by HELEN GEIB
The greatest pleasure offered by a theatrical screening of a silent film is the opportunity to hear live accompaniment. Watching a silent at a revival theater or festival carries many pleasures. Seeing the movie on the big screen the way it was meant to be seen. The chance to see a rare film from an archive or individual collector. Comedies are funnier when you’re laughing along with an audience. But the greatest pleasure is the music.
It’s difficult to over-emphasize the importance of the accompaniment to the experience of watching a silent film. Good music draws the audience into the story and sets the mood. Lively musical accompaniment to a chase makes it more exciting, to a comedy scene makes it funnier; delicate accompaniment to a tender scene of reconciliation elicits tears. Bad music can shatter a film. Comedy falls flat, tragedy is uninvolving. Silent film music is similar to the score of a sound film, but of greater importance. In a sound film, the soundtrack may rely heavily on its score, but it also employs a wide range of voices, incidental music, and sound effects. The accompaniment to a silent is the aural universe for that viewing.
Live accompaniment carries the same immediacy and unrepeatability that has kept concerts alive in the age of high quality audio recordings. Each performance is unique. An experienced accompanist can play well to a movie on the first viewing, creating the score on the fly. Even if the musician has played for the movie before or is playing from a written score, no two renditions will be exactly the same. Different musicians respond differently to the same film, so that seeing a movie for the second time with a different accompanist can make it seem almost new.
Playing music for a silent film is an art. Technical skill and experience are important to good accompaniment, as they are to any musical performance, but the crucial factor is the musician’s engagement with the material. Successful silent film music is based in the musician’s rapport with the movie’s story and tone.
Some movies are difficult to accompany through their own fault. It can be hard, even impossible, to play well to a bad movie. No matter how skillful the musician, music can only go so far in compensating for erratic pacing, a stupid story, or inartful filmmaking. When the accompanist noticeably struggles to keep up with the movie’s shifts in tone, but it’s because the story is veering mindlessly between comedy and drama, weak accompaniment is cause for commiseration rather than censure.
The other kind of movie that’s hard to play for falls at the opposite end of the quality spectrum. Faust is one of the greatest films of the silent era, and one of the most difficult to accompany.
Great movies are not necessarily difficult to accompany well. Metropolis is a great movie that inspires great accompaniment. I’ve seen Metropolis with four different scores. The weakest, a recorded jazz score, was good. The other three were excellent, and all as different from each other as can be imagined: the original orchestral score written for the German premiere (recorded for the DVD release); organ; and an avant-garde ensemble playing only percussion instruments.
I’ve also had the opportunity to see Faust with four different musical scores, three of them performed live, and all of them also very different from each other: orchestral; piano; a sort of progressive rock ensemble I’m not really sure how to describe; and organ. It was not until the most recent screening accompanied on the organ that I saw it with really good music. The recorded orchestral score on the DVD release is indifferent, and the first two live performances rank among the worst playing I’ve heard with a silent film.
The poor accompaniment for Faust did not result from lack of technical skill, or, at least in one case, lack of experience accompanying silent films. The problem was that the music was not sympathetically engaged with the film.
The story is about the contest between God and Satan for the soul of Faust, a pious old scholar whose faith is shaken during a time of plague. Faust sells his soul for the age-old lures of youth, power, and sex. Eventually, bored with empty indulgence, he pursues an innocent young woman named Gretchen. His love for her offers the opposing possibilities of her damnation and his salvation. Faust is directed by F.W. Murnau and in common with his other masterpieces of the late silent era it is a work of intense emotional impact and stunning lyrical beauty. Also a film of tremendous intelligence and subtlety, it juxtaposes heartrending pathos and corrosive wit while preserving a consistent unity of tone and clarity of meaning.
This is a movie that is exceptionally rewarding, and exceptionally demanding of the musician. At one of my failed live screenings, the music was prosaic and dull, constantly at odds with a moral fable filled with fantastical imagery. The plot in Faust moves forward with great energy. The music seemed always to be a few steps behind as the film kept charging forward. The most common type of bad silent film music for a great film, it failed because it couldn’t measure up to the quality of the movie.
The music at the other failed screening was creative, aggressive, and exciting. It was a great concert, but it failed as accompaniment because it was fundamentally out of sync with the film. The group didn’t understand, or perhaps just didn’t respect, their material. There is a famous sequence at about the film’s midpoint that shows Faust’s courtship of Gretchen. He playfully chases her around an idyllic garden; her naïve affection and lack of coquetry determine the meaning of the scene. The scenes of Faust and Gretchen are intercut with parallel scenes of Mephisto chasing Gretchen’s venal and affected aunt, an interlude knowingly staged by Mephisto as a brutal burlesque of the young lovers. The accompaniment reveled in the burlesque and denied the existence of the second meaning. The music for this passage encapsulated the reason for the score’s failure. It was all about the sinning, nothing about the fall and redemption. Great music with background video projection is another species of bad silent film music.