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The Music of the Theatre Organ


Theatre organs were designed to be the most versatile musical instruments of their time. They were capable of rendering all types of music and of imitating most sounds of man, nature or machines. As we have seen, their initial purpose was to provide background music and sound effects for silent films. They were also played for featured solo segments in the evening's entertainment, and this became their prime function once sound films became established.

In this section we look at how they were used to fulfil these rôles and the types of music that were played on them.

Music for Silent Films



From the earliest days, silent film performances were anything but silent. Music was regarded as an essential enhancing factor, intensifying the dramatic and emotional impact of what was depicted on the screen. Whether that music was provided by an orchestra, a small instrumental combination, an organ or a piano, its skilful selection and performance could redeem an inferior film or heighten a powerful drama into a total entertainment experience.

Organs were used to substitute for or to supplement orchestras. When used solo, the organist enjoyed far greater freedom than the orchestral conductor to follow the action on the screen, as, unlike an orchestra, he was free to improvise and was not tied to a pre-chosen musical score. It was this flexibility, coupled with the huge range of tone colours at his or her disposal, which gave the organist an immense advantage in the skilled task of accompanying silent films.

Silent films are rarely seen these days, and there are few practitioners of their accompaniment - indeed, this has almost become a lost art. It is therefore worthwhile looking in detail at what that art involved.

In 1921, Fred Mumford, Musical Director at the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney, wrote an extensive article, entitled "Music and the Photoplay: Their Combination as a Means of Effective Entertainment", in which he answers at length the question "What is the right kind of music to play?". He writes from the perspective of Musical Director of a cinema orchestra, but the principles he espouses applied equally to organists:

F. Rowland Tims, organist at London's Capitol Theatre, wrote about his profession as follows:

 [F Rowland-Tims, The Cinema Organist's Work, article in "The Complete Organ Recitalist", ed. H. Westerby, Musical Opinion, London, 1927, p. 333]

How Mr Rowland-Tims applied these techniques is illustrated in a listing of some of the music he used to accompany the film "Her Man-o'-War", set just behind the lines in World War I. The love theme used was Savine's "Twilight Hour", and was used about nine times in all:


Film Scenes - Music - Composer

1 Village Scene - Prelude (Norwegian Scenes) - Matt

2 Big Guns Firing - Caesar - Beece

3 Underground Tunnel Found - Pizzicato Mysterioso - Langey

4 Two Men Creeping - Misterioso Dramatico - Fauchey


32 Germans Arrive - Nature's Prelude - Kempinski

33 Court Martial Scenes - Capriccio Italien - Tschaikowski

34 Girl Talks with Lover - Children's Intermezzo - Coleridge-Taylor

35 Girl Re-enters Court Martial - Pagoda of Flowers - Woodford Finden

36 Girl Kneels Before Picture - "Only a Smile" - Zamecink

37 Girl Hurries Away - Andante - Gabriel Marie

38 Girl Discovered at Wireless - p.39 - Wm. Axel

39 Men Burrowing Underground  - Storm Music No. 10 - Zamecinck

40 Soldiers Enter  - Prologue  - Marie Ourdine

41 Girl Meets Lover - Love Theme - Savine

The music also included Wolstenholme's "Air du Nord", and Crackell's "Caprice in G Minor" for the organ.

 [F Rowland-Tims, The Cinema Organist's Work, article in "The Complete Organ Recitalist", ed. H. Westerby, Musical Opinion, London, 1927, p. 337]

Not all organists and pianists were as skilful as Mr Rowland-Tims, who held the coveted F.R.C.O. diploma, nor were they as diligent or as resourceful in their choice of music. Most were, however, had a repertory somewhat larger than that of "Harpo" Marx, who played the piano for a short while in a silent picture theatre:

[Julius "Groucho" Marx, "The Marx Brothers Scrapbook", written with Richard J Anobile, Darien House, New York, 1973, p.12].

The film-makers were aware of that the accompanimental music had the potential to enhance or to destroy the impact of their product, and it was not long before many of the major films were distributed with cue sheets suggesting suitable music. A typical sheet for the 1910 Edison film "Frankenstein" read as follows:

At opening: Andante - "Then You'll Remember Me"

Till Frankenstein's laboratory: Moderato - "Melody in F"

Till monster is forming: Increasing agitato

Till monster appears over bed: Dramatic music from "Der Freischütz"

Till father and girl in sitting room: Moderato

Till Frankenstein returns home: Andante - "Annie Laurie"

Till monster enters Frankenstein's sitting room : Dramatic - "Der Freischütz"

Till girl enters with teapot: Andante - "Annie Laurie"

Till monster come from behind curtain: Dramatic - "Der Freischütz"

Till wedding guests are leaving: Bridal Chorus from "Lohengrin"

Till monster appears: Dramatic - "Der Freischütz"

Till Frankenstein enters: Agitato

Till monster appears: Dramatic - "Der Freischütz"

Till monster vanishes in mirror: Diminishing Agitato

 [Quoted in "Sounds for Silents", by Charles Hoffmann, DBS Publications, New York, 1970, p.p. 14-15]


Although music was certainly an attraction to audiences, it was rare ideed for theatres to include details of the selections in their press advertisements, but in 1915, a theatre in Los Angeles did when showing "The Clansman", the original title of the film now known as "Birth of a Nation". Obviously much care and thought had been devoted to the musical side of the programme.  One wonders how often at that time a musical director would view a film 84 times to select the music.


As time passed, the cue-sheets supplied became more imaginative and detailed, as illustrated by that produced in around 1920 for "Rose of the Wild":

 No. Min. (T)itle or (D)escription Tempo Selections

1 1½ At screening 2/4 Allegro Farandole - Bizet

2 1¾ T-Rosamond English 4/4 Moderato Rose in the Bud - Foster

3 1¼ D-Harry leaves boudoir 2/4 Allegro Farandole - Bizet

4 1 T-For two months no word came 4/4 Allegro furioso Furioso No.1 - Langey

5 1¼ T-Then the survivors returned 4/4 Tempo di marcia The Rookies - Drumm

6 1½ D-Rosamund and Berthune 3/4 Andante sostenuto Romance - Mildenberg

7 3 T-After a time 2/4 Allegretto Canzonetta - Herbert

etc., etc.

[Quoted by E Lang and W West, "Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures", Boston Music Co., Boston, 1920, p.60]


By the mid 1920s, special scores were written for the most prestigious films, by composers such as Erno Rapée, Hugo Reisenfeld, Mortimer Wilson, etc. Some even incorporated silhouette pictures of the action on the screen. Many of these film scores incorporated melodies which soon became popular songs. Some songs still known today, such as "Smilin' Through", "Ramona", "Charmaine" and "Diane" began their existence as portions of scores for silent films.

The above extract is taken from the printed score that was provided with prints of "Birth of a Nation".  The theme ("Amoroso") has since become a theatre organ classic under the title "The Perfect Song"

When a film did not have a score or cue-sheet, organists would have to turn to their own libraries. Many music publishers produced huge ranges of music suitable for films, often specially written for that purpose, and many lists were published in books and periodicals suggesting lists of music categorised by moods.


Perhaps the most extensive of these was Erno Rapée's "Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures", which contained over five hundred pages of lists of titles indexed by moods, with plenty of blank lines for organists to add their own selections as well. If an organist wanted music for an Abyssinian scene, he would be referred to Laurendeau's Shoe March and the National Song (which could be found in the Mammoth Collection). For "Pulsating" music, whatever that might be, two dozen titles were suggested, including three by Grieg [Erno Rapée, "Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures", Belwin, New York, 1925].

"Moon Madrigal" from "Cinema Gems - Concert Collection for Orchestra", published c. 1913


There could have been few theatre organists who did not keep handy at the console a copy of Rapée's "Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists".

This weighty volume contains nearly seven hundred pages of music, not only grouped by mood categories, but with an index to 52 moods along the edge of each page , so that the organist could turn quickly to the appropriate page for the next scene. Much of the music was from classical composers (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Wagner and Bizet, to name but a few). Other pieces were written by such as Otto Langey and Gaston Borch specifically for silent film scenes. It even contains such esoterica as the National Hymns of Uruguay and Venezuela. There was hardly a scene which could appear on the screen which at least one piece in the book could not fit [Erno Rapée, "Motion Picture Moods for Pianists and Organists", Schirmer, New York, 1924].

Although today, the stereotypical silent film music seemed to comprise "Hearts and Flowers" for the romantic scenes and Rossini's overture to "William Tell" for action or chase scenes, the truth was that a very wide range of classical music formed much of the basis of film accompaniments, supplemented by drawing room pieces and popular ballads, and some music specially written, particularly for "creepy business", "hurrys" and fights.

[Sandy Macpherson, "Sandy Presents", Home & Van Thal, London, 1950, p. 44]


We have seen above how F. Rowland Tims was a proponent of closely fitting the changing scenes on the screen. There were differing opinions on whether close-fitting or general background music was the more appropriate:


 [Herbert Westerby, "The Complete Organ Recitalist", London, 1927, p. 357]

Dr Tootell, mentioned above, published in 1927 a useful handbook, "How to Play the Cinema Organ, A Practical Book by a Practical Player", in which a complete chapter is devoted to the subject of how to extemporise a film accompaniment [Dr George Tootell, "How to Play the Cinema Organ", Paxton, London, 1927, pp. 87-103].

Naturally, when a cartoon or slapstick comedy film was being screened, the organist could give free rein to his or her imagination. The stock-in-trade was current or well-known popular songs whose titles echoed the action on the screen. For these films, classics were not generally very suitable, and jazz and rhythmic tunes held sway.

It was in comedy films in particular that the organist could really have fun with sound effects, either those built into the instrument, or those he or she could conjure up. A "prat fall" without a bass drum "thump" was like strawberries without cream. Reginald Foort described using a glissando on the tuned sleigh bells to create the sound of someone heaving a brick through a shop window [Reginald Foort, "The Cinema Organ", 2nd. edition, Vestal Press, Vestal, New York, 1970, p. 38]. Organists could produce sounds of snoring, dogs barking, trains, cars crashing, etc., most realistically, and some would even devise special mechanisms to produce special effects of their own. The most common of these was a piece of bicycle inner tube fitted over a high pressure wind outlet; this produced a flatulent noise of extreme vulgarity - in classical terms a "Voix Framboise"!

Organist C Roy Carter, of Los Angeles, compiled a booklet, describing in detail how to create the sounds of snoring, laughter, a kiss, a train, an aeroplane, thunder and rain, a steam whistle, a police whistle, a prize-fight gong, a dog bark, a dog yelp, a cat meow, a lion roar, a cow's moo, a rooster crow, a pig grunt, a cuckoo, bag pipes, a music box, a banjo, a hand organ, a harmonica or accordion and a typewriter!

Organists did not always have the opportunity to preview the films. It was in situations such as this that the use of effects in particular could lead to problems. The hero might approach the heroine's front door, digit extended to ring the bell. The organist would then produce a resonant "Avon" ding-dong, only to see, to his dismay, the hero turn away, the bell unrung! I also recall an organist describing how in a scene the heroine ran to a church tower to ring the bells as an alarm, whereupon he produced a magnificent peal, only to see on the screen the title "But the bells did not ring"!

Such were the joys, and the pitfalls, of accompanying silent films.

Nor were matters much less exciting when the early talking films arrived. These and the primitive sound equipment were notoriously unreliable, and the organist would have to sit at the console for hours on end, bored witless, waiting for the moment when the sound broke down, and he would have to take over the sound portion until the apparatus could be cajoled into functioning again.


Interludes and Intermissions


It should not be imagined that the theatre organist's rôle was limited to the accompaniment of silent films.  Most people under the age of about 40 would have little idea of what a night out at the picture theatre used to mean.  Today, attendance at a multi-screen cinema "complex" means sitting in a depressing (albeit reasonably comfortable) room with a screen at one end, that in most cases is not equipped with curtains, let alone a stage.  A single film is preceded by a few minutes of advertisements and previews of forthcoming "presentations", and that is the whole "show".

Things were very different in the heyday of theatre organs.  There would usually be a "feature" film and another "supporting" film, together with a newsreel, cartoon, and, where there was an organ, a solo "intermission" played in the spotlight, and usually with the console raised on its lift to stage level, of perhaps fifteen minutes.  Where there was an orchestra, that would also play a concert selection, frequently with the organ playing along with it.  The largest Australian theatres, such as the Regents and States, would present elaborate stage shows and ballets, which the organ and/or orchestra would accompany.

The Regent, Melbourne, Organ and Orchestra

A contemporary report, somewhat supercilious (or maybe just tongue-in-cheek), appeared in "The American Organist" in the 1920s. It illustrates the kind of show that the American organists and musical directors who came to Australia to inaugurate the great picture theatres brought with them.  The picture theatre described boasts "A symphony orchestra with chief conductor and his assistant, an organ (probably costing $500,000), with chief organist and his two assistants, a stage crew..."  The house presents "De-Luxe shows and just-shows":


The demise of silent films was soon followed by the Depression years of the 1930s, and it was not long before the cinema orchestras were disbanded, although a few stage bands survived tenuously through that decade.  Organs that were no longer needed to accompany films, became an entertainment feature in their own right.  Their players were soon celebrities, their popularity enhanced through their being featured on the radio, both locally and nationally.  Organ intermissions included elaborate slide presentations on screen to illustrate the music being played, or to provide the words so that the audience could sing along with popular songs.

Organists would tax their ingenuity to create each week a new presentation, some playing in the same theatres to the same audiences for twenty years or more.  Novelty tunes would feature one week, light classics another.  Some organists (with varying vocal talents and consequent success) would sing into the console microphone while they played.  In the Sydney suburbs, organists would move around the Western Suburbs circuit's handful of organs on a rotating basis every few months, so audiences enjoyed the skills of a range of players over a year or two. Sometimes an instrumentalist, dancer or singer would add their skills.

In 1933, British organist Reginald Foort wrote an interesting and very relevant article about how he devised and presented organ interludes:

Sydney critic Ronald Roberts expressed some views on interludes in 1939:

Ronald Roberts had a regular column in which he frequently described what the organists in Sydney's suburban cinemas were playing in their interludes in the late 1930s.

To conclude our examination of the varied repertory and performance techniques by theatre organists in the 1930s and 1940s, here follows the text of a report by Ronald Roberts of an interview he had with organist Denis Palmistra in 1940, that sums up the issues and ends with words of sound advice:

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