The Birth of a Nation

As one of the best known (and most controversial) films made during the early years of cinema, The Birth of a Nation has a reputation as a very influential, and very problematic, feature. It also has a reputation for its original musical score. Many people who know little else about silent film scoring know that when the Klan rode to the rescue, it was to the strains of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.”


Most silent films, The Birth of a Nation included, had a wide variety of musical accompaniments during their runs in the movie theaters around the globe. Most of these musical scores are lost to history. Some scores were improvised by pianists and organists and never written down, while orchestra scores were assembled from music in the theater’s library, used for the run of the film, then sorted back into the library for future re-use, leaving no record of which pieces were used.


Prestige blockbuster films, for which The Birth of a Nation served as the original model, had a time-layered distribution pattern. First, a national tour would be conducted to large theaters in big cities, sometimes with the director or stars appearing personally, as a “road show” presentation. The music for these presentations was carefully controlled, so that a score, a conductor, or even an orchestra would tour with the film to present the “road show” score.


After the road show tour, the film—often edited to a shorter “general release” length—would go into wider distribution, with the musical accompaniment being left up to each individual theater. In this phase, that original score was usually abandoned. There were sound business reasons for this. First, the road show score was usually a lot of trouble to present compared to the established techniques each theater used for more routine films, and may not have been flexible enough to be performed with the instrumentation and musicians available. Secondly, the rental and preparation of a score that served only one picture would be a waste of the musical director’s time and money—the movie might run a week or less, then be gone forever. Theaters preferred to spend their money on “generic” library music that would be useful for years of future film scoring.


Although the scores for most silent films are lost, some information survives on three different historical scores for The Birth of a Nation.


The film first opened (under the title The Clansman) at Cluny’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, using a score compiled from classical works by the theater’s music director, Carl Elinor. While this score does not survive, a newspaper ad for the production gives a long list of classical pieces used in it, though it does not specify which pieces were used for which scenes. The pieces include such symphonic war-horses as von Suppe’s “Light Cavalry Overture,” Verdi’s “Nabocodonozar,” Beethoven’s first symphony, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” and Wagner’s “Rienzi,” as well as unspecified “incidental music.” Elinor boasts of having made a “diligent search of the music libraries of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York” to assemble the score.


While the film was being shown with Elinor’s score in Los Angeles, D.W. Griffith worked with composer J.C. Breil to prepare a different score for the premiere in New York and subsequent road tour. This score was partly composed by Breil, and partly assembled from much the same repertoire of music that Carl Elinor has access to, including “The Hall of the Mountain King” by Grieg and most famously, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.” This Breil score was described by several viewers, including a memorable passage in “Adventures with D.W. Griffith,” a memoir by Karl Brown, one of the assistant cameramen on the film. The Breil score survives in several archives, and has been recorded for previous releases of The Birth of a Nation on home video, and is included on the Kino DVD set on the supplemental DVD.


When The Birth of a Nation was revived in 1921 at the Capitol Theater in New York, the theater’s impresario “Roxy” Rothapfel had an entirely new score created, using Civil War era songs and music. This was  controversial at the time—after all, hadn’t D.W. Griffith himself approved of the J.C. Breil score? Roxy defended his choice in an article in The Musical Courier:


“The art of the musical presentation has progressed so markedly during the seven years since The Birth of a Nation was first produced, that different standards and methods of adaptation have educated the public to new musical values. In the original adaptation such selections as Rienzi, Freischutz, Ride of the Walkyrie, and Light Cavalry were used. The movie going public has since then become familiar through the medium of the motion picture theater and popular opera with these operas and the stories of these works, and their usage today in the accompaniment to Birth of a Nation would have seemed inadequate and misrepresentative.”


When approaching The Birth of a Nation, the Mont Alto Orchestra decided not to use the Breil score, for much the same reasons. I find that when music shows up that is familiar to viewers, it can distract them from the film into a different mental context, whether trying to place the piece, or remembering the last time it was heard. I feel that although such “cultural references” can sometimes be useful in comedies, such distractions do not serve dramatic films well.


A small portion of J.C. Breil’s score, a snippet that he republished as “Misterioso e Lamentoso” in 1917, made it into our score for a couple of Klan related scenes: where the Ku Klux Klan is first introduced and conducts its first terrorist act, and the scene where Ben Cameron introduces the “fiery cross” to a meeting of Klansmen.


We have many of the pieces from Carl Elinor’s list available in small-orchestra arrangements, but most of them are also very familiar now to concert goers. One exception is “Anathema,” by Von Fielitz. This piece, part of his “Songs from Eliland” cycle, is obscure to modern audiences, as well as being a very effective dramatic piece of writing, so we included “Anathema” for two scenes: Stoneman confronting Senator Sumner in his library while his housekeeper Lydia listens, and Gus’s vigilante “trial” at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.


I then scoured Mont Alto’s library for long-forgotten overtures, dance music, and salon music that would have been available in 1915. We had no trouble finding an adequate number of marches, love themes, dramatic andantes, and ceremonial music for a three-hour film. What was lacking in this repertoire was music for battles, chases, and plotting; without which you can hardly score this film. It was this shortage of music for certain highly cinematic scenes that first prompted the rise of a new category of music composed specifically for films—but mostly that came along after The Birth of a Nation, whose orchestral road shows accelerated the rise of the movie theater orchestra. Rather than rely on the excellent but over-exposed music of Grieg, Wagner, and Verdi, I decided instead to extend our range of dates as though—like Roxy—we’d been reviving the film in 1921. This made available excellent battle music, agitatos, and misteriosos by J.S. Zamecnik, Hugo Riesenfeld, Gaston Borch, M.L. Lake, and many others. We feel that this has resulted in a score that is enjoyable and fresh to modern audiences, yet is still an authentic score that could have been heard—if not at the premiere, at least at a revival—played by a theater orchestra during the silent era.




Martin Miller Marks, Music and the Silent Film, Oxford University Press, 1997.


Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound, Columbia University Press, 2004.


Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

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