Enlivening Silent Films With Music

The Harvard Pops bring Chaplin classics to Lowell Lecture Hall

In frivolous summer months, symphony orchestras in major metropolitan cities put on a different face. The Boston and San Francisco Symphony’s Pops seasons present works of jazz, musicals and popular arrangements of all kinds. Not to be outdone, Harvard offers its own version in the Harvard Pops Orchestra. Last Saturday, in Lowell Lecture Hall, the orchestra performed music from the silent era, accompanied by movies starring the genre’s king: Charlie Chaplin.

Performances included Easy Street (starring Chaplin), Fatty and Mabel Adrift (starring Roscoe Arbuckle) and a compilation of Chaplin’s original movie compositions, entitled “The Reel Chaplin.” The films were projected onto a screen on the auditorium’s back wall while the orchestra played in the darkened hall. The experience of silent film with a full live orchestra was especially rare and memorable—emotions mimed by the actors onscreen are further energized by the orchestra’s proximity and musical charge.

Upon hearing the first work, “The Reel Chaplin,” it was instantly clear that the sound was too close to the audience. Given the proximity of the lower seats to the stage, no musical groups (or, at the very least, no group exceeding 10 people) should be hosted in Lowell Lecture Hall. Likewise, the angled hall’s acoustics are not at all conducive to the power of an orchestra with a prominent percussion section. During crescendos in particular, the sound reverberated off the walls and continually muddled the audience’s ears.

After “Reel,” which Assistant Conductor Michael R. Callahan ’04 led with spirited ease, Chaplin made his welcome appearance as a good old tramp in Easy Street. The inclusion of the films provided a crucial context to the music. Written entirely for the action in the film, the Easy Street music imbued the scenes with life and helped elicit smiles during the more endearing sequences.

The music for Fatty and Mabel Adrift wasn’t composed for the love story, but rather compiled from a variety of sources. Though they didn’t closely match the action in the film, the selections were well coordinated, compiled and whimsical—especially played alongside Fatty and Mabel’s farcical romance.


When the hall was illuminated for “The Reel Chaplin” the orchestra retained a sense of composure and poise. As soon as the big screen took over, however, the sound of confidence receded and the performers accepted a survival tactic. The orchestra performed their notes with less than optimal enthusiasm for musical clarity and diversity, occasionally hitting an incorrect note. The cohesiveness and refinement of sound was impeded by the inadequate venue and perhaps also the high expectations created by the large, unfamiliar audience.

Despite the artful integration of cinema and symphony, the entertainment of watching live music accompany mimes on the big screen largely derives from its novelty. Audiences naturally focus on the film rather than on the comparatively abstract musical evocations. As such, the orchestra is unusually removed from the audience, and the film distracts from its minor mistakes.

Performing popular music in the orchestral format does not carry the same expectations as performances of monumental classical works. The latter are weighed down by the sheer volume of diverse interpretations and recordings by professional groups of the highest caliber. The Pops are not played as often, and never with the fear that their composers would turn in their graves in the event of artistic disaster.

Subtleties of interpretation thus play a lesser role, especially when the music serves to accompany another work. Hence, the Pops Orchestra’s unpolished performance was of little consequence to the concert, which was a welcome change of pace.