Filmmuseum Potsdam; F: J. Leopold (FMP)
Filmmuseum Potsdam; F: J. Leopold (FMP)

» Welte Cinema Organ

Lecture: Music on the Welte Cinema Organ

Music on the Welte Cinema Organ
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Thiel

In this country, the sound of large pipe organs is mainly associated with church ceremonies. But even in centuries past, the "queen of instruments" was used for concerts and entertainment.
The theatre organ of the 19th century accompanied melodramatic scenes. Later, the building of organs oriented towards the sound of the romantic symphony orchestra paved the organ's way into the cinemas.
Unlike the "black-and-white" sound of the piano, the cinema organ with its "colour" was able to complement and suitably represent the strings, horns, percussion and sound effect registers of a live orchestra during the silent film era.

"For the cinema band is playing! Playing continuously, on and on, eight hours long, and then staggers home, pale as a corpse with weariness", it was said in an essay on cinema music already in 1916. Up to the 1920s, the job in a film theatre, despite being well-paid, did not count much among serious musicians, even though cinema architects of these days imitated the bourgeois theatre and cinemas took on resounding, exotic names, like the "Luxor Cinema Palace" in Chemnitz. The remaining cinema organs spent parts of the 1960s and 1970s as sleeping beauties before interest in the peculiar sound of these instruments grew again.

The two concert programmes by English organ virtuosi William Davies and Simon Gledhill from 1994 and 1997 and the studio production by "resident organist" Helmut Schulte contain potpourris from Frederick Loewe's successful piece "My Fair Lady", George Gershwin tunes and the song "It's De-Lovely" from Cole Porter's musical comedy "Red, Hot and Blue" (1936) - all of them Broadway classics. Still, less famous people currently also represent parts of silent film music history, such as, e.g., the Hungarian Ernö Rapée (1891 - 1945) with his tune "Diane". In 1925/26, he was cinema bandmaster at the Ufa Palace at Berlin Zoo and later in big New York movie theatres. "Rapée, accompanying films or playing film-related music, is first-class and unmatched in Berlin ... What a precision in film accompaniment!", prominent theatre critic Herbert Ihering noted in 1926. Ernst Fischer (1900 - 1975) became a silent film organist in Berlin and, in 1926, writer of "Kinotheken-Piecen". In 1936, this composer of superior entertainment music wrote the now popular orchestra suite "Südlich der Alpen", the tarantella of which concludes this CD as a whirling finale. The "Harlem Nocturne" was penned by adept American TV composer Earle Hagen. The recordings of selected pieces of the music from the three-piece film romance "Melody of the Heart" (1919) are the first of their kind. It is the story of a much-admired film diva (leading actress Ada Svedin) and a poor composer who, with his "anxiously longing" waltz "Heart Melody", conquers the initially prudish beauty.

Composer Otto Tilmar-Springefeld (1880 - 1954), who later on wrote several silent film operettas for the Berlin-based company Notofilm, composed pleasant lounge and operetta music in the Paul Lincke tradition. The director was Ludwig Czerny, who was both the founder and the director of the above film company. Czerny dedicated himself "in particular to the study of the synchronisation of moving images with accompanying music and, in 1919, after a long series of tests, invented the Notofilm system, which transfers the music's leading melody onto the projected image via a reel of notes" (1922). Since 1993, Helmut Schulte from Potsdam has been the master of the keys, pedals and registers. From his practical work as a cinema organist emerged the clownish "Slapstick-Rag" with which the enthusiastic jazz musician accompanied many a "Laurel Hardy" film to the amusement of the audience.