Over the past several months, I’ve been sifting through the thousands of pieces that are part of the silent film music accompaniment anthologies in the Music Division’s collection. These volumes, with titles such as the Capitol Photoplay Series, The Synchronizer Suite, or Sam Fox Photoplay Edition: A Looseleaf Collection of High Class Dramatic and Descriptive Motion Picture Music, Vol. I, contain music that was used to accompany films in the first decades of the twentieth century. These pieces include quotations and arrangements of canonic European composers of the 19th century, but are also comprised of many original compositions with descriptive titles for their intended use.
One common title in these series—with many thematic variants—involves the descriptor “hurry.” In a cursory look through my compiled spreadsheet of anthologies in the Music Division’s collection, I found over one hundred variations of the title. I wondered how many of the pieces were potentially republished versus original compositions. What common musical characteristics did they share and communicate?
The month of September compelled me to focus on the hurry in lieu of other potential categories. Perhaps because I’ve spent so much of my life in education, autumn for me always seems to bustle with energy. September conjures memories of hurried preparations for the school year. As I studied this music, I wondered just how many different ways can or do we hurry, and what that might sound like.
The Favorite Moving Picture Music Folio from 1915 provides several examples with common characteristics that elicit a sense of hurry. A relatively fast tempo, stepwise ascending and descending sixteenth notes in repetitive patterns, and straightforward harmonic progressions in a minor key all seem to be part of a general trend—particularly for the “duels, chases, exciting events, fights, etc.” that the labels suggest for each piece’s use.
The Sam Fox Moving Picture Music collection from 1913 parses out separate hurries for struggles and duels. The struggle hurry includes far more chromatic oscillations alternating with stepwise outlines of the minor tonic. Meanwhile, the duel hurry incorporates rhythmic pauses over the bar line that lend themselves to the jabs and clash of weapons in hand-to-hand combat. Choosing a different direction, the Kinemamusic series invokes a perplexing stereotype with “Italian (also suitable for Hurry).” With the marking tempo di tarantella, the piece suggests the folk dance through its lively tempo and 6/8 meter. But the quick, largely stepwise movement is not that dissimilar from other hurries found in these anthologies.
The “Novelty Hurry” offered in Ditson’s Music for the Photoplay (1920) is suggested for “airplanes, motor-cycles, merry-go-round, switchback railway, spindles, or other fast running machinery, wireless, dynamos, birds, or other flying things.” Further direction states that for bees, mosquitoes, and other insects, the performers should play on muted strings only. With triadic outlines in repeated patterns, the piano reduction suggests the circularity of the merry-go-round or spinning machinery. The 6/8 meter likewise lends itself to a lively dance—perhaps analogous to a bird flying through the air.
Inconsistencies arise when different hurries draw on the same musical figure yet differ in their specific descriptors. Both the “Hurry” for general use in Jacobs’ Incidental Music and the “Comic Hurry” from Ditson’s Music for the Photoplay open with the same scalar figure—albeit in different keys. Perhaps the comedy of the latter piece lies in the repetition of the figure, followed by more extended scalar ascents that are themselves repeated throughout the piece.
Several hurries draw their inspiration from composers such as Robert Schumann and Edvard Grieg. In Jacobs’ Incidental Music, an adaptation of the final movement of Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor forms the basis for the piece’s musical content. The brisk tempo and ascending gestural swells connote both urgency and forward drive. The Grieg-inspired piece, drawn from excerpts of his piano works, likewise offers a sense of frantic movement through its ascending chromatic line at a presto tempo.
The Music Division has thousands more pieces of music within its silent film music materials, covering topics both broad and specific. The Online Catalog will uncover some anthology collections and individual titles, but if you’re researching silent film or putting together a live performance, inquire using Ask a Librarian or by visiting the Performing Arts Reading Room to find and study more specific titles.
On that note, dear readers, I leave you with a question: what kind(s) of music sounds like hurrying to you? Or in other words, how do you hurry?
Typically when people think of silent movie music, a fragment of music comes to mind that goes “C-E flat-G-c-A flat(with tremolo)-G-F-E flat-D-C”. It occurs to me that nobody alive actually remembers attending a movie during the silent era, but we all know this accompanies a sinister figure sneaking around. Does this cue appear in any of the books in the library’s collection? Which one?
To Mark Simon: This is the “Mysterioso Pizzicato” first published in 1914. See the Wikipedia entry under that title.