Kendra Preston Leonard


Newberry Library Fellowship

I am honored to announce that I’ve been awarded the Rudolph Ganz Long-Term Fellowship from the Newberry Library in Chicago. This Fellowship will enable me to spend six months at the Library with a cohort of nine other fellows. My research will be for my current large-scale project, “Women at the Pedals: Female Musicians in American Silent Cinema”. I’ll be in Chicago from September 2017-March 2018.

Project Description:

In 1914, the manager of a thriving silent cinema wrote that having a successful theater often depended on being able to provide “good music…. furnished in the way of an accomplished [female] pianist.”[1] The job of cinema accompanist was a respectable one for women, and was compared positively with secretarial work, teaching, and nursing. The presence of a female accompanist indicated that a cinema was intent on being an artistic and moral institution, especially as the film industry worked to establish itself as a legitimate business producing respectable and creative works. Although no census of cinema accompanists was ever taken, reports from trade and industry publications suggest that while white male musicians were in the majority in the earliest days of cinema accompaniment, women, both white and of color, soon outnumbered them. Women certainly comprised the majority of cinema accompanists after the spring of 1917, when the United States joined the war effort and all-male cinema orchestras were dissolved so that their members could join the military. As Ally Acker has written about women in the silent film industry, “women are as integral and transformative to the cinema as [well-known men], and yet their stories have consistently remained untold.”[2] The influence of these women, particularly during the Great War and its immediate aftermath, cannot be understated; as Acker continues, “more women worked in decision-making positions in film before 1920 than at any other time in history.”[3] Acker’s claim certainly includes female musicians. Women accompanists became the arbiters of musical taste and overall morality in movie theaters, as a place where a woman played was deemed appropriate for other women and children. Working in cinema music, women took on roles as performers, composers, inventors, and innovators within the film industry, their responsibilities often overlapping and becoming inextricably entwined. It is clear from interviews of accompanists and audience members and recent research that these musicians’ performances for newsreels, animations, live-action shorts, and feature films served in multiple ways. Their accompaniments, which used already existing music, new compositions by themselves and others, and their own improvisations, shaped and helped define the musical sensitivities of the time. Accompanists created music and approaches to using music that would become part of the audience’s expectations for film music; established musical standards for film scores that would carry through into sound films; educated listeners as to different types of music and musical genres and to musical traditions relating to affect and meaning; and demonstrated how music could serve as a narrative and interpretative force in the cinema. They designed methods of matching music to the action on the screen; developed ways of supplying cinemas with synchronized sound for pictures; and invented machines that allowed a single woman to represent the sounds of an orchestra for accompanying a film.

The scholarly bibliography on women musicians in the silent cinema is essentially nonexistent. There are a number of reasons for this. In an era when women were often named only as “Miss [Last name] or “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” in print and those who wished to publish songs or other kinds of music still often had to do so under pseudonyms or with their first initials in place of their names in order to be considered seriously, only a limited number of female composers and performers were made easily identifiable or recognized for their work. Most research that has been done on silent film music has focused on male performers and composers active in New York and in Hollywood, in part because the trade magazines, house publications, and other necessary documents for study were both focused on activities in those places and were held by institutions there. These resources generally lack coverage of the activities of women in the profession. In addition, film music scholars have focused on the primarily male cadre of published composers of silent film music active first on the American East Coast and later in Hollywood. The lack of information and research on women in silent cinema music is also due to the overwhelmingly canonized music history narrative in which successful women musicians were somehow “extraordinary.” In these cases, acknowledgment was granted only because a woman’s social standing or extra-cinematic musical career was considered unusual for a woman, such as in the case of violinist Helen Ware, who toured Europe and America as a soloist and campaigned for the use of classically-informed improvisation in the cinema. Finally, very little work has been done with primary sources from the Midwest despite the region boasting some of the finest motion picture theaters and largest audiences in the country during the silent era. But, as I have discovered, female cinema musicians were from a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and had equally variety musical backgrounds and educational experiences. My work will constitute an essential counterpart to the extant volumes on silent film music, including Richard Abel and Rick Altman’s edited volume The Sounds of Early Cinema and Altman’s Silent Film Sound; Martin Miller Marks’s Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924; and the essays that appear in Claus Tieber and Anna Windisch’s The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. Identifying women as commercial musicians has the potential to rewrite the traditional history of American female performers and composers as working in a rarefied environment and one in which few achieved success.

While I have conducted research in several small archives belonging to individual women and cinemas containing materials that help fill in the lacuna of knowledge about female silent film musicians, there remains much more to be discovered. Chicago’s pioneering ways in its acceptance and encouragement of women and people of color in mainstream music-making, such as jazz musician Lil Hardin Armstrong, concert pianist Florence Kirsch de Brul, the all-female Pringle Trio, and the Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra (later the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago), indicate that female cinema musicians in Chicago are likely to have been recognized and written about by their contemporaries in local and regional outlets. It also suggests that women may have been employed as cinema musicians more equally with male musicians before Word War I than in other locales. The Newberry’s numerous collections and its wealth of documents, which chronicle not only white, elite musical life and entertainment, but also that of the city’s black communities, thus offer a singular opportunity for uncovering the histories of female cinema musicians.

[1] Anon., Motion Picture Magazine (July 1914): 102–103.

[2] Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1991), xvii.

[3] Ibid., xviii.