As I planned my retirement in the paradise of southwestern Ontario (as we have been told, retirement planning requires great care), I snooped in libraries for material to work on later. A large miscellany of sheet music of unknown provenance in the Hamilton Public Library caught my attention. A substantial portion of the collection dated from the silent film years and mentally I put it on my research “to do” list. Recently it became the subject of my research seminar. I targeted music published between 1900 and 1930, roughly the end of the silent film era in Canada and the U.S., and I added music before and after those limits written by composers already encountered within the target years.
The sheet music, mostly for keyboard, voice, and small ensemble or sacred ensemble, was owned by individuals and families in the area. Most of the music did not accompany silent film—though undoubtedly some of it did—; it came from all sorts of venues and genres: vaudeville, other theatre, a plethora of dance music and related songs, patriotic music, church music, and more. Some of the composers were local, as were some of the publishers.
The students tore into the collection with zeal, and Roxanne Lafleur developed a Shared Shelf project, with a custom schema, that allowed us to record the contents and work on them further. Rapidly the inquiry surpassed the bounds of Hamilton and revealed networks of publishers and musicians, the very sort of material ideally suited to reflection and publication using the digital humanities.
The exhibits on this site illuminate not just the repertoire of an era, but many aspects of context, transmission, preferences, and musical life of the period. They cast a new light on the repertoire, styles, and performance practices of the time.
Will we find more direct evidence of the music that accompanied silent films in Hamilton? I suspect so. Reviews and notices in the Hamilton Herald (predecessor of the Hamilton Spectator) indicate that in any given year from four to six silent movie theatres employed orchestras. In the municipal library of Toronto, shelved among posters advertising theatres in this period, there is a single piece of music, a string part, with the generic silent-film label “Hurry” (used for scenes with speed and excitement) and the place in a film named by handwriting in pencil “German troops marching.” The piece has a stamp, “Nelligan / Musical Director / Hamilton Ontario”. So who was Nelligan, and where is more music of his and other Hamilton directors’ orchestras to be found? I do not know yet, but there were close connections between military bands and silent film orchestras, and on my last visit to the Hamilton Public library, a member of the staff told me that she had been the archivist for the local naval base, and she managed a sheet-music collection of over six thousand works, many of them from the silent-film era. Much gathers more.
For the team and the class,
Paul A. Merkley, FRSC
The Research Team
- Genevieve Bazinet, Ph.D., Professor, School of Music, University of Ottawa
- Roxanne Lafleur, Library and Audiovisual Support Specialist, University of Ottawa Library
- Paul A. Merkley, PhD, FRSC, Professor emeritus, Music, University of Ottawa
Exhibits and Exhibitors (students of the seminar MUS 4301, School of Music, Fall 2017)
The students entered the metadata in Shared Shelf, published selected records to Omeka, and prepared the exhibits featured on this site.
- Kathryn Anderson
- Benjamin Borg
- Avery Brzobohaty
- Yvonne Cox
- Karl T. Feuerstake
- Dan Luo
- Jasmine Massé
- Tyler Pasta
- Michelle Pelletier
- Karim Rostom
- Amy Short
- Alson Tsoi
- Jack Vandermeer
- Sarah Veber
- Allen Zhou
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