The Classical Note: Silent Film Scores Offer New Trend in Classical Music

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film documentary Man With a Movie Camera, presented as part of the Dallas Video Festival, shone with special brilliance last Friday in a showing at the Dallas Museum of Art, thanks, at least in part, to Dallas-based composer Jack Waldenmaier’s new accompanying score, performed by members of local new music ensemble Voices of Change. While Vertov’s brilliant portrayal of ordinary humanity glows in its own right, Waldenmaier’s score brought engaging immediacy of this iconic twentieth-century cinematic masterpiece.

And the upcoming season will provide more opportunities to experience this relatively new branch of classical music: newly composed scores providing live accompaniment to silent film classics.

Austin-based composer Brian Satterwhite is currently completing two new scores for silent films to be performed by the Dallas Chamber Symphony. A concert on November 13 at City Performance Hall will feature his music for the 1921 comedy classic A Sailor-Made Man, to be followed by his new score for the 1920 horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to be presented at the same venue on February 26.

Satterwhite, who studied composition and film scoring at Berklee College of Music before settling in Austin, traces his interest in film music to early viewings of Star Wars and Edward Scissorhands. He’s scoring A Sailor-Made Man for small ensemble of winds, strings, percussion, and piano to match the scoring for John Adams’ Chamber Symphony of 1992, which will be performed on the same concert—except that Satterwhite has chosen to call for traditional acoustic piano rather than the synthesizer Adams requires in the Chamber Symphony.

“I wanted a sound more rooted in tradition and nostalgia,” Satterwhite says.

Satterwhite has opted for string orchestra, with its potential for eerie noise and effects, for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


Though we’ve complained a bit about the retreat to tried-and-true repertoire by the Dallas Symphony this year, at the expense of introducing works of living composers, the performance Sunday afternoon by Garrick Ohlsson with guest conductor Hans Graf of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 proved to be everything a concert performance should be, with conductor and soloist realizing the wonderful breadth of this amazing—and, for the soloist, excruciatingly demanding—score.


While the DSO takes a break from its classical subscription series for pops concerts and regional runouts, the Fort Worth Symphony will liven up a concert of old faves by Mussorgsky and Prokofiev with American composer Peter Boyer’s Festivities in concerts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Bass Performance Hall. Voices of Change, meanwhile, will mix contemporary works with a modern classic Sunday night at Caruth Auditorium when it presents music of the southwest regional finalists in the Rapido! national composition contest, along with Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and music by organ virtuoso-composer Aaron David Miller.

Image from the silent German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.