1. In 2016, I gave a talk at the University of North Texas about the school’s unique collection of music for silent film. The collection includes a significant number of rare pieces that were indicated for use in movies depicting manifestations of the human afterlife, including Bert A. Anthony’s “The Ghost in the Haunted Room” (1924); Walter Broy’s “Ghost Scene” (1926); and “Phantom Visions; Skeleton Dance” (1920) by Ellsworth Stevenson. At the time I understood that this music would have been used primarily for “spook tales”—the forerunners of modern supernatural horror films, designed to create suspense and convey shock, the frightening, and the gruesome. Additional research led me to understand that while there were certainly plenty of such early horror films made during the silent period (1895-1927) and a large body of music to accompany them, there existed an equally large body of repertoire using rather different musical approaches and tropes for moving pictures focused specifically on ghosts or spirits. These movies telling takes of the supernatural were not horror films that featured grotesque devils or menacing demons. Nor were they in the same mold of the film adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1920, for example, which is horror rooted in science fiction, or the psychological horror of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, also from 1920. Lacking the violence and grotesquerie of horror, these ghost movies were clearly not horror; as Thomas M. Sipos writes, “a horror story requires an unnatural threat, which is to say, in addition to being unnatural, the threat must be a threat.” (Sipos 2010, 6). Instead, they focused on the positive, comforting, concerned, or humorous capacities in which spirits appeared.
2. The non-horror supernatural film as a genre and the music for it are closely connected to two entwined cultural phenomena of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the popularity of the Gothic aesthetic in media entertainments and the spiritualist movement. For the purposes of this project, I call these non-horror moving pictures in which the supernatural appears “spirit films.” Some spirit films, especially those that adapt plays or other works of literature, draw heavily upon the Gothic aesthetic, in which the apparitions signified the presence of harmful secrets or hidden motives among the living resulting their need to warn or protect the living and their interests. (Parkin-Gournelas 2002, 132)
3. In this book, I explore the connections between music for early movies (1895-1927) involving the supernatural in the context of the culture of the time in regard to supernatural beliefs and entertainments, particularly spiritualism. As Simone Natale has documented, the rise of the cinema is closely related to popular entertainments that relied on the uncanny to appeal to audiences. (Natale 2016, 8) The magic lantern show, a form of proto-cinematic entertainment developed in the seventeenth century, linked images of ghosts, demons, and gruesome scenes with the performance of live music and sounds designed to create a sense of suspense and eeriness. The phantasmagoria specialized in showing such images in its necromantic-themed shows of illuminated images and included music and sound effects intended to provide an otherworldly atmosphere. After the inception of spiritualism in 1848, its system of beliefs and methods of communicating with the dead influenced not only the magic lantern show and the phantasmagoria, but also the burgeoning art of photography. While spirit photography was shown to be fraudulent, pioneers of the moving picture embraced its techniques as part of creating a new genre, and this genre needed its own musical accompaniment. Spirit mediums—individuals who claimed to contact the dead—regularly used sound and music as part of their séances, performances in the form of rituals in which they facilitated communication between spirits and the living. Just as the technology of the magic lantern slide featuring the supernatural developed into the moving picture depicting the same, so too did the music and sounds of the séance and phantasmagoria carry into the accompaniment provided for films shown in the cinema.
4. Women played central roles in spiritualism and cinema music, developing the sounds of the séance and the music that accompanied spirit films. In Chapter One, I examine the connections between mediums and cinema musicians and the ways in which these similarities contributed to the development of the music for spirit films. The roles of the séance and the cinema, and their respective live entertainers, the spirit medium and the cinema accompanist (also known as a photoplayer), had significantly intersecting elements and similar functions as professional performers during a period of transition in the United States in terms of women’s employment, social paradigms, and the development of the media entertainment industry. Both the séance and the moving picture required an audience’s willing suspension of disbelief and an open mind. Both created liminal spaces accessed through obvious physical and atmospheric thresholds. Both promised entertainments in which the audiences would experience the uncanny, the presence of something that is both living and not living, animate and inanimate.
5. The occupations of medium and accompanist were also ones in which women were not only successful but also frequently considered to be better practitioners than men. Both jobs were populated by roughly the same demographic of educated, Protestant whites from the middle and upper classes. The highly gendered educations and expectations of these classes of white women developed in the late nineteenth century, intended to prepare women for domesticity, were, ironically, exactly the training they needed to succeed as professional public entertainers in the early twentieth century as mediums and musicians. (Leonard 2018) The assumption that women had a more sensitive nature than men informed the idea that women were inherently better conduits for spirit communication and selecting appropriate music for film. (Gutierrez 2009, 4) Women’s education and training, based on the fin-de-siècle code of morals that held up accomplished women—those prepared for domestic responsibilities, which included music-making—as respectable models provided mediums and cinema accompanists with considerable power in determining the ethics and practices of their workplaces. Both cinemas and spiritualists sought to imbue their entertainments with respectability, which they achieved in part by employing or promoting women who exhibited the traits of “true womanhood” instilled through this training. At the same time, women working as mediums or accompanists could, as Susan M. Cruea writes, “exploit their moral empowerment” and become autonomous forces within their entertainment communities, using their positions to articulate political and social platforms. (Cruea 2005, 190)
6. The performance of mediumship and cinema accompaniment also intersected in ways in which other professions taken up by women did not. Schoolteachers, nurses, stenographers, and secretaries were always on view in their employment, and their visibility was often crucial to their success in those roles. Both mediums and cinema accompanists engaged in physical performance as well, but at the same time had to give up the appearance of physical autonomy and embodiment as part of their work. This phenomenon of being both present and absent contributed to the uncanny in mediums’ and accompanists’ work, and speaks to the transitional and mutable aspects of women’s work outside of the home during this period.
7. Finally, both mediums and cinema accompanists were in unique positions to function as tastemakers, innovators, and technological and artistic leaders. Working in their respective genres of entertainment, women mediums and accompanists developed new practices in their fields that can be traced to the present day. They created new forms of and uses for technology to aid in their work, which has similarly endured; and established rituals and standards still obvious in present-day supernatural entertainments.
8. In Chapter Two, using sheet music, cue sheets, photoplay albums, and music from journals that was employed for the silent film, I examine the sources for music used for spirit films and analyze three works that exemplify how new pieces written for the cinema seek to reference the established sounds of the séance and ghosts on stage.
9. Sound has always been an integral part of the séance: the first American spirit mediums, Kate, Margaret, and Leah Fox, communicated with spirits through rapping sounds starting in private in 1848 and in public the following year, and before long others began doing the same. Spirit mediums communicate with the spirit world by one or various means. There were two basic types of mediums: mental mediums and physical mediums. Mental mediums sense the spirit world and communicate through telepathy with spirits or allow spirits to take over their voices to communicate with the living. Physical mediums, also called materializing mediums, produce material artifacts from the spirit world (often called ectoplasm), manipulate physical objects (such as rapping on a table or making it float or playing musical instruments), and allow spirits to inhabit their entire bodies and use them to communicate with the living.
10. Spirit mediums held séances for both small and large audiences, ranging from a small “circle”— formed out of a group of eight to twelve friends and friends of friends—to appearances in music halls or other public venues. Attendees, known as sitters, all paid to participate.
A small spiritualist circle
Mediums were responsible for creating an atmosphere conducive to the channeling of spirits; entering into a trance, either at a séance table around which the audience sat or in a curtained-off area of the room called a cabinet; and facilitating communication, either physically or mentally, between the spirits and the living. Séance sitters expected séances to include demonstrations some kind of physical activity on the part of the spirits, personalized messages from the spirits, a question and answer session with contacted spirits, or a combination of these. (Warner 2008, 288) Sound- or music-making was both an established practice in séances as a way of enticing the spirits to visit and an acceptable form of spirit activity: mediums and sitters often sang hymns, hoping to attract the attention of spirits, and spirits both played instruments themselves and guided mediums in playing instruments in which they were untrained. (Natale 2016, 25) Accompanists used this repertoire to create the sound of the séance in the cinema.
11. In the third chapter, I focus on the music used to accompany early films based on works of literature in which ghosts play an important role as signifiers of danger or messengers of warning, particularly adaptations of Shakespeare and A Christmas Carol. I examine the connections between the ghosts within classic and gothic literature, their adaptations for the screen, and the role of music in communicating with and for such spirits.
12. Shortened versions of Shakespeare’s plays were extremely popular in the early cinema: not only were the plays in the public domain, but such adaptations helped confer the imprimatur of art or high culture on the nascent cinema industry, something the industry continually sought as film as an entertainment developed. While Shakespeare might at first seem an odd choice for representing the Gothic, Horace Walpole, author of the Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto and often credited as the originator of the Gothic entertainment, claimed that Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet and Macbeth, inspired him in creating the genre. (Desmet and Williams 2009, 3) Marjean Purinton and Marliss C. Desens have written that Shakespeare was “increasingly ‘Gothicized’ during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the visual, historical, and critical evidence from live stagings and film bears this out. (2009, 87) Filmmakers interested in the cinematography tricks developed by early filmmaker Georges Méliès such as showing spirits walking through walls, fading away, and similar actions found films of Hamlet and Macbeth ideal vehicles for using or improving such effects. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was a similarly popular work for filmmakers seeking to display technical skills, and was repeatedly committed to film during the silent era due to audience demand.
13. I suggest that the ghostly messengers who bring warnings or condemnations to the living bridge the gap between the contented ghost and the malevolent one. In being tasked with communicating the difference between more pleasant spirits and these apparitions, women musicians created and called upon different repertoires than those for friendlier ghosts, contributing to a distinct musical lineage for the gothic film. Although cinema musicians accompanying Shakespeare could and often did draw from pre-existing stage repertoire that referenced the supernatural (such as Faust and Der Freischütz), they had other options as well. The early modern English music revival coincided with the development of the motion picture, allowing accompanists to select music that used traditional melodies, forms, and textures from the early modern or sought to replicate them in some way, including music that signified the supernatural. Nonetheless, many composers also wrote a good deal of new music to communicate the presence and roles of ghosts who gave witness to the murky historical antecedents, mysteries, and eerie scenes in Shakespearean and other Gothicized films in which spirits play an important role.
The ghost of Old Hamlet, in a very Gothic film of the play by Cinematograph Film, 1913.
14. Finally, in Chapter Four, I undertake an assessment of the musical legacies of the work done by women mediums and cinema musicians, using the score for a modern spirit film as a lens through which their influences can be clearly discerned. The work of the spirit medium and silent film accompanist produced a rich sonic tradition for non-threatening apparitions in silent film that developed into the soundtracks for the ghosts in Topper (1937), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ghost (1990), and A Ghost Story (2017), among many others. I argue that the scores for these films originate from a different point than those for horror. Using textbooks for silent film accompaniment from the 1910s and 1920s, I demonstrate how the scores for spirit films and horror movies have changed little since that time.
15. Ultimately, it is my hope that this book helps contextualize, explain, and interpret the complex relationships between music, performance, gender, entertainment, belief, and media during the early twentieth century.
Spirits and Spiritualism in America
16. Interest in spirits in America can be traced to November 1849, when sisters Margaret (Maggie) and Kate Fox held their first public séance. Americans from all classes and backgrounds were swept up in the desire to believe in and contact the supernatural. Spirit mediums, individuals—usually women—who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, emerged in every state and town, offering private and/or public sessions in which they spoke to and for the departed. From the Fox sisters’ very first spirit communications, these séances employed sound as an essential element, and more complex sound and music soon followed as an expected part of sittings held by others. For the Fox sisters, spirits communicated through “rappings,” cracking or knocking noises that appeared to come from within walls, under floors, or on the surfaces of tables: “table-rapping” became a synonym for spirit communication. In this use of sound, David Chapin writes, the Fox sisters “created a format for spiritual manifestation that appealed to a nineteenth century audience.” (Chapin 2000, 161) The sounds—and their sources—were mysterious but not threatening, which allowed for audiences to interpret the sounds however they liked, much as they did performances of music.
17. The Fox sisters became an in-demand act in homes and theaters across the United States, and other individuals soon claimed to have similar mediumistic powers. The séance—in which mediums and a small group of audience members gathered in order to witness the medium’s communications with the dead—soon developed into a significant trade. Mediums could advertise their services anywhere and create instant businesses. Those who wished to develop mediumistic powers could receive training from established mediums or through the mail; an entire industry blossomed around the séance, selling devices through which the spirits could better speak with séance attendees and materials that mediums could use to better convince their clients of the presence of the dead.
A spirit trumpet
18. The séance as entertainment became popular across the nation. Mediums soon started performing not just in dark parlors but also on the stage, and in both venues the actions that took place became more and more involved and extravagant. Spirits appeared and disappeared, touched members of the audience, and mediums produced “ectoplasm” from their bodies, evidence that the spirits had inhabited them physically. And spirits took to playing instruments in large numbers.
The Sounds of the Séance
19. The séance of the nineteenth century was by no means a quiet affair. Today we might imagine those taking part in a séance as sitting in a dark and hushed room, waiting for the sounds and appearances from the beyond to begin, but séances were more often lively events full of music and noise. While the lights were turned down so as to obscure the movements of the medium and/or their assistants in creating the performance, sound was essential and music was often expected. Steven Connor has written
As they sat in the darkness or semi-darkness, the members of the séance would see much less than they would touch, taste, smell, and, most importantly, hear. The experience of heightened and attentive listening which is so central a part of the séance renders the participant at once passively exposed to and intimately enclosed within a shared space of audition which can perhaps be interpreted in the light of the infantile experience of the ‘sonorous envelope’ or bath of sound analysed by Didier Anzieu. (Steven Connor, “The Machine in the Ghost: Spiritualism, Technology and the ‘Direct Voice,’” in Buse and Stott 1999, 208)
20. The sounds and music for these events could lean towards the religious or delight in the profane. Many participants at more religious séances called the spirits to join them through hymn-singing, as described by “an Eye-Witness,” who chronicled a séance beginning with sacred music:
Séance commenced at 2 o’clock. The sitters, being about 30 in number, being all seated, we commenced by singing, the medium being quickly entranced by his guide “Abram.” He told us show to regulate the light. We sat and sang at intervals for about half-an-hour … (Medium and Daybreak: A Weekly Journal Devoted to the History, Phenomena, Philosophy and Teachings of Spiritualism, July 8, 1881, 429)
A drum on a pole, meant to be viewed as levitating in a darkened seance room.
21. In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner relates the claim of a medium, Mrs. Deane, who “often encouraged her sitters to join in a hymn, with her, as ‘the vibrations caused by singing are helpful in the production of psychic phenomena.’” (Warner 2008, 244) Hymn-singing, in addition to helping cover any noises made by the medium in her preparation of paraphernalia for producing ocular and aural proof of ghosts, also strengthened perception of the movement as a religious one. Cathy Gutierrez argues, in her study of spiritualism as an organized religion, that it was the “religious articulation of the American Renaissance,” and thus mirrored the European renaissance in its engagement of both belief in the supernatural as a means of achieving personal happiness and satisfaction, especially during difficult times, and emerging technologies that created doubt in the paranormal. Mediums who enacted religious practices such as hymn-singing at their séances tapped into the emotions of those who feared technological and scientific progress.
22. For those who believed that technology was the very means through which spirits were communicating with the living—electricity was thought by many to be the conduit between worlds—the music of séances was more often secular in nature. Beth A. Robertson notes that playing a phonograph to attract the spirits was just as common as singing hymns. Many of the dead seemed to like popular song; Robertson documents the case of a spirit called Walter who especially enjoyed pop songs featuring the saxophone, which was played to summon him. (Robertson 2016, 76-7) Other ghosts conducted entire concerts at séances: Natale writes that at one medium’s séances, “spirit concerts, music performed with numerous instruments, including the trumpet, accordion, and percussion instruments, was attributed to spirit agency” (2016, 25) and that the performances of a medium family “could include guitars and tambourines, as well as violins, horns, and bells.” (30) Some mediums, not content with strumming a guitar or playing the piano or violin in their portrayals of spirits, were intrigued by the phonograph, turning it on and off and using selected recordings to create spirit communications at séances. (Rotman 2008, 117) The presence of musical instruments was so common at séances that pieces of music inspired by them were popular even before the advent of the moving picture.
Cover of “The Dark Seance Polka,” c. 1880, showing mediums moving luminescent instruments in a séance
Spirits and the Early Cinema
23. The cinema and the supernatural immediately took to one another. As numerous historians have described, film provided the ultimate means of creating and displaying the uncanny, and the proto-filmic entertainments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the magic lantern and phantasmagoria allowed for a near-seamless transition from all-live spectral entertainment to the part-film, part-live (music) of the motion picture show. Spiritualists, as Murray Leeder writes, “long used to framing new developments in science as fresh evidence for their rhetorical arsenal,” also took to the cinema. Just as they believed in spirit photography, spiritualists, always looking for evidence, were enthralled with the possibilities offered by the cinema and immediately claimed it as a site of potential religious experience. (Leeder 2015, 6)
24. Proponents and performers of spiritualism were, as Gutierrez documents, “interested in machines that could legitimize their project,” (Gutierrez 2009, 65) and Simone Natale has argued “the rise of the spiritualist movement as a religious and cultural phenomenon was closely connected to the contemporary evolution of the media entertainment industry.” (Natale 2016, 1) Photography and later the moving image were both embraced as products of “machines would both usher in the future and provide evidence of their claims,” although “machinery was also implicated in entertainment.” (Gutierrez 2009, 46) In 1860, spiritualism as a legitimate belief (rather than as an entertainment) was briefly advanced thanks to developing technology when William H. Mumler invented spirit photography, a technique of making multiple exposures on film, resulting in images that seemed to show the presence of ghosts among living portrait sitters. Dozens of other photographers followed suit, and while much of the public soon realized that these photographs were fraudulent, some—most famously, author Arthur Conan Doyle—refused to doubt the validity of the images. The popularity of spirit photography and the constant development of new techniques for creating photographic images meant that when film was invented in 1895 and as it progressed technologically, it too became a site of supernatural visions. Although spiritualism in America was most popular between 1849 and 1870, as Julian Holloway notes, “subsequent revivals of spirit communication occurred in the 1890s and after World War I.” (Holloway 2006, 182) Desperate to find meaning in the deaths of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and the Great War, the bereaved sought contact with the dead. This fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century coincidence of belief in spiritualism and the rise of the moving picture allowed for considerable exchange between the two phenomena, including the use of sound and music. As Leeder documents, “from W. T. Stead’s citation of ‘The Kinetiscope [sic] of Nature’ and ‘The Kinetiscope [sic] of the Mind’ in 1896 to spiritualist Dr. Guy Bogart visiting the set of The Bishop of the Ozarks (1923), a film with a pro-spiritualist theme, and becoming ‘convinced he saw a real spirit manifest itself on the set to complement the film’s special effects,’ proponents of communication with the dead argued their case for the entire length of the silent era.” (Leeder 2015, 6)
24. Moving pictures, as numerous scholars have written since, are the ultimate display of the uncanny: the figures shown in them are neither living nor dead, were both objects and not, and existed in both the time the images were captured and when they were shown and re-shown. In 1896, writer Maxim Gorky attended a showing of a film made by French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière depicting everyday life on the screen. Astonished by what he had seen, Gorky wrote perhaps the most famous response to the emerging art of the cinema, directly citing its uncanny abilities:
Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. Everything there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air—is dipped in monotonous grey. It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre. (Quoted in Mandy Merck, “The Medium of Exchange,” in Buse and Stott 1999, 168.)
25. Film provided for the existence of true revenants—defined by Derrida as those that come back—as well as those acknowledged as human creations for the purposes of entertainment. (Buse and Stott 1999, 11) It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the very earliest experiments with the moving picture should include apparitions of the dead, doubling or reiterating the medium’s uncanny effect and giving birth to the idea of hauntology, what Simon Reynolds describes as “ghostly reminders of lost time and the elusiveness of memory.” (Reynolds 2011, 329)
26. Early filmmakers were also fascinated with the possibilities of the moving picture and the uncanny. The Lumière brothers and Méliès began producing science fiction and fantasy films, including those featuring the supernatural, using various kinds of trick photography from the very beginnings of the art. These earliest supernatural films were often more invested in visual tricks than plot, and involved a variety of supernatural figures, including witches and devils. By the end of the first decade of film, motion pictures involving the supernatural had split into two camps: those that served as the progenitors of the horror movie, featuring monsters, suspense, and violence as key elements, and those with a spiritualist bent, which while using many of the same visual effects as the monster movies, took a very different path in intention. These latter films sought to provide uplifting stories of communications with the departed in ways that assuaged grievers and counseled believers by offering examples of positive, feel-good séances. Both types of movie were plentiful: monster movies number in the thousands, and as John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce, and Harry Long note, “while not quite a dime a dozen, pictures dealing with Spiritualism were fairly plentiful during the late 1910s and 1920s.” (Soister et al. 2012, 36)
27. Filmmakers soon discovered that to include representations of actual ghosts, and not just what seemed ghostly, on film, could be enormously profitable, particularly given the late nineteenth century’s pervasive practices and interests in death, mourning culture, and communication with the dead. In 1898, the Lumière brothers produced a short film showing a dancing skeleton, Le squelette joyeux. The success of the film led to the development of a new genre, and “spook tales” quickly became a favorite topic for filmmakers. As a result, the ghosts and demons of the screen encompassed a broad spectrum of representations, ranging from the mischievous to the melancholy to the malicious, and hundreds of motion pictures involving supernatural figures were made during the silent era, roughly 1895-1927. The majority of these films, when exhibited, were accompanied by music and sound.
28. Indeed, how the cinematic undead were presented and received relied not only on the connections between spiritualism and the theater and popular print culture, but also the music used to accompany films dealing with the supernatural. Robert Alford has noted the importance, in this genre, of making “visual components of the [silent] cinema […] understood through sound” in films featuring the uncanny. (Alford 2015, 186) The public’s desire for magic to be real heavily influenced the development of the spirit film and the music that accompanied it in the cinema.
Music in the Silent Cinema
29. By 1908, the cinema industry, after considerable debate about whether moving pictures should be accompanied by music at all, had largely decided that doing so was not only acceptable, but essential. Although debates about what kinds of music were appropriate for film lasted well into the sound era, filmmakers and others agreed that accompanimental music served a narrative function and assisted in establishing geographical, chronological, and other loci both acousmatically and within the diegesis of a film. New musical industries sprung up to serve the needs of cinemas and motion picture production houses. As Richard Abel, Rick Altman, Julie Hubbert, Martin Marks, and other scholars of silent film music and sound have documented, there were no standardized practices for supplying music for films. (Abel and Altman 2001; Altman 2004; Hubbert 2011; Marks 1997) Music for accompanying films initially came from vaudeville music libraries, popular song, pre-existing art music, and original compositions, only some of which were committed to paper. In the 1910s, publications of music expressly for film accompaniment began to proliferate, offering what is called genre music or mood music for actions, events, and emotions commonly found in film scenarios. Using published collections of genre music, called photoplay albums, cinema pianists, organists, or ensembles could patch together a handful of pieces to create a compiled score of generic pieces that provided music that broadly matched the action on screen. Works for “hurry” or “gallop” were quick in tempo, mimicked the sound of hoof beats or heartbeats, and employed short note values, all of which suggested the associated speed of motion given in the title. In Motion Picture Moods, an enormous collection of generic pieces selected and arranged by film score composer and arranger Erno Rapée, “Aeroplane” is represented by Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccio,” in which a three-measure passage of rapidly alternating thirds in the piano’s right hand is apparently meant to stand in for the sound of high-speed propellers; one entry for “Sea Storm” is Grieg’s “Peer Gynt’s Homecoming/Stormy Evening on the Coast,” which musically imitates choppy seas through the use of alternating low and high As in the bass in sixteenth notes. (Rapee 1970, 2)
30. At the same time, some accompanists—also known as photoplayers—improvised throughout an entire film, created their own motifs to use for each picture they accompanied, and essentially composed entire scores that often went undocumented or committed to paper. Cinema organist Rosa Rio, for example, often had to accompany films without previewing them, so while she accompanied a movie for the first time, she worked to compose motifs or themes for the characters or events in the picture, upon which she would then improvise and elaborate in following showings, ultimately creating a consistent score that she would play from memory each time she accompanied the picture. (Simon 2006) Other performers preferred to work from a list of suggestions for music, known as a cue sheet, which lists a film’s major events or cues next to the title or incipit of a piece that would go well with the action. As the demand for music for film grew, studios began issuing cue sheets for individual films, prepared by in-studio composers or score compilers. The Edison Film Company began issuing cue sheets with all of its feature-length films in 1913 (“Edison Issues Music Cues” 1913); Mutual Film Company did so in 1917 (“Mutual to Provide Music Cue Service with Features” 1917); and other companies followed.
31. These suggestions from Edison were not terribly sophisticated: the recommendations for a nine-scene film titled How the Landlord Collected His Rent were “1. March, brisk; 2. Irish jig; 3. Begin with Andante, finish with Allegro; 4. Popular Air; 5. Ditto; 6. Andante with Lively at finish; 7. March (same as No. 1); 8. Plaintive; 9. Andante (Use March of No. 1).” (Marks 1997, 68) The Cameo Music Service Corporation, based in New York City, issued somewhat more sophisticated “Thematic Music Cue Sheets” for more than twenty movie studios (Altman 2004, 353), and the Chicago-based Synchronized Scenarios Music Company also offered cues for numerous filmmakers. (Music Trades1921, 39) These cue sheets included not just the name of the piece for each cue, but also a short incipit of the melody for the accompanist to harmonize and extend as needed. [See Fig. I.3] Around the same time, film magazines also began publishing cue sheets created by the editors of their music columns or music departments. Cue sheets in magazines include those by Ernst Luz for Motion Picture News, which began publishing them in 1915; George W. Beynon in Moving Picture World, starting in 1919; and Lloyd G. DelCastillo, who started creating cue sheets for publication in American Organist in 1922. (Leonard 2016, 45, 63, 74)
A typical cue sheet, showing cue number, visual or intertitle cue, musical incipit, and duration
32. During the silent era, only the most prestigious films with the largest budgets received fully original, completely synchronized scores for their presentation in cinemas. These “special scores,” as they were marketed, generally eschewed pre-existing music of any kind, although some did contain a single notable pre-existing theme or popular song, often included for marketing purposes. Nathaniel D. Mann composed the first such score for the 1908 film The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays. (Dienstfrey 2014, 43) As Marks notes, the genre blossomed in the United States between 1910 and 1914, and following the success of Joseph Carl Breil’s fully synchronized score for Griffith’s 1915 picture The Birth of a Nation, more studios began producing full scores for their pictures. (Marks 1997, 62) Breil applied a Wagnerian approach to scoring his films, starting with his now-lost score for Queen Elizabeth in 1912, assigning leitmotivs to characters and places as a means of connecting all of the elements of the film through the music and developing a coherent musical narrative that was carried throughout the score.
33. The leitmotif approach would gradually take over as the dominant method of scoring a film, but of the full-length film scores produced during the late teens and early twenties, many remained compiled scores with only a few original sections: that is, they were comprised of pre-existing pieces that were connected to one another with original transitions and sometimes contained a new song or tune for a romantic or climactic scene. Photoplay albums and single-work generic music and cue sheets continued to be used by most motion picture accompanists until the coming of sound between 1927 and 1929, although original full scores became increasingly common as the 1920s progressed. By the time it was clear that the “talkies” were here to stay, most films were scored with original music, albeit often including some pre-existing pieces.
41. In composing original scores and short, atmospheric pieces such as “misteriosos,” and “Spooky Spooks,” composers often borrowed musical ideas, textures, and other materials associated with the supernatural from pre-existing works like, as mentioned earlier, the operas Die Freischütz (Carl Maria von Weber and Friedrich Kind, 1821) and Faust (Charles Gounod and Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, 1859) and from shorter works like Camille Saint-Saëns, whose highly influential 1874 concert piece Danse Macabre musically portrayed Death playing the violin amid a cemetery of dancing skeletons. Inspired by the experiences of mediums and séance-sitters, cinema musicians accompanied such films with music that often also drew on memory and reminders of the past. But silent film composers also developed new musical gestures, textures, and timbres to signify various types of supernatural beings in film scores, reflecting beliefs of the time. All of these approaches to creating musical accompaniment shaped the way spirits on screen were presented to audiences.
34. Now, imagine it is 1920. Your friends and neighbors have told you of the magic of the séance and the moving picture show. You have a ticket for an entertainment tonight, and when you arrive at the venue, you are shown in to a slightly darkened room. You sit, perhaps with a companion, or perhaps in the company of strangers. A woman appears and takes what is obviously her accustomed seat for her performance. You might be at either a séance or the cinema: in the following chapter, I will show just how much these entertainments and their performers’ work intersected.
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Alford, Robert. 2015. “Supernatural Speech: Silent Cinema’s Stake in Representing the Impossible.” In Cinematic Ghosts: Haunting and Spectrality from Silent Cinema to the Digital Era, edited by Murray Leeder, 77-94. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Altman, Rick. 2004. Silent Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press.
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Anon. “Edison Issues Music Cues.” 1913. Motography 10 (8):291.
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