I am very honored to be one of this year’s Music Library Association Dena Epstein Award winners! Enormous thanks to Jim Cassaro at the University of Pittsburgh and James L. Zychowicz at A-R Editions for writing letters of support for my project and for mentoring me in my archival and music library endeavors, and to the MLA for being such a welcoming and helpful organization.
The Dena Epstein Award will support two weeks of support to examine the full print run of the early twentieth-century magazine Melody [Magazine] for Photoplay Organists and Pianists and all Music Lovers, which is held by the Library of Congress. My research will
both inform my book-length study of women in early film music, currently in progress, and
also result in an online, open access database of the magazine’s contents, indexed by author, title, subject, and keywords.(1) I will create the database as a WordPress site at Humanities Commons, which will host the site for free.
In 1914, the manager of a thriving silent cinema wrote that having a successful theater often depended on being able to provide “good music…. furnished in the way of an accomplished [female] pianist.”(2) The job of cinema accompanist was a respectable one for women, and was compared positively with secretarial work, teaching, and nursing. The presence of a female accompanist indicated that a cinema was intent on being an artistic and moral institution, especially as the film industry worked to establish itself as a legitimate business producing respectable and creative works. Although no census of cinema accompanists was ever taken, reports from trade and industry publications suggest that while white male musicians were in the majority in the earliest days of cinema accompaniment, women, both white and of color, soon outnumbered them. Women unquestionably comprised the majority of cinema accompanists after the spring of 1917, when the United States joined the war effort and all-male cinema orchestras were dissolved so that their members could join the military. As Ally Acker has written about women in the silent film industry, “women are as integral and transformative to the cinema as [well-known men], and yet their stories have consistently remained untold.”(3) The influence of these women, particularly during the Great War and its immediate aftermath, cannot be understated; as Acker continues, “more women worked in decision-making positions in film before 1920 than at any other time in history.”(4) Acker’s claim certainly includes female musicians. Working in cinema music, women took on roles as performers, composers, inventors, and innovators within the film industry, their responsibilities often overlapping and becoming inextricably entwined. It is clear from interviews of accompanists and audience members and recent research that these musicians’ performances for newsreels, animations, live-action shorts, and feature films served in multiple ways. Their accompaniments, which used already existing music, new compositions by themselves and others, and their own improvisations, shaped and helped define the musical sensitivities of the time. Accompanists created music and approaches to using music that would become part of the audience’s expectations for film music; established musical standards for film scores that would carry through into sound films; educated listeners as to different types of music and musical genres and to musical traditions relating to affect and meaning; and demonstrated how music could serve as a narrative and interpretative force in the cinema. They designed methods of matching music to the action on the screen; developed ways of supplying cinemas with synchronized sound for pictures; and invented machines that allowed a single woman to represent the sounds of an orchestra for accompanying a film.
Despite their constant presence in and contributions to cinema music, the scholarly
bibliography on women musicians in the silent cinema is essentially nonexistent. There are a number of reasons for this. In an era when women were often named only as “Miss [Last
name] or “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” in print and those who wished to publish songs or
other kinds of music still often had to do so under pseudonyms or with their first initials in
place of their names in order to be considered seriously, only a limited number of female
composers and performers were made easily identifiable or recognized for their work. Most research that has been done on silent film music has focused on male performers and
composers active in New York and in Hollywood, in part because the trade magazines,
house publications, and other necessary documents for study were both focused on activities in those places and were held by institutions there. These resources generally lack coverage of the activities of women in the profession. The lack of information and research on women in silent cinema music is also due to the overwhelmingly canonized music history narrative in which successful women musicians were somehow “extraordinary.” In these cases, acknowledgment was granted only because a woman’s social standing or extracinematic musical career was considered unusual for a woman, such as in the case of violinist Helen Ware, who toured Europe and America as a soloist and campaigned for the use of classically-informed improvisation in the cinema. Finally, very little work has been done with primary sources that covered cinema music outside of New York and Hollywood, despite the fact other parts of America boasted some of the finest motion picture theaters and largest audiences in the country during the silent era.
Melody [Magazine] for Photoplay Organists and Pianists and all Music Lovers is unusual and
important in that it included reports from correspondents across the entire United States and regularly published significant amounts of material both written about and by female
performers in the industry. Melody in particular was heavily advertised to and written for
women in the profession or considering entering into it, recognizing and treating them as the equals of male accompanists but also understanding that they were still often marginalized. The articles and letters from the few Melody issues I have been able to work with confirm that these publications contain exactly the kinds of information I seek on women’s performance practices, employment as accompanists, and professional concerns and challenges. They strongly suggest that female cinema musicians were from a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and had a variety of musical backgrounds and educational experiences, indicating that such women were not the rare few, but were in fact part of a large population of well-trained and creative female musicians. They also reveal that female cinema musicians were just as active as their male counterparts in composing original scores for films, creating compiled scores (using pre-existing music), and directing cinema ensembles. My investigation and analysis of Melody and its coverage of women in film music will constitute an essential counterpart to the current studies on silent film music that focus exclusively on men, including Richard Abel and Rick Altman’s edited volume The Sounds of Early Cinema and Altman’s Silent Film Sound; Martin Miller Marks’s Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924; and the essays that appear in Claus Tieber and Anna Windisch’s The Sounds of Silent Films: New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice. Identifying women as commercial musicians and charting their work has the potential to rewrite the traditional history of American female performers and composers as working in a rarefied environment and one in which few achieved success.
While I have conducted research at the Newberry Library, where I was able to examine
periodicals such as American Organist and numerous Midwest publications on music, and in several small archives belonging to individual women and cinemas containing materials that help fill in the lacuna of knowledge about female silent film musicians, there remains much more to be discovered. Melody is an important source in which, as my preliminary research indicates, I will be able to find out about individual cinema accompanists (through reviews, reports on performances from Boston, Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle, and other major American cities, and the regular “Let’s Get Acquainted” column, which introduced readers to cinema musicians from across the United States); the music accompanists used in accompanying different genres of silent film; and trends and news in performing in the cinema, including salary information, performance practices, instrumentation in cinema ensembles, and reviews of new music composed specifically for film accompaniment. Even the advertisements in these silent-era publications are helpful for research, as they suggest the use and gendering of instruments in cinema ensembles; document the development of mail-order educational systems for music teachers and students, many of them aimed especially at female musicians and cinema accompanists in particular; and offer evidence of women composing, publishing, and selling their music for cinema accompaniment. By examining this important publication devoted to music in the silent cinema, I hope to uncover an important part of American cultural history. This research is an essential part of my larger project on women in silent film music, and will provide other scholars with in-depth information about this period and its publications, as well as the aforementioned index of issues.
Plan of Work
If granted the Dena Epstein Award, I will spend two weeks at the Library of Congress.
During this time I will catalogue and take extensive notes on each issue, particularly articles about individual cinema accompanists; the music they used in accompanying different genres of film; and trends and news in performing in the cinema, including salary information, performance practices, cinema ensemble instrumentation, and reviews of music composed specifically for film accompaniment. The advertisements in these publications are as pertinent as the articles and pieces of sheet music, as they suggest the use and gendering of instruments in cinema ensembles; document the development of mail-order educational systems for music teachers and students, many of them aimed especially at female musicians and cinema accompanists in particular; and offer evidence of women composing, publishing, and selling their music for cinema accompaniment. I will take photographs of useful and informative visual materials, such as advertisements and the sheet music that was included in each issue (which is now mostly in the public domain), for my personal reference.
Following the research trip, I will analyze the materials for information on women’s performance practices, employment as accompanists, and professional concerns and challenges using methodologies from feminist and queer musicologies and feminist history as well as traditional methods of musical analysis, archival research, social history, and historical criticism. Based on the materials I have seen so far from Melody, I am outlining an article on the reception of female cinema musicians’ performances, compositions, improvisations, arrangements of film music, which I will have ready to submit for publication by late 2019. I believe that my research will enable me to write a second article as well, on the gendering of music that was published and reviewed in the periodicals; I hope have that study ready for submission for publication in early 2020. The information from this research will be included in my monograph on women in early cinema music. I plan to complete the monograph by late 2020.
My work as the founder and Executive Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music archive
(www.sfsma.org), an open access database and repository of silent film music, has provided me with the skills to build a similarly open access database indexing the contents of Melody. I believe that in addition to the research I am doing with this journal, making this information available for free will also enable to scholars and performers to undertake further and different kinds of research and approaches not just to Melody but to music journals and magazines, music publishing, and music-making during the early twentieth century.
(1) There is some controversy in musicology about the use of the term “silent film” and its lexicographical cousins. Many scholars object to the labeling of film during this period as “silent film,” because such film was almost never silent: it was most frequently accompanied by live music, but was at times also provided with external sound via the means of sound-on-disc, unscored sound effects (blurring the supposed line between
music and sound), and other sonic technologies that preceded the invention and widespread use of sound-on-film technology. I refer to this body of film simply as “early film” or “early cinema.”
(2) R. H. Pray, Motion Picture Magazine 7, no. 6 (July 1914): 102–103.
(3) Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1991), xvii.
(4) Ibid., xviii.