Short history of film accompaniment

Moving images were a sensation when they were first screened in 1895. Until then, the magic lantern had only suggested the movement of time. Consequently, people became fascinated by everything that moved. Numerous short films were screened at village fairs, which showed men and kangaroos boxing, dancers in butterfly dresses, devils in boxes, high streets, and trains entering railway stations. These were initially screened in tents, often with a storyteller who told the public what there was to see. It was not long before small halls were equipped specifically for showing moving images, and the cinema was born.

The presence of so many people in a dark room inevitably created tension. Therefore, soon after the birth of the cinema, local musicians, often pianists, were asked to play background music to break the silence and dampen any noises which disturbed the screening. People then realized that the impact of films would be greater if combined with music, and film music began.

Cinema Parisien Amsterdam ±1924

still from 'Le Pendu' from 1906

Yvo accompaning 'Le Pendu' on a
August Förster from 1926 at
PianoSalon Christophori in Berlin


In the first twenty years of the 20 th century, films became longer, and the subjects and stories more diverse. These longer films used inter-titles, which clarified what the actors could not say with their body language or facial expression; the reason why they had heavily made up eyes and faces. However, many people at that time could not read, so a storyteller was still required to explain. Music also became more important as a means of explaining and suggesting the outline of the story. To this end, film studios sent cue-sheets along with the copy of the film. These cue-sheets suggested which music should be played and when. Thus, libraries of film music emerged holding fragments of film music and themes, particularly for love scenes and pursuits. This music was often from well-known composers, such as Wagner, Mendelssohn and Liszt. Later on in the twenties, it was sometimes commissioned by composers such as Satie, Honneger and Shostakovitch.

Evening programmes of films, sometimes more than three hours long, were shown in film palaces in large cities, and were accompanied by large symphony orchestras and the necessary sound effects. These ensembles of orchestras and sound technicians could consist of eighty men. The same films would circulate among the smaller theatres, when a much smaller band would play the same music. However, there was usually money available only for a pianist or organ player.

storyteller Anton Groothuis & Yvo with 'The Nightcry' 1926

When cinema first began, films were heavily censored, and a complete scene could be removed because it contained a simple kiss. There were also several films endings for when a film would be shown in different countries: a happy 'Hollywood' ending for the U.S., and a dramatic, sad ending for Europe and Russia. Due to censorship and variations on story endings, films gradually became shorter. (They sometimes became longer because of translation of the inter-titles into other languages.) In order for the written music or score to fit the film, there had to be improvisation. In addition, music was frequently lost in transit, forcing the musician to come up with something, often spontaneously, making his own musical interpretation of the film. Filmmakers and scenario writers were not always happy with these 'free' interpretations and researched methods to record sound and synchronise it with the film. Ingenious machines were invented, which combined 78 rpm record players with film projectors. In 1927, optical sound was invented, which took the form of a soundtrack on a film print. Within a few years, many thousands of musicians lost their jobs. In the U.S. alone, this amounted to over 55,000 people.

Eighty per cent of the films made before 1927 are lost. An even smaller amount of film music from that period exists. Of all the early improvisationtechniques, hardly anything remains. Nevertheless, thanks to film museum archives, there are a few people who keep the art of improvisation with silent movies alive.

If you want more information about the special filmconcerts by Yvo Verschoor, please click on RESERVATIONS or send your question by e-MAIL.

still from the rediscovered film Beyond the rocks (USA 1922) with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino