Monday, May 15, 2023

A busy musical weekend in store: two silent film programs in Vt., then a concert in N.H.

A scene from F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise' (1927).

This coming weekend, it's two shows in Vermont followed by a concert in N.H. where some of my music is on the program.

First up: F.W. Murnau's acclaimed drama 'Sunrise' (1927) on Friday, May 19 at 8 p.m. at Epsilon Spires in Brattleboro, Vt. 

I'll be playing the venue's original Estey pipe organ to accompany the film. Lots more details in the press release below. 

Then on Saturday, May 20, it's opening night of the 12th season of silent film screenings at Brandon (Vt.) Town Hall. Showtime is at 7 p.m.; featured attraction is Chaplin's 1923 comedy 'The Pilgrim,' his last non-feature-length film and celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

More on that, and a look at the whole season of silent films that I'll accompany, in a post a bit later this week. For now, you can browse the listings (via the 'Upcoming Silent Film Screenings' link at upper right) and see what's playing.

And then on Sunday, May 21, the N.H. Philharmonic is playing part of my 'Kilimanjaro Suite' for orchestra at its Spring Pops Concert, which is at 2 p.m. at Seifert Performing Arts Center, Salem High School, 44 Geremonty Drive, Salem, N.H.

I've been attending rehearsals during the past couple of weeks, and the orchestra sounds really good. To learn more about the piece, check out the 'Notes for Kilimanjaro Suite' link at upper right. And for tickets and more information, visit

Hope to see you at some or all of these events!

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A poster for the original release of 'Sunrise' (1927).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Academy Award-winning drama 'Sunrise' to be screened on Friday, May 19 at Epsilon Spires, Brattleboro

Silent film won three honors at first-ever Academy Awards, including 'Best Actress'; show features live musical accompaniment

BRATTLEBORO, Vt.—Silent film on the big screen with live music returns to Epsilon Spires in Brattleboro with the Academy Award-winning romantic drama 'Sunrise' (1927) on Friday, May 19 at 8 p.m.

The screening of 'Sunrise,' starring Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, will take place at Epsilon Spires, 190 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.

Admission is $20 per person. Tickets may be purchased in advance at or at the door.

The screening will feature live accompaniment on the venue's Estey pipe organ by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician.

Gaynor, a popular female star of the silent film era, won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in 'Sunrise.' The movie took top honors in cinematography and was also recognized for "Unique and Artistic Production" at the inaugural awards.

'Sunrise' tells the story of a young country couple (played by Gaynor and O'Brien) whose marriage is threatened by the presence of a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) who convinces the man to abandon his wife. Will the young husband go through with a plan to kill his wife? Will true love overcome the obstacles of temptation and the promise of short-term pleasure?

Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in 'Sunrise' (1927).

'Sunrise' was directed by F. W. Murnau, a German filmmaker and one of the leading figures in German Expressionism, a style that uses distorted art design for symbolic effect. 'Sunrise' was made when Murnau was invited by studio chief William Fox to make a film in Hollywood.

The resulting movie features enormous stylized sets that create an exaggerated, fairy-tale world. The city street set alone reportedly cost over $200,000 to build, a huge sum at the time. Much of the exterior shooting was done at Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Full of cinematic innovations, the groundbreaking cinematography (by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) featured moving cameras and impressive tracking shots. Titles appear sparingly, with long sequences of pure action and most of the story told in Murnau's signature visual style. The extensive use of forced perspective is striking, particularly in a shot of the city with normal-sized people and sets in the foreground and smaller figures in the background by much smaller sets.

The story of 'Sunrise' is told as a visual allegory with few specific details. The characters have no names, and the setting is not named in order to make the tale more universal and symbolic.

With a full title of 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,' the film is regarded as one of the high points of the silent cinema. In 1988, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress for films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The Sight and Sound poll of 2012 for the British Film Institute named 'Sunrise' the fifth-best film in the history of motion pictures by critics, and 22nd by directors.

Critics continue to hail 'Sunrise' as one of the best films of all time.

"F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise' conquered time and gravity with a freedom that was startling to its first audiences," wrote Roger Ebert in 2004. "To see it today is to be astonished by the boldness of its visual experimentation.

Rapsis (at right), who uses original themes to improvise silent film scores, said great silent film dramas such as 'Sunrise' used their lack of dialogue to create stories that concentrated on the "big" emotions such as Love, Despair, Anger, and Joy. 

Because of this, audiences continue to respond to them in the 21st century, especially if they're presented as intended — with a live audience and live music.

"Dramas such as 'Sunrise' were created to be shown on the big screen as a communal experience," Rapsis said. "With an audience and live music, they still come to life as their creators intended them to. So the screenings at Epsilon Spires are a great chance to experience films that first caused people to fall in love with the movies," he said.

'Sunrise' will be shown with live music on Friday, May 19 at 8 p.m. at Epsilon Spires, 190 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.

Admission is $20 per person. Tickets may be purchased in advance at or at the door.

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