Silent movie scores found at Birmingham central library

By on 15/07/2011 in Culture, News

Musical gems discovered at Birmingham Central Library
reveal lost world of silent movies

·         Collection sheds new light on how silent music was written and performed
·         Unique Charlie Chaplin theme tune discovered
·         CBSO pianist to perform highlights at event to mark opening of CBSO Film Festival on 19 July 
Staff at Birmingham City Council making preparations for their move to the Library of Birmingham building in 2013 have uncovered what could be the UK's largest collection of silent movie scores, including a unique Charlie Chaplin theme tune.
The collection, most of which belonged to movie theatre Musical Directors Louis Benson and HT Saunders, consists of 500 scores and parts for use with silent movies. It is representative of the entire oeuvre of silent movie music between 1915 and 1929, the golden age of the silent movie, and reveals what audiences at the time were listening to.
It includes many complete sets of music scores, containing all the parts for the 7-11 members of the 'salon orchestra' who would have performed the music live in front of a watching audience, revealing that accompaniment was not only from solo pianists, as is traditionally thought, but from bands as well. 
The collection also reveals the variety of music available for silent movies. Musical Directors would have had access to a library of short scores associated with specific moods and action, for example, romance and horror, or fire and battle, with titles such as 'Wild Chase' or 'Supreme Peril'. They would match these scores to scenes in films, so that each Musical Director was in effect creating their own individual soundtrack for a film.
The collection includes a unique example of music being composed for the star rather than the action in the film. Marche Grotesque, a piece dating from 1916, was written to be played when Charlie Chaplin was on screen. At this time a huge number of cinemas would be showing the actor's films and looking for music to accompany this new kind of comedy. The score was composed by an almost-forgotten composer of songs and mood music called Cyril Thorne, whose publisher saw the potential for his composition’s use in other movie theatres.
Other unique items in the collection include parts with cues written on them to correspond to particular films, for example referring to caption titles on screen. It is also possible to match one score with a particular film: Richard Howgill's score The Onslaught was published in 1928 and is thought to have been played with the film The Guns of Loos, a huge success in British cinemas that year.  
Neil Brand, composer and early film historian, said: “This collection gives us our first proper overview of the music of the silent cinema in the UK from 1914 to the coming of sound.
“Its enormous size not only gives us insights into what the bands sounded like and how  they worked with film, it shows us the working methods of the musical directors and, above all, gives the lie to the long-cherished belief that silent films were accompanied on solo piano by little old ladies who only knew one tune. These are full band parts of specially composed mood music of every possible kind from publishers in the UK, France and the US – when they are played we will hear the authentic sound the audiences of the time would have heard.
“This is a hoard of considerable value for future scholars of music and performance technique which will re-assess many forgotten British composers of light classical music and could fundamentally change our view of silent film music for ever.”
Mike Whitby, Leader of Birmingham City Council, said:
“Birmingham Central Library has a vast collection of archives and this is just one of the unique stories that can be discovered amongst the items that we have. This collection of silent movie music is a unique one, and a real gem for silent movie enthusiasts.
“When the new Library of Birmingham opens in 2013 the general public will have much greater access to our collections, so that they can see more items such as these. With new technology people from around the world will be able to access the Library of Birmingham's world-class resources.”
The scores have been uncovered by staff at Birmingham Central Library as they are preparing to move the collections from their current home to the new Library of Birmingham building, due to open in 2013. When the new Library opens there will be greater access to the Library's vast collections, both in the Library and online. The Music Collection at Birmingham Central Library currently holds more than 40,000 CDs, DVDs, printed music and books on music, as well as significant archives.
On Tuesday 19 July, to mark the launch of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Film Music Festival, CBSO pianist Ben Dawson will perform some of the scores in a free public event in the Foyer of the Symphony Hall Birmingham at 6.15pm.
For further information please contact Sarah Watson at Colman Getty on 020 7631 2666 or
Notes to editors
About the Library of Birmingham
The Library of Birmingham will be a major new cultural destination, rewriting the book for 21st century public libraries. It opens in 2013.
The total capital cost of the Library of Birmingham project is £188.8m, a reduction of £4.2m on the original forecasted figure of £193m.  This investment covers the 35,000 sq m of the Library of Birmingham and the building of new up-dated back of house facilities for The REP.  The Library of Birmingham will occupy 31,000 sq m.
Designed by international architects Mecanoo, the Library of Birmingham will be located in the city's Centenary Square. The building will comprise a spacious entrance and foyer with mezzanine, lower ground level with indoor terraces, four further public levels and two outdoor garden terraces, a ‘golden box’ of secure archive storage occupying two levels, provision for staff offices and service plant on a further two levels and at the very top of the building a rotunda feature housing the Shakespeare Memorial Room. In all, the facilities are spread over 10 levels of varying size and usage.
The new library will be physically connected to Birmingham Repertory Theatre (The REP) and the two organisations will work in partnership, bringing together the written and spoken word through drama, poetry and performance.
The Library of Birmingham will provide a showcase for the city's internationally important collections of archives, photography and rare books. New facilities including state-of-the-art gallery space will open up public access to the collections for the first time. It will also be home to a BFI Mediatheque, providing free access to the National Film Archive. Other facilities will include a new flexible studio theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre and other informal performance spaces, a recording studio, and dedicated spaces for children and teenagers. By harnessing new technology, everyone from Birmingham to Beijing, Bangalore and beyond will be able to access the Library of Birmingham's world-class resources. More than three million visitors are expected each year, and millions more online.
Described by its architect Francine Houben as a 'people's palace', the Library of Birmingham will be highly accessible and family-friendly. It will deliver excellent services through collaboration between the library, The REP, partners and communities. It will provide a dynamic mix of events, activities and performance together with outstanding resources, exhibitions and access to expert help for learning, information and culture. As a centre of excellence for literacy, research, study, skills development, entrepreneurship, creative expression, health information and much more, the Library of Birmingham will change people's lives.
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
In 2020 the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its centenary. Since the inaugural concert, conducted by Sir Edward Elgar in November 1920, the CBSO has grown into a 90-piece ensemble with a worldwide reputation. As the resident orchestra of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the CBSO performs over 80 concerts each year and is in constant demand to appear at venues around the world. Ignite, the CBSO's programme to engage audiences and the community, includes a world-famous family of five choruses, chamber groups, a youth orchestra and an education programme that in total reaches upwards of 50,000 people each year. The CBSO has a sizable discography, with many recordings having won international prizes. Under Andris Nelsons the CBSO has released critically acclaimed discs with Orfeo featuring music by Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky.

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