In 2016 I began researching silent film accompaniment, looking into both its history and the variety of approaches we have today. I'll share some of that work here from time to time. This is a short article by pianist Margeret Corbridge, writing in Pictures and the Picturegoer in 1920:
Reflections of a Pianist
“What an easy job yours is!”
This is what one invariably hears when telling one’s friends that the profession of kinema pianist is one’s lot.
How idly they talk! There is skill, endurance, nerve and adaptability required to meet the demands of kinema accompanying.
One is a soloist in the same sense as a leading lady appearing on the stage. The same exactness is required, the same strain and nerve is needed, and there is the knowledge that one cannot miss a few notes or bars, or skip the difficult parts as one could in the orchestra where other players drown one’s lapses.
Oh, dear no: a solo kinema-pianist is the star; she is heard by every member of the audience - she stands alone, and by doing so her feelings are usually at concert pitch, her nerves tense, and every faculty needs to be alert.
The days of the individual pianist are past, those silly, senseless, tinkly waltzes contained in obsolete ‘dance albums’ are taboo, also the aimless chords up and down the piano, ranging from one key to another. The public now demands the latest jazz, the latest song, the latest opera, and yet still demands them in the right setting.
I once heard an orchestra playing ‘The Bing Boys’ at a local kinema. Whilst the hero lay dying, amid pathos and tears they blared forth with great gusto. ‘Another drink won’t do us any harm’.
The ‘look of the thing’ undoubtedly asks for orchestras to be snugly hidden behind the velvet curtains, whereas the poor pianist, more often than not has to play a piano right under the audience’s nose, at the mercy of small boys who audibly read the title of each piece of music played and generally make themselves a nuisance.
I do think a pianist should be accorded a little more privacy - a small, sheltered nook would be welcome - and also I think the music unseen and the pianist also would add to the pleasure of the films and increase its sense of peace and mysteriousness.
The planting of a piano midway on the forward aisle, where all and sundry brush past going to their seats, is a relic of the early days of picture-going, and I still wonder why it is adopted by so many picture shows. The effect is inartistic.