By SHANNON O. WELLS
Several years ago, independent scholar and silent-film music aficionado Kendra Preston Leonard approached Jim Cassaro, a professor in the Dietrich School’s Department of Music, about partnering to digitize the expansive Mirskey Collection of silent-film music archived at the University.
A grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), however, fell flat. “NEH was wondering why it wasn't Pitt who was filing the grant application (and) why it was coming from someone who wasn't really associated with the material other than her interest in silent film,” Cassaro recalls.
Years later, when NEH called seeking applications for “reference resource” projects to scan and digitize historically significant collections, the Mirskey Collection’s potential re-entered Cassaro’s consciousness.
“I said, ‘Well, let's see if we can throw our hat in the ring again.’ We wrote what I thought a very strong grant proposal and filed it,” he says. “And suddenly I started getting calls from all these legislators: U.S. senators and representatives in the state legislature. One of the librarians joked, ‘Well, I guess when you get a call from the (U.S.) president, you'll know you got the grant.’”
Cassaro has yet to hear from the White House, but indeed got the two-year, $148,736 grant. Now well underway, the Mirskey Collection Digitization Project aims to process and digitize aging sheet music for silent — technically “mute” — film accompaniment held in Pitt’s University Library System’s Theodore M. Finney Music Library.
The project intends to “preserve, document and make accessible this repertoire that has been receiving a drastic upswing in academic attention and make it freely available for research, performance, public programming and exhibition,” the grant request states.
The project, set for completion by June 30, 2023, started with graduate students from Pitt’s master’s of library and information science program cataloguing and marking which sets of sheet music — some with musicians’ notations — should and shouldn’t be scanned. The collection has since been transferred to Pitt’s Digital Research Library, where a hired technician is currently “scanning away,” says Cassaro, who directs the Finney Music Library and serves as editor of Fontes Artis Musicae, the journal of the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres.
The collection was curated by Nek Mirskey, a Polish immigrant who was a violinist and conductor for his Polonia Orchestra — the house orchestra for Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Theatre. It contains around 3,000 sets of “photoplay” music — sheet music published specifically for cinema orchestra during the silent/mute era spanning 1875 to 1927. Each set averages 15 instrumental parts, adding up to 45,000 pages.
The music itself comprises original incidental pieces by American, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, German and Russian composers, arrangements of classic symphonies, ballet and opera, pop songs, ragtime and more. These scores accompanied newsreels, short films, animated movies, features, dramas and comedies and were incorporated into half-original, half-compiled orchestral scores performed for feature films.
“What Mirskey did is score the films,” Cassaro explains. “When they were received, he viewed them and scored them at that point. So he re-created original soundtracks.” Unlike modern-day soundtracks, it was common in mute films for the conductor to pull pieces he wanted for the soundtrack and piece them together to create “a whole.”
“But a different conductor might have taken different pieces and done the same thing,” Cassaro adds. “So there wasn't a standard score for a silent film. Every score was unique.”
Mirskey categorized the pieces based on the “mood” they set. “If the (film’s) mood is agitated, there's a piece … that may be used several times in different films to evoke an agitated state,” Cassaro says. “Or for a floating kind of feeling, there would be music that could be used in several different films.
“The whole thing was a puzzle — kind of putting together cue sheets about when certain pieces were to be played,” he adds. “And they were just strung together to create a soundtrack that supported the drama that was going on, or the theme of the film that was going on from beginning to end.”
Mirskey’s Polonia Orchestra graced the Metropolitan Theatre from 1916 until his death in 1927. Mirskey purchased music from publishers in Europe and America, including what are considered unique pieces such as arrangements of Wagner from the Ring cycle, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the complete A.B.C. set of photoplay music edited by film composer Ernst Luz; and a range of “national” pieces representing countries and ethnicities, including “Africana” by M. L. Lake, Gaston Borch’s “Airs de ballet: Français and Español,” and “Yankiana,” a musical take on America by T. W. Thurban.
After Mirskey’s death, the collection was donated to the Polish Collections at Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, Pa. When Alliance College closed in 1991, Pitt’s ULS received the collection.
Cassaro, who calls the original Mirskey Collection materials “pretty well taken care of,” plans to make a splash when the digitization and cataloguing project is completed.
“I'll be giving a paper on the collection at the Music Library Association's annual conference coming up in March of 2023 in St. Louis,” he says. “And I'm hoping to also do it for the International Association of Music Libraries conference in Cambridge, England, in July of 2023.”
Noting actor Gillian Anderson’s use of Mirskey Collection scores in various movies, Cassaro is hopeful next spring’s fanfare could go even further.
“There might possibly at some point be a symposium, bringing together a whole slew of scholars to talk about silent film, and then to have a performance with the film,” he says. “Gillian Anderson is an old friend of mine. I could cajole her into coming in and conducting an orchestra for one of the scores that she reconstructed.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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