By Marco Ladd
One of the many challenges that music in very early cinema poses to historians is the way it seems to fall between two metanarratives. It’s well known that cinema—as technology, as spectacle—emerged from a nineteenth-century fascination with optical illusions, and from experimentation with technologies that sought to capture and reproduce the work of the human sensorium. Still, taken as a whole, the birth of the cinematic medium is apt to be seen as the quintessential marker of advancing modernity: cinema is the “eye” of the twentieth century, as the film scholar Francesco Casetti puts it, not the nineteenth . By contrast, the sounds that accompanied this marvel of a new age, at least in its first few decades (c. 1895–1925), are usually written of (and sometimes written off) as the residue of nineteenth-century culture. Scholars generally agree that the sonic profile of the earliest cinema was that of the entertainment spaces in which films were exhibited: old stalwarts such as the vaudeville theatre and the café-concert. And when cinema was eventually reconceptualised as a medium for telling stories, some 5–10 years after it had exploded onto the world stage, the musical accompaniment that it inspired drew heavily on various forms of musicalized theatre—melodrama and pantomime above all. Poised precariously at the cliff-edge of modernity, then, early cinema is a twentieth-century medium trailing nineteenth-century soundscapes along with it. Certainly, the notion that sounds were the embarrassing, unmodern layer of a sophisticated, modern, essentially visual cinematic spectacle persisted well into the new century.
With early film music, then, cinema seems to open a window onto nineteenth-century soundscapes. Or, conversely, those soundscapes seem to hold the key to understanding what music might have been like in the earliest film projections. But there is a sense in which this reciprocal promise of illumination is a work-around for the lack of sources attesting to the sounds of early exhibition. Knowing that early cinema in the U.S. found a home in the vaudeville show is not the same as having sources that tell us exactly what music was used, and how, and when. These problems are only magnified when we talk about the very earliest cinema, the years when the Lumière brothers exhibited their famous cinématographe to marvelling audiences across the globe. Take, for instance, their very first exhibition of the new technology for paying customers, which took place on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café in Paris—symbolically the birth of cinema itself. Film music scholars have long known that a pianist named Emile Maraval was involved in this first series of Lumière exhibitions, if perhaps not the very first night. Maraval’s possible presence at this First Night of cinema is tantalizing, strengthening the claim that music—and sound more broadly—were integral to cinematic exhibition right from the get-go . But as Julie Hubbert and James Wierzbicki have pointed out, we have no idea what Maraval played. Was he “accompanying” the short films while they were projected? Or playing between them? Or something else? As Wierzbicki notes, “it is at least within the realm of possibility that M. Maraval provided music simply to usher crowds in and out of the viewing room” .
Similarly elusive are the earliest cinema exhibitions on the Italian peninsula. The cinématographe came to Italy early, just a few months after the first Parisian demonstration, in exhibitions sponsored by Lumière distributors and operators. Thus on March 12th, 1896, Lumière films were shown in Rome at the home of a renowned photographer; in Milan, it was March 29th, at a photography club . And on March 30th, three months almost to the day after the first Grand Café soirée, the cinématographe was exhibited at the Salone Margherita in Naples. For music scholars, this is the most interesting of the three events, for the Salone Margherita was unequivocally a venue for musical performance: a café-chantant, to be exact, a type of establishment offering refreshment and entertainment that had emerged in Paris long before. In the late 1800s, Naples was the epicentre of an Italian belle-époque culture, in a distinctly Parisian mould. The Margherita, built at the very heart of the Galleria Umberto I (a new shopping arcade) had opened its doors in 1890 with the intention of emulating—and bettering—the fabled nightlife of Montmartre. Everything, from menus to billboards to the language of service, was in French; the venue was also one of the first in Italy to feature a chorus line of can-can dancers. It was a place where intellectuals, journalists, writers, poets, and songwriters mingled with aristocrats, industrialists, and the movers and shakers of society. Small wonder that it was one of the first to play host to the Lumières’ new-fangled moving pictures, then at the cutting edge of French culture.
Music, then, would certainly have been present in the Margherita on the evening of this first Lumière show. In fact, we know that at a showing just a few days later the cinématographe was sandwiched between acrobats and snake charmers, French music hall artists and German singers . More broadly, the venue would have had a musical signature all of its own: for, in emulation of the French chanteuses whose sentimental ballads gave the café-chantant its characteristic sound, the Italian caffé-concerti (like the Margherita) bred their own, homegrown sciantose. Though the sciantose would have had a repertoire of popular song in Italian, they were also at the heart of a specifically Italian tradition then at the peak of its Golden Age: Neapolitan song. The origins of this musical tradition lay distantly in folk song, but its modern history had begun in 1833 with the founding of the yearly Piedigrotta song festival. Artistically sophisticated and commercially successful, by 1896 Neapolitan song was on the verge of becoming one of the mainstays of the early phonograph record industry. In a way, its trajectory correlates with that of the cinema, and the idea that the two art forms unfolded in parallel is an alluring one, nineteenth-century fixations being subsumed by twentieth-century pressures.
And yet, the gap remains: the gap between knowing something about the sonic environment of this singular Italian exhibition space, and identifying the effects that the Salone Margherita’s sounds may have had on the development of a characteristically cinematic mode of musical accompaniment a decade later. Filling that gap remains the challenge: one that will hopefully begin to be solved as scholars of Italian music and sonic cultures of the nineteenth century leave the seductive song and bright lights of the opera house, and step across the street—if only for one night—to the cabaret.
1. Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity, trans. Erin Larkin with Jennifer Pranolo (New York, 2008).
2. Julie Hubbert, ed., Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011), 2–3.
3. James Wierzbicki, “The Silent Screen, 1895–1924,” in Sound: Dialogue, Music, and Effects, ed. Kathryn Kalinak (New Brunswick, N.J., 2015), 15–36; esp. 18–19.
4. Aldo Bernardini, Cinema italiano delle origini: Gli ambulanti (Gemona, 2001), 10–14.
5. Giuliana Bruno, “Streetwalking around Plato’s Cave,” in Feminisms in the Cinema, ed. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995), 146–67.
Marco Ladd is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, having previously studied at Yale University and the University of Cambridge. He is currently working on a book about film music in Italy during the silent era.