to North American Resources (Madison, WI: Music Library Association and A-R Editions, forthcoming 2016).

I can’t wait to get started!