Shakespeare, the Early Modern, and Period Song in the American Silent Cinema

My book chapter “Shakespeare, the Early Modern, and Period Song in the American Silent Cinema,” will be out in the spring of 2024 in the Routledge collection History as Fantasy in Music, Sound, Image and Media, ed. James Cook, Alexander Kolassa, Alexander Robinson, and Adam Whittaker. Here’s the abstract for my chapter.

Shakespeare was a popular source for early filmmakers: his works were in the public domain, they helped the nascent film industry promote its offerings as high art, and they appealed to actors and audiences alike. During the silent era (c.1895-1927), more than five hundred adaptations of Shakespeare’s works—which could represent up to twenty-five percent of all studio-produced films made during the period—were made as “silent films.”[1] But silent Shakespearean films, like most silent movies, would have been accompanied by music. These films and the music for them can tell us much about attitudes towards Shakespeare’s work and the issues his plays raise, such as those surrounding gender, religious, class, and ethnic difference. While text intertitles provided some of Shakespeare’s words, the prevalence of musical suggestions for music and sound effects in trade publications of the period make it clear that music and sound were an integral part of expressing Shakespeare on film.

The rise of the early music movement coincides with the silent film, and here I investigate the confluences of these two phenomena by examining music used for silent Shakespeare films and moving pictures about the English ruling class that is derived from early modern English music and musical culture, particularly song. I will also explore a genre of silent film music that was emergent in the 1910s and 20s and was used for Shakespeare in early film: new music that depicts—albeit through the lenses of time and cultural and geographical differences—early modern English culture through a variety of musical and poetic tropes. Pieces such as Gaston Borch’s 1916 Songs from Shakespeare’s Time indicate that heroic characters were accompanied by well-known seventeenth- and eighteenth-century pieces and new works that mimicked early modern dance tunes and songs written for the aristocracy by professional male musicians. Borch orchestrated “The British Grenadiers,” (possibly by Playford) and other works including “The Hunt is Up,” and Dowland’s “Come again, sweet love” for use in accompanying Shakespearean film. Carrie Jacob-Bond’s 1910 arrangement of “Robin Adair,” and Reginald de Koven’s score for the 1899 stage musical Robin Hood—which was immensely popular with silent film accompanists—also speak to the reuse of English and Scottish melodies and the creation of new pieces using traits from the period such as modality, ballad and lute song forms, and the sound of the Elizabethan broken consort, often using the oboe as a substitute for recorders and muted modern strings to replicate the texture of viol consorts.

By studying the use of such music in early film, we can learn much about attitudes towards Shakespeare’s work and the issues his plays raise, such as those surrounding gender, class, and ethnic difference; in addition, this use of such music in popular entertainment offers information on modes of transmission and connections with the late nineteenth/early twentieth century early music revival.

[1] Kenneth S. Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1.


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