Now when I say the “First” film score, I really mean the first “original” film score. Silent films had been given musical accompaniment from the very beginning, from simple tunes played on the piano, to full length arrangements of various classical works (which is in itself a huge topic of discussion, but I digress). An original film score then, is a score that was composed for a specific film, and not taken from a pre-existing source. The first score to meet this criteria was the score for La mort du duc de Guise/The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, released in 1908 and composed by the great French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921).
Saint-Saens was 73 years old when he composed this score, as he already possessed great experience in composing music for the theatre. While details on the exact process Saint-Saens used to compose the score are few and far between, his biographer Bonnerot stated that Saint-Saens wrote the music “scene by scene before the screen” and this is why the score took so long to write. Assuming this is accurate, it sounds like Saint-Saens used a process rather like the one modern film composers use. In modern cinema, film composers still to this day will write and record the music while the appropriate scenes are playing on a large screen.
A still image from the film: The Duke is being murdered
The film itself was considered rather long for its day (at an astounding fifteen minutes in length) and tells the story of the day in 1588 when King Henri III summons his rival the Duke of Guise to his chambers and has him brutally murdered.
If you wish to view the film, it has long since fallen into the public domain and is readily available online. As you listen and watch the film, note how the music plays unceasingly. This is an example of “wall-to wall” music, where the score continuously plays from beginning to end. Silent films originally took up this practice to cover up the sound of the film projector, and the habit was so ingrained by the dawn of sound film that (after the process of sound film was perfected), wall-to-wall scoring returned during the Golden era of Hollywood cinema in the 1930s through the early 1950s.
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