Music for Silent Films


        Did you see the obituary in this week’s New York Times for Rosa Rio? This remarkable musician started her career in the Roaring Twenties as a theater organist, providing the background music for silent films. Sometimes appropriate music was suggested; other times it was up to the organist to improvise. Imagine trying to watch the film, determine whether the mood was lighthearted, scary, menacing, romantic, or whatever, and then think of something to play to accompany those scenes, always with one eye on the screen so you could shorten or lengthen the music for as long as the scene continued . . . whew!

       Here’s what Rosa Rio herself had to say about her job, in an interview with NPR done about four years before her death.

       Well, in the old days, I didn’t have a chance to see it [the movie] in advance. We had the new film; we ran it always on Monday mornings, generally a one o’clock show. And I faked it through. Then I would run out and get my music, or get ideas that I’d write down as I played. And then the next show, I did a good job. The next show I did a better job. By the time you played three shows a day, seven days a week, at the end of the week I really had it down perfect. And that was the end. And then I’d start over, all over from Sunday night, Monday again.

        So, what did Rosa Rio play when the bad guy is tying the heroine to the train track and a train is coming? Listen to her  interview, done at NPR four years ago, where she plays a few samples.

        Ms. Rio thought she was out of business when the first talkies appeared. Instead she moved to radio, providing music for series like “The Shadow.” (She plays that theme during the NPR interview too.) When radio faded, she transferred her talents to television, playing the accompaniment for TV soap operas.

       Rosa Rio was a couple weeks shy of 108 when she passed away on May 13, 2010.



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