Silent No More: Columbus Composer’s New Score Brings Chaplin Film to Life

Feb 18, 2017

Classical 101 went to the picture shows Thursday morning with brand-new music written by a Central Ohio composer for a classic Charlie Chaplin film.

Ching-chu Hu, Richard Lucier Endowed Professor of music at Denison University and composer of a full-length score for 1925 Chaplin film "The Gold Rush," visited the Classical 101 studios Thursday morning to talk about his new work in the run-up to its Saturday performance by the Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra.

Also joining us in the studio was Mark Bartley, director of orchestral activities at West Texas A&M University, and a conductor with an abiding interest in bringing silent films to life with music.

Hu and Bartley met at a music institute in China in 2004. Around that time, Bartley started conducting scores to accompany screenings of silent films. Here they talk about how the project for Hu to compose a new score for "The Gold Rush" came about:

Hu also allowed us to pick his brain and learn about how he approached putting new music to a classic film. He said he mainly just tried to stay out of Chaplin’s way.

Listen to this bit of our interview and a clip of Hu’s music – performed by the West Texas A&M University Symphony Orchestra under Bartley’s direction – for the bear scene from his score for "The Gold Rush."

As dramatic as Hu’s “bear scene” music is, elsewhere the score is by turns, light, romantic and wistful. Here, Hu sets up the scene in the Monte Carlo dance hall, where his music accompanies by turns dancing and merrymaking, then some love intrigue as Chaplin’s Little Tramp character endures a missed connection with his love interest, Georgia:

And what would any romantic comedy be without love music? Here is a tender and sweeping bit of love music for a scene in which Chaplin’s character and Georgia arrange their first date:

The 2013 release of "The Artist" sparked a bit of a resurgence of interest in silent films. But sadly, according to a study conducted by the Library of Congress, only 14 percent of films from the silent film era still survive in their original format.

This state of affairs makes it all the more important to preserve the silent films we do still have. In this age of high-tech talkies, pairing silent films with brand-new music polishes these treasures of a bygone world to a shine.

The Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra performs Ching-chu Hu’s score for "The Gold Rush" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Midland Theatre.