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The first Cleveland Silent Film Festival honors music pioneer J.S. Zamecnik

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Daniel Goldmark
Cleveland-native J.S. Zamecnik was one of the unsung heroes of early 20th century music, composing popular songs, chamber pieces, and most notably, film music.

The first-ever Cleveland Silent Film Festivalbegins Feb. 13, with a concert honoring one of the giants of early movie music.

At the very first Academy Award ceremony in 1929, Best Picture went to the silent film, “Wings.” Unlike today, there were no categories for anything sound-related, but there was an original score to go with the movie. J.S. Zamecnik wrote the music for orchestras, which provided the live soundtrack in theaters across the country.

Zamecnik was born in Cleveland to Czech immigrants 150 years ago and eventually studied under Antonin Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory of Music. On his return to Cleveland, he found a city bustling with shows that needed music, as well as a robust music publishing industry led by songwriter and entrepreneur, Sam Fox.

“Fox focused on songs that had a kind of emotional or descriptive feel,” says Daniel Goldmark, director of the Center for Popular Music Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He says the sheet music industry grew from the needs of amateur pianists.

“So, you go to the store. They play it, and ‘oh, that sounds like a meadow in the spring. Or it sounds like a chase through the desert. Or it sounds like this.’ And you take it home and you play it. They were one of the first publishers to really capitalize on this idea of music made specifically to be used in film,” Goldmark said.

Setting the mood
Setting “moods” was integral to film music in the silent era, something which Zamecnik pioneered in his work both for Fox and for shows at The Hermit Club, a group in Cleveland for people who appreciated and participated in the performing arts.

“They were doing what a lot of places were doing in the early 1900s, which is that they were having musical revues," Goldmark said. These are not nearly as developed as a Broadway show that we might think of now. They would usually have the thinnest of plots: the Hermits go to the South, the Hermits go to France, [or] the Hermits go to California. The songs were super topical, so topical, actually, that within a month or two they might be moot.”

One of Zamecnik’s more enduring songs was “Neapolitan Nights,” from the 1928 film “Fazil.” By then, the composer had moved on from the stages and nickelodeons of Cleveland to Hollywood.

“There's a new kind of synergy between the music publishers and the film makers when they realize if they put a theme in a film ,and the orchestra or the band plays it, it’s going to sell sheet music and it's going to sell recordings,” Goldmark said.

Zamecnik retired in the 1930s and passed away in 1953, by which time a whole generation of composers had grown up hearing his music.

“His music shows up in films and cartoons for years and years and years, long after Zamecnik is gone. So, when I first encountered Zamecnik, listening to Looney Tunes in reruns in syndication on Saturday mornings, I go back and find out that the music is basically 90 years old and that it had a completely different purpose before it shows up in cartoons," Goldmark said.

“The stereotypical villain music—Zamecnik did not write that. It actually is a mid-19th century piece that was written to use with melodramatic plays. But that shows up, just like everything else, and Zamecnik wrote a half-dozen pieces that sound exactly like that. That's what all these composers did; they’re basically taking the classics and twisting them slightly.”

And that’s largely why Zamecnik’s name is not better-known today. But on Sunday, Goldmark hopes to change that with a program of chamber works, film music, and popular songs by the composer.

“The concert’s going to feature some of the stuff he’s least-known for, which is not saying much because very few people know name in the first place. At least one of the pieces in the program is one of his student pieces, so we can hear what he sounded like very early on in his career.”

Silent Film Festival
The Silent Film Festival is part of a year-long initiative from the Cleveland Arts Prize. To mark the 60th anniversary of its annual awards, they've teamed with the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society for a citywide Celebration of Cleveland’s “Past Masters”: individuals from this region who were doing largely original creative work here, in many cases winning national acclaim, in the years and decades before 1961, when the Cleveland Arts Prize began giving its annual awards.

The festival begins at 3 p.m. Sunday with "From Hermit Club to Hollywood: A Concert of Music by Zamecnik and Dvořák." The program includes Zamecnik chamber works written during studies with Dvořák in Prague, colorful highlights from Zamecnik’s photoplay music, which will also be accompany scenes in "Sunrise," next Sunday at the Cinematheque, as well as a masterwork from Dvořák’s American period. The concert will take place at the Hermit Club theater in Playhouse Square (1629 Dodge Ct.), the organization with which Zamecnik began his theater music career.

Performers include members of the Cleveland Orchestra along with Rodney Sauer, music director of The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, an ensemble nationally known for its definitive interpretations of historic film scores.

Throughout the week, four silent classics featuring music by Zamecnik will be shown at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque and Oberlin’s beautifully restored Apollo Theater, three of them accompanied live by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Their director and chief arranger, Rodney Sauer, is working with students enrolled in a class at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on the art of locating, choosing, arranging and performing historic silent movie music. He has also been invited to lead a workshop at the Cleveland Institute of Music. On Friday, Sauer will be the featured speaker at a Case Western Reserve University colloquium to which the public is invited.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.