Bringing sound out of silence: The orchestra and the silent film

By Dr. Rob Tomaro
Arts Correspondent and Music Director of the Beloit Janesville Symphony

Feb. 22, I will conduct the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra during the performance of three classic short silent film comedies by Charlie Chaplin at the Beloit International Film Festival: Easy Street, The Count and The Floorwalker. Synchronizing a live orchestra to a silent film is a lost art, and one that I have been working to revive.

There is something about experiencing a silent film with a live orchestra that has a transformative effect on an audience. At the end, people tell me: “I hope you don’t mind, but after a few minutes, I forgot I was listening to a live orchestra while I was watching the film.”

I am not offended. It’s a compliment. It means the musicians were in total synch with the film, and the music helped weave the spell that draws the audience into the magic world on the screen.

In the heyday of the silent era, patrons of the great movie palaces would be likely to see a comedic stage show before the film. The first silent film to be shown at the Coronado Theatre, for example, was Swim Girl Swim. Nine thousand people attended three showings of it on the day it premiered. Films in smaller theaters or in outlying areas were accompanied by an organ or pianist, but the major movie houses like the Coronado had resident orchestras.

At first, orchestra scores were mostly medleys of stock music strung together to evoke the changing moods and emotions on the screen, but later on, the film cans would arrive at the theater with printed orchestral music composed especially for the film at hand.

Chaplin composed his own scores, but unfortunately, few of them survive today. The scores for the Chaplin shorts I will conduct at BIFF are by the gifted English composer Carl Davis, who has created a one-man cottage industry in the genre, having composed dozens of restoration scores for silent classics.

Synchronizing the orchestra to the film is challenging for the conductor. As the film moves along, he/she must watch the score to conduct the musicians, while simultaneously reading written cues printed across the top of the page every few bars. “Charlie falls out the window” (a crash on the cymbal and a swoop of the clarinets). “Villain sneaks up on Charlie” (ominous tremolos in the lower strings). The conductor is flying without a net. If you’re early or late, you’re sunk. Once the film starts, it ain’t gonna slow down for you to catch up. As I tell the orchestra at the first rehearsal: “Think of it as playing for an opera company, except nobody on the stage pays any attention to you, at all.”

Come see for yourself. There’s nothing like it.

The performance will be Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Eclipse Center, 1701 S. Riverside Drive, Beloit, Wis. Reception and silent auction begin at 6 p.m., with the film starting at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $25 for all ages (plus tax and service fees for online tickets), available at or call (608) 313-1200. The event is sponsored by BMO Harris Bank and the Beloit Janesville Symphony.

Robert Tomaro is music director for life of the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra. He holds a master of arts and a Ph.D. in composition from New York University, where he served as music director of the New York University Symphony Orchestra. He has performed with premier orchestras the world over, including The London Symphony, The Slovak Radio Orchestra, The Silesian Philharmonic, The Black Sea Philharmonic, The Moravian Philharmonic, The Crakow Sinfonietta, and extensively throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Tomaro will write about the area’s classical music scene and other matters that interest him.

From the Feb. 5-11, 2014, issue

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