Hugo Riesenfeld: Silent Composer

Composer Hugo Riesenfeld (1879-1939) was a character at once interesting and pivotal to show business history, foundational to the early movie industry.

Born in Vienna, Riesenfeld graduated from the Society of the Friends of Music Conservatory at age 17, trained in violin, piano, and composition. In his youth, he played with the Vienna Philharmonic and was in a string quartet with Schoenberg. Then he came to the States. From 1907 through 1911 he worked for Oscar Hammerstein as concertmaster for the Manhattan Opera Company. Then from 1911 to 1914 he conducted for road companies of Klaw and Erlanger musicals, followed by the Broadway show Queen of the Movies (1914).

The turning point came in 1915 when Riesenfeld was hired by Jesse Lasky to compose a score for his famous screen adaptation of Carmen. Riesenfeld was deeply involved in the film industry for the rest of his life, but one finds the silent years especially interesting. It’s not widely known or remembered, but the word “melodrama” initially referred to the fact that the action in dramatic stage plays were underscored. The Greek root is the same as the one for “melody”: μελωδία. When silent films came into being in the late 19th century, it was only natural to give them live accompaniment, and they almost invariably did, ranging from a single piano or organ to a full orchestra. Then, when feature films started to become common mid-way through the teens, a special attraction became original scores composed especially for the films. As reels were sent around the country, so was the sheet music. Riesenfeld was front and center of this new process. Simultaneously, for many of those years (1916-1925), he conducted live orchestras at the cinemas that showed those films under the management of Roxy Rothafel. His early scores included such major films as Joan the Woman (1917), Sahara (1919), The Covered Wagon (1923), The Ten Commandments (1923), Grass: A Nation’s Battle for LIfe (1925), The King of Kings (1927), Sunrise (1927), and Old San Francisco (1927).

Riesenfeld was also one of the first to be involved in sound films, collaborating with Lee De Forest on his Phonofilms, as well as a subsequent venture called Red Seal Pictures (1923-27). When sound became the norm in motion pictures he worked constantly as a composer, conductor, arranger and musical director for scores of pictures. Many of his recorded settings were frequently reused as stock music during his lifetime and long afterwards. Riesenfeld also wrote music for the Broadway shows Betty Be Good (1920) and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

To learn more about show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.