18. THE FIRST SCREEN MUSICAL?
with RICHARD GRAVES
Attention-grabbing pictures on a screen and the sound of good music to
accompany them ... this has long been held to be an infallible crowd-pulling
recipe for film directors and cinema managers everywhere. So when did it
all start? I do not pretend to have the definitive answer, but a report
in the November 15, 1842 edition of Mainzer's Musical Times suggests
an embryonic contender for the title of The First Screen Musical.
We move back in time to 1806. Francis the First, Emperor of Austria,
was having a bad time as his army was being repeatedly trounced by the French.
The Empress Maria Theresa determined to devise an entertainment which would
temporarily take her husband's mind away from such disasters. She accordingly
commissioned the Italian artist Sacchetti 'to paint her some fantastic pictures,
of which she gave him the subjects. They were executed on large plates of
glass, so as to form an enormous magic lantern'. But that was not all. She
also asked a poet to write a melodrama to link the pictures at the same
time as commissioning the composer Frederick Paër to compose suitable
music. 'The singers of the opera and the imperial chapel, and a full instrumental
orchestra, placed behind an immense white curtain, were to perform the solos,
chorus and accompaniments'.
When the Emperor entered the great hall where this was to take place,
all he saw was Paër 'alone, standing by his magic lantern'. The moment
the audience was seated, 'the lights were extinguished as if by enchantment.'
The report continues 'It is impossible to describe the transports of delight,
the shouts of applause, the loud huzzas, uttered by the Emperor himself
when they saw the images of Napoleon, Murat....Savary and many others, all
striking likenesses but under the form of devils; Napoleon and all his marshals,
like black and red devils with horns and immense tricoloured cockades on
the middle of their foreheads...showing under their embroidered mantles
not swords inlaid with gold or mother-of-pearl, but long black tails twisting
about in true diabolical fashion.'
This early animated cartoon must have made quite a show - especially
as Paër presented the whole thing with his 'gaiety of character, his
wit, humour and exquisite vein of mimicry.' He was, it is reported, 'royally
recompensed by the imperial pair: and the Emperor presented him with a magnificent
gold box, filled with something better than snuff.' This primitive forerunner
of The Sound of Music (Austria again, of course!) might have been
a bizarre affair, but it sounds fun. What a shame we don't have it on video!
Copyright © 13 July 2000 Richard Graves,
Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, UK
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