Detailed Sketch to the German Research Society (DFG) - Project

Theaterbilder und Musik

(Theatre Images and Music)

"There is something like acontinuity
of filmical thinking, construction and
narrative in cultural history, of the
play of light, time and space."

Siegfried Zielinski

I. Music for Pictures

According to the Theatre Dictionary from 1839, a "picture" is a "product of imagination or the visible representation of an object made possible by the medium of colour and other materials" (1). Following modern standards this definition is confusing. According to them the "picture" is mainly an effigy, whereas older conceptions conceive it - up to the first third of the 19th century - as a result of the recipient's imagination, caused by certain means such as a unified play of perspective, colours and forms. In those days the artificial worlds of the Fine Arts and of theatre continuously created a variety of imaginary spaces and landscapes views seldom known nowadays, they created pictures of abundant wealth in quality and quantity.

In a general sense the term "picture" cannot be restricted just to an optical phenomenon during the 19th century. Hardly any theatre production of the period wanted to renounce on musical accompaniment, a circumstance which expresses the same principle. Images were supposed to move the substance of emotion and the depth of the human soul. Therefore they needed music like they needed shadow, light and colours. This study should be focussed this study not on the main types of music theatre - that is opera or melodrama, ballet or song plays (Liederspiele) and theatre plays with music - but on other and less current forms of the connection of the various Arts. These connections shall become the centre of a study. The aim of this study should be to collect aesthetic and technical traces of early film music - i.e. from at least until the beginnings of narrative cinema around 1900 - and to find a unified context for them. The reason for such a restriction is mainly pragmatic for it seems difficult to evaluate the plenty of theatre music of this genre in a period of nearly hundred years, at least in relation to the complete subject matter. Only certain single aspects relating to this can be described. The dramaturgic function of music in film for instance shall be shown by single examples, as they are prefigured in the mentioned genres and as they should gain importance in the sound-movies after 1927 - if we just think of the postwagnerian technique of leitmotives used by Hollywood film composers in the 1930s.

The principal reason for centering this study on the mainly optical media of the 19th century like dioramas, panoramas, early shows of projection, and tableaux vivants as they were performed and presented in Europe and North America goes together with this question. The aesthetic function of music that was performed together with the first movies since 1895 basically corresponds to the music which accompanied the various pictorial creations in the different arts and media of the 19th century. To put it differently: the great "rupture" in the history of film music is to be made out where music becomes a precise part of the work, that is when the sound track is designed parallelly to the image. This technical innovation of the 20th century only was weakly if ever prefigured in the parallelism between accoustics and optics in the Opera. The music of the early silent movies therefore has a close resemblance to the "film-like" music of the 19th century, such as it shall be described and evaluated in context.

Music gains a special value in the different kinds of presentation of pictures, because it adds another level of meaning to the total event of the theatrical process. Now the event can be termed a performance. On the other hand music changes the picture into "theatre", caused by the aesthetics of reception and in a different way due to a structural difference of the various arts. First of all the subject matter has to be restricted because of the various systems of perception linked to the phenomena of musical sound-painting. Two basic types can be distinguished.

1. Illustrative Music and Incidental Music

Pictures of all kinds - including the intellectual images of poetry - are accompanied by onomatopoetic music in the widest sense (illustrative music). On the other hand it can be combined with musical intermezzos refering to the content of the performance (incidental music). We have to distinguish between two basic attitudes, which can be separated according to the kind of presentation or representation, that is according to the way of their performance.

a - Non-Theatrical Forms

This group consists of compositions which have a programme. Franz Liszt's "Battle of the Huns", composed after a painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, belongs to this type such as Ludwig van Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory or the Battle of Vittoria", which cannot be put into a relation with particular examples of pictures, but which might have been created by an imagination that recalls war panoramas, such as other pieces of battle music of the 19th century. Already early people complained in the reception of the corresponding medium - the panorama - that the represented townscapes and the (historically later) war sceneries remained silent. It is even reported that the silence made some viewers sick, who confronted themselves with the imaginary reality of a town like London. This makes clear, that the musical accompaniment of other pictorial media, we will deal with later, intended to work psychologically. By contrast people almost certainly missed pictures when pieces of battle music were performed and the music in the painted panoramas where the sensation was not bolstered by acoustics. A reason for the absence of sound in such panoramas might be the type of performance. Similarly to sound paintings and contrarily to the phenomena which shall be examined in this study the medium of the panorama lacked one thing first of all: the theatrical elements. When visiting a panorama the process of reception followed the techniques of perceiving the Fine Arts, and by contrast we can state: "The material artefact of Theatre does not have a separate, autonomous existence which can be laid down, like a picture or the text of a poem, but it exists solely in the process of its production." (2) Panoramas were nothing more than big-sized pictures - whose producers followed scene-painting and recurred to theatre-like requisites and lighting. But they were not theatre. The building type of the rotunda - in which the over sized paintings were exhibited - was a kind of architecture deliberately created for this medium and it cannot be linked with theatre buildings. The spectator could decide himself where he wanted to look and how long he intended to do so - as he did in the new specialised buildings for paintings and sculptures since the 1820s, the museums. The spectator walked through the exhibition, a way of reception which excluded setting the panorama to music. According to our knowledge by now only rarely acoustic or directly musical scenes were used in panoramas - in spite of the occasional demand to do away with the silence.

Chosen examples both of the acoustic and the optic medium shall be analysed in order to show that panoramas were image programmes that could not be perceived together with music and that the type of sound painting of the "musical panorama" cannot be described as theatrical. Such concepts separated from the process of a performance should be examined marginally but they introduce the real subject matter.

b - Theatrical Forms

In the perceptions of the 19th century the medium film can be considered a certain form of picture theatre that has become technically reproducible. The conditions of such a classification are of two kinds when we examine the special types of theatre in the 19th century. On the one hand the stage-like presentation marks the size of the representation - it can be assumed that in human portraits they did not fall short of a certain format of at least 1:1. On the other hand the picture event was marked by a temporal duration and it can be said there was a sort of performance. It is less important wether this performance could be preserved - like in movies or in early shows of projection but other than in theatre performances - or wether it was characterized by a varying performance. In this sense the optical media of the 19th century gain more weight in the context of this study: theatre performances outside the representation of action (see above), just those special types of theatre, diorama, pleorama (moving panorama), or representations of tableaux vivants, that correspond to the criteria of theatricality (in contrast to the panoramas).

The course of dioramas - exactly defined in time - like in Paris, Berlin and London since the 1820s and in New York since the 1840s, the cinema-like size of the stage screen in the dark room following theatre buildings - all these aspects allow to associate them to performances of "living photographies" ("Lebende Photographien"), as films were called in the early times of cinema in the German speaking area of Europe. Already early the pictures of dioramas were accompanied by characteristic noises, as the recensions prove - like for instance the noise of grating glaciers in a picture of the Alps. But they also were accompanied by music that was rooted directly in the context of the performance. At the end of showing a church interior for instance an organ was sounded. Dramaturgically these intermezzos corresponded to the incidental music in Theatre and Film. This kind of setting to music reaches back to previous theatre experiences and foretells the function of music in later movies.

The pleorama (or moving panorama) similarly becomes a precursor of the film medium through its technique, but it is mediated in another way. As it is related to the principles of movies, the diorama works with changing imaginary states, which were made possible for the first time by a refined technology, by a changing lighting of the transparent screen. By contrast the technical idea of the pleorama appeared to be nearer at hand. Screens passed the spectator, they were pulled to the right and the left and wound up again at the other end. The Rhine-pleorama in Berlin for instance gave the impression that not the screen but the boat where people sat was moving. The sound of horns supplied the musical background for this voyage along the Rhine castles. The Mississipi-panorama presented by the American Risley during his European tour in Berlin in 1851 worked similarly: the spectator looked at the moving screen in front of his eyes. A reviewer of the performance of this moving picture theatre stressed: "In order not to wear out the concentration of the spectators, we had three little breaks during the performance, filled up by piano music (which also accompanied the whole show conveniently and which refers to the single parts) [...]." (3) On the one hand the cyclical chain of single pictures corresponds to the fast succession of photographs, which the film used and at the same time the - probably freely compilated - piano music was close to the early practice of silent movies.

The use of Music, which recurs directly to the content of a representation, similar to the tones of an organ in a church picture or the sound of horns on a Rhine trip, can also be reconstructed for certain tableau vivant events, as they were established in the first half of the 19th century e.g. in Vienna or Berlin. We have to rely on the interpretation of play-bills, whose indications - especially about music - can vary in their precision. But certain things can be concluded, for instance coming to a performance of "Joseph in front of Pharao, after Raphael" in Berlin. The play-bill says: "Together with the romance from 'Joseph in Egypt' sung by Herr Bader". The titles of the same pieces of music in Operas of the 19th century clearly can differ to some extent in the various sources, so we can trust a term like "romance" only partly. A clear key to identify the performed piece of music is the named singer: Carl Adam Bader, first tenor at the Berlin opera house. The famous biblical opera "Joseph" by Etienne Méhul offers one single tenor solo in the romance style, so we can relate this piece "A peine au sortir de l'enfance" to the Raphael picture, a connotation which is also correct with regard to the contents of the picture.

2. Freely Chosen Music

Several times though the combinations of music and image in the representations of tableaux vivants were of a less compelling nature. Not always we can suppose that music was adapted exactly to the content of the representation, such as it was given by the subjects of the images. A similar phenomenon, now refering to the formal correspondence of both, can be shown by the first films shown in Berlin by the Skladanowsky brothers, just to finish the series with a later example. The attempt to reconstruct these first representations in the Berlin winter garden in the combination of music and film, could have failed due to the inadequate presumptions oriented by later film music. The instrumental parts of the score by Joseph Gungl exist. The music numbers and their temporal duration actually could not be related to the film material or lined with it. Following the conceptions of modern film music it was assumed that both media had to correspond to the same duration in time. It is more probable that people followed the principles of vaudeville theatre and treated the setting to music in a freer manner. That means they repeated the short films several times and combined them with the music in a loose way. It also could be thinkable that the film was played several times until the corresponding music number was finished. It shall be recalled that the early films were termed as "living photographies" analogously to the tableaux vivants , the living Images.

II. Methodology and Thesis

A concept of history is questioned in order to build a different history: not the focus on single dates, but continuous historical processes gain importance, as long as one is able to question the hour of birth of the movies. Based on such an opinion Helga de la Motte-Haber wrote: "The need for multi-media spectacles actually was great in the 19th century. The connection of pictures and music that satisfied mainly the enjoyment of watching rather seems to show that a kind of enjoyment of movies was possible before their technical realization." (4)

This presumption adapts itself to the remark by Siegried Zielinski quoted above and it is worthwhile to pursue it: "There is something like a continuity of filmical thinking, construction and narrative in cultural history, of the play of light, time and space." (5) The function of music in these "spectacles" has to be described and analysed. It has to be considered that such multimedia performances can be approached from different sides. And possibly their unclear classification was an obstacle to the examination of the widely spread phenomenon of tableaux vivants - although mixing different genres was not contrary to 19th century mentality. By contrast certain of the optical media were examined both in the context of film studies and art history, but the acoustic side always was neglected. Musicology finally did not connect such forms and illustration phenomena in the widest sense to the so called programme music. The description of music orientated by "images", also in the widest sense, seems to smell of unrespectability. Normally it is suppressed in the favour of concrete formal analyses in the area of instrumental music conceived in an absolute way and favouring instead the dramaturgic description of content in the area of opera. A study based on source material not analysed until now runs the risk of presenting results that are more diffuse than the customary methods of analysis. This is a circumstance that makes the study more difficult, but it should not impede this approach to music.

The relationship of the recipient to the partly mechanized representation is the focus of the study. Nevertheless the performance and the presentation follow in all mentioned cases theatrical processes, even if the actors only partly were assigned a role - this time in the tableau vivant - like in the non-narrative early cinema. On the other hand just the recipient himself assumes a certain importance in the optical media. The conception of space and the decoration of the diorama and pleorama become the main aspect offered by the institution or enterprise ( that is e.g. the owners of dioramas acting free from subventions) and the recipient himself becomes a direct element of the whole performance. In the pleorama he steps into the space of the "stage", he sits down in a requisite, i.e. the boat and the setting to music of this action is focussed on the effect of delusion. The diorama and early cinema are linked by similar intentions. The dark auditorium offers living a different reality. Music and sounds are not produced inside the images where they seem to be justified but they come from the scenic "off" in the theatrical reality. They are produced in front the screen or behind it. In any case their producers were not shown by the light, they acted aside of the virtual performance.

The "picture" or imagination of space also is formed by acoustic phenomena, especially by sounds. The flat, two-dimensional world gains a profound perspective by an acoustic scenery, that endows the performance with a new dimension. As can be shown the musicians played behind a curtain which partly covered them in tableaux vivants. This circumstance is of equal importance. The sound of music had to be integrated into the receptive behaviour in a natural way. It was included into a complete process of watching or listening and it was not to be disturbed by the visibility of the singer or the orchestra. The acoustic and the optical process of reception work parallely but at the same time on two clearly separated levels. They are linked with each other only later by the reception of the viewer. In that context we have to see the first tendencies since the 1820s to let the orchestra vanish in the later normal orchestral pit. All these observations demonstrate that it was mainly important to create a special atmosphere by certain signs, of which music can be centrally related to the term of aura.

Specific new knowledge can be expected about musical reception processes not only of simple listeners but also of the - so to put it - concerned listeners, the composers who were nothing less than recipients also of their own music and the music of their colleagues. Finally it has to be considered and discussed why - at least according to the present state of knowledge - music seldom was composed anew. Like in the early period of silent movies existing music was assembled and rearranged. By the way it seems to be nearly impossible for us to get an exhaustive survey of the culture of variations and adaptions of music in the 19th century. Historiography seems to be absorbed too deeply in the matters of the so-called autonomous music. Perhaps we might trace a pattern of justification for the missing original scores in the comparable disposition of content in the discussed media. The early cinema and the optical media of the 19th century told no stories in the strict sense like the cinema since 1900 ca., but they showed images, states and single situations, marked by the main subjects of "landscape", "architecture" and "city". - Here music was sounded outside its traditional genre: the absolute oeuvre in instrumental music and opera. The instrumental music of Beethoven - for instance the overture to "Coriolan" - was not conceived exclusively as absolute music. It had not been composed as such but it was perceived like this. But it also could be combined with new pictures and this appears to prove the wide range of perceptions of music during the 19th century. Especially coming to Beethoven's instrumental music hints become more numerous which show that it could be a significantly peculiar case - in the sense of the thoughts developed beforehand. Not only his third piano concerto was presented in Vienna in 1812 together with tableaux vivants, but precisely his "Pastorale" was both a theoretical and practical release for dealing with this subject matter. This is testified by Friedrich Mosengeil's essay "Image and sound. Dialogue of two friends of Art." from 1825. There also were several attempts at illustrating Beethoven's symphonies downright - in Düsseldorf, Wuppertal and London (in the 1860s and 70s), that is to accompany it both with stable and mobile tableaux vivants and with painted landscapes. It seems to be superfluous in this context that "high" music was sounded together with "low" music, for we cannot talk about a border between light music (so called "Unterhaltungsmusik") and serious music ("Ernste Musik").

Film music has a particular social importance in our whole film and mass culture which is strongly influenced by North America, an importance which is not even adequately mirrored by scientific concern about it. If this is correct it has to be shown definitely that the tight connection of Old and New World in the area of music and theatre was created in the 19th century. The adoption of Central European conceptions of music and art created an independent American aesthetic of film music, which in turn relevantly influences present day European culture.

Compared to the varied forms of reception it does not seem legitimate to restrict the effect of music only to the "classical" processes of the usual types and institutions - which appear to be relatively easy to analyze. Music - especially examples of film-like music in the 19th century - was situated between the different genres, maybe more than we think today. In this context it might appear to be interesting to sketch a "history of film music" of the years between 1820 and 1900, an epoch which awakens and begins to live when it is shown by documents previously little known and evaluated. Their aesthetic unity could exceed film music by far, begun by the hour of birth of film - music in 1895 up to the times of sound movies in the 1930s and 40s.


(1) R.Blum, K. Herloßsohn, H. Markgraf (Ed.), Allgemeines Theater-Lexikon oder Encyklopädie alles Wissenswerten für Bühnenkünstler, Dilettanten und Theaterfreunde. Ad Vocem Bild, Vol. 1, Altenberg and Leipzig 1839, p. 322: Ein "Bild" sei das "Product der Einbildungskraft oder die sichtbare durch das Medium der Farbe und anderer Stoffe vermittelte Darstellung eines Gegenstandes."

(2) Erika Fischer-Lichte, Semiotik des Theaters, Vol. 1: Das System der theatralischen Zeichen, Tübingen 3, 1994, p. 15: "Das materielle Artefakt des Theaters hat nicht - wie etwa ein Bild oder Text eines Gedichtes - eine von seinen Produzenten abgehobene, fixierbare autonome Existenz, sondern existiert nur im Prozeß seiner Herstellung."

(3) Supplement to Berlinische Nachrichten von Staats- und gelehrten Sachen, Edition of 24/1/1851, [p.2]: "Um die Aufmerksamkeit des Zuschauers nicht zu ermüden, werden bei der Darstellung drei kurze Pausen gemacht, die durch Pianoforte-Musik (welche auch die ganze Schaustellung angemessen und in Bezug auf die jedesmaligen Abschnitte, begleitet) ausgefüllt, [...]"

(4) Helga de la Motte-Haber, Musik und Bildende Kunst. Von der Tonmalerei zur Klangskulptur, Laaber 1990, p. 97ss: "Das Bedürfnis nach multimedialem Spektakel war allerdings im 19. Jahrhundert groß. An der Verbindung von Bildern und Musik, die vor allem die Schaulust befriedigte, meint man manchmal eher ablesen zu können, daß eine Art filmischer Genuß schon vor seiner technischen Realisierbarkeit möglich war."

(5) idem, Zur Entstehung des Films für dasKino im Spannungsverhältnis von Technik und Kultur., in: Werner Faulstich and Helmut Korte (Ed.): Fischer Filmgeschichte, Vol. 1: Von den Anfängen bis zum etablierten Medium 1895-1924, Frankfurt 1994, p. 53: "Es gibt so etwas wie eine Kontinuität des filmischen Denkens, Konstruierens und Fabulierens in der Kulturgeschichte, des Spiels mit Licht, Zeit und Raum."