Arthur Kleiner – Mid-Century Silent Film Pianist

On Wednesday, Nov 20 at 7pm, there will be a presentation at MoMA about Arthur Kleiner, silent film accompanist. It’s a name classic film fans aren’t familiar with, but he was “the sound of the silents” at the museum for the first three decades of its movie showings.

In 1939, four years after the founding of the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library, the museum opened its new building on West 53rd Street, a building that included a cinema. The daily film screenings that were held supported the novel idea that “older” film was art and should be viewed and studied. This meant that a majority of what was shown was from the silent era.

This is something I knew, and which was covered and discussed in detail, year by year, in the biography of the Film Library’s first curator Iris Barry, Lady in the Dark, and in the book Museum Movies about the initial decade or so of MoMA’s film screenings and its loans to universities, libraries and museums. 

Maybe it’s because of my being a silent film accompanist at MoMA for many years, maybe it’s because of my interest in reaching back a generation or two to carry on the tradition of what I do. But what I kept thinking about was the fact that in 1939 Iris Barry hired Arthur Kleiner to accompany the films shown at MoMA’s movie theater.

It was a full-time position. Kleiner had an office at the museum, one with a piano and multiple filing cabinets full of music in it. He accompanied silent films on a daily basis, often playing two shows a day. An accomplished concert pianist and organist who had emigrated to the US from Austria in 1938, every one of his scores were compiled from classical music, characteristic and novelty tunes from he 1910s and 1920s and from of mood music published for film accompaniment during the silent era.  

He did this for MoMA until his retirement as Music Director of the Department of Film in 1967, after twenty-eight years. He was probably the first and only full time silent film pianist hired or working anywhere in that capacity post-1929. 

Arthur Kleiner, MoMA’s first silent film pianist 1939-1968
Formal portrait of Arthur Kleiner (1903-1980). Photo courtesy of Erik Kleiner.

Some silent film aficionados may already know Kleiner’s name because they own copies of one or both of the silent movie music LPs that Kleiner recorded for Golden Crest in 1967. Some may know of him from shows he played in the 1970s at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, the city he and his family moved to after his retirement from MoMA.

On Wednesday, November 20 at 7:00pm, I will be giving a presentation on Arthur Kleiner together with MoMA Department of Film’s Associate Curator Anne Morra. The program will include screenings of a couple silent film shorts, which I will accompany with music composed by Kleiner and compiled from the music he would have used. We will also screen a segment of a film Kleiner made in 1972 called Hollywood’s Musical Moods, which includes interviews with Kleiner himself and with film music composers from the silent era.

Anne Morra is also the organizer of the daily matinee series currently running at MoMA, Iris Barry’s History of Film, a tribute to the film department’s founding curator which runs through the end of 2019. Some of what will be shared is information gathered for a research project done in 2014 by Dawn Schot, Adjunct Professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I’ve also gotten some information and images from Kleiner’s son Erik.

I hope you can make it to the program at MoMA to learn about and celebrate the film accompaniment career of Arthur Kleiner.

Information and link for tickets to Iris Talks: Celebrating Arthur Kleiner, MoMA’s First Silent Film Pianist is here.

Screening schedule for Iris Barry’s History of Film is at MoMA’s website here.

My earlier blog posts about Arthur Kleiner can be found here.

Arthur Kleiner Musical Moods from the Silent Films
Album cover to Musical Moods from the Silent Films, one of two LPs Kleiner recorded for Golden Crest in 1967. It is mostly comprised of silent era mood music cues, with a few of Kleiner’s own themes included as well.
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