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Film Music from 1923 and the Public Domain

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Multiple news articles have heralded the many works and publications that entered the public domain on January 1st of 2019. Pieces of music, novels, and films alike have become available within the United States without copyright permissions. With the changes in copyright status, I wondered exactly how much of the Music Division’s substantial collection of film music was from 1923. I quickly found that a dozen silent film scores from 1923 are included in the Music Division’s holdings, from German silent dramas like Alt-Heidelberg (music composed by Marc Roland) to what are now considered to be lost films such as the South Seas romance Where the Pavement Ends (with music compiled by Ernst Luz).

Studying these scores provides a window into understanding how these films may have been experienced and consumed. The music for films from 1923 includes piano reductions of an entire score, selections of just a few cues, orchestral parts, and in the case of Where the Pavement Ends, instructions for the musical performers. Yet with inconsistent or scant information remaining on how the music was or may have been performed in conjunction with its intended film, we cannot always be certain of how a specific film may have been experienced by all audiences across the country, let alone the globe.

“Instructions to Musicians and Leaders,” Where the Pavement Ends, Ernst Luz, Music Division, Library of Congress.


Cue No. 1, Where the Pavement Ends, Ernst Luz, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Cover, Little Old New York, William Frederick Peters, Music Division, Library of Congress.

For example, the Music Division’s copy of the score to Little Old New York also includes the program of what appears to have been an undated, specific performance featuring Victor Herbert and his own orchestra. The event divided the film into two parts, separated by an intermission and performance of an overture and waltz from the film score. William Frederick Peters, who composed for several films throughout the 1920s, provided the score. In the lavish historical drama, Marion Davies plays a young Irish woman who disguises herself as a boy to claim an inheritance from her brother in America. Ephemera like this program help us understand how audiences may have experienced the film at the time. Indeed, Little Old New York proved a triumph for Davies, who was one of the most successful female actresses at the time.

Attempts to recreate silent film music performances in the present become even more complicated in light of the several hundred individual pieces from published silent film anthologies of thematic stock music in the Music Division’s collections from 1923 alone. These larger volumes, with titles such as The Synchronizer Suite or Sam Fox Moving Picture Music, Vol. IV, include quotations and arrangements of canonic European composers of the 19thcentury, but are also comprised of many original compositions with descriptive titles for their intended use.

I’ve previously written about the many pieces in the Music Division’s silent film music collections with the title “hurry” included. The year 2019 has brought six of these into the public domain! They range in their descriptive uses, which include “for struggles,” “sword fights,” “general use,” “great confusion,” and “mob or fire scenes.” True to expectations, both of the first two pieces maintain steady pulses in the bass and more rapid finger work in the treble to convey a sense of hurry.

Hurry Examples, Sam Fox Moving Picture Music, Vol. IV, Music Division, Library of Congress.

To find more film music materials from, before, and after 1923, search the Library’s Online Catalog, or Ask a Librarian.

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