Staff at Birmingham Central Library have uncovered the UK’s largest collection of silent movie scores, including a unique Charlie Chaplin theme.
The collection, most of which belonged to musical directors Louis Benson and HT Saunders, consists of 500 scores and parts for use with silent films. It captures the golden age of the silent movie era – from 1915 to 1929 – and reveals what audiences at the time were listening to.
Included in the find is a piece dating back to 1916 called Marche Grotesque, which was composed specifically for Charlie Chaplin by an almost-forgotten composer called Cyril Thorne.
Staff also unearthed many full sets of music, which up to 11 members of the salon orchestra would have performed live in front of the 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.
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.’
For more on film score composition, read our feature Popping Out.