The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Hesperus uses early English music to accompany the 1922 silent movie version of “Robin Hood” — Part 1 of 2

July 10, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Monday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Madison Early Music Festival – in partnership with the Wisconsin Film Festivalwill screen the 1922 silent film version of “Robin Hood” — starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (below)  — with period-appropriate musical accompaniment provided by the Arlington, Virginia-based early music group Hesperus.

Here is  a link to their homepage:

At 6:30 p.m., also in Mills Hall, Hesperus member Tina Chancey (below) will give a free one-hour pre-concert lecture about “The Search for Robin Hood.”

Individual tickets are $10 and are available at the door.

For more information about the festival – including tonight’s concert by Parthenia, with sopranos Julianne Baird and Cheryl Bensman Rowe of Madison, and the all-John Dowland concert by The King’s Noyse on Sunday night, visit:

Chancey recently gave The Ear an e-mail interview and preview about her lecture and the mixed media event. Here it is in two parts, today and tomorrow:

How did you get started in this unusual collaborative mixed media project?

When I was finishing my PhD in 1997, a fellow student was doing her dissertation on Alice Guy Blaché, one of the earliest silent filmmakers. As a member of her committee I saw many hours of silent films, and I really got interested in the interaction between silent film and music.

In 2002, HESPERUS  was an ensemble-in-residence in Arlington County, and Rob Farr, from Arlington Independent Media, knew I was looking for programming ideas and suggested three films from the ‘20s that he thought would sound good with early music accompaniment: Douglas Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Gallant Rogue.” I chose the first one, and the rest is history. Rob has remained a friend and advisor.

HESPERUS (below) now has five Early Music/Silent Film collaborations: “Robin Hood” with English Renaissance music; “The Hunchback” with French Medieval music; Buster Keaton’s “The General” with music from the American Civil War; “The Golem” with Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish music; and “The Mark of Zorro” with improvised Spanish Renaissance music.

How often have you performed “Robin Hood”?

About 25 times, indoors and outdoors, in 700-seat auditoriums and 100-seat movie theaters, classrooms and parks. Sometimes we watch a monitor with a feed of the film so we can face the audience (that’s our favorite set-up), sometimes we watch the screen with the audience.

What music do you perform to the film?

There’s a lot of creativity going on right now in the area of silent film music. Some people restore the original orchestral score used in Hollywood or New York for a film’s premiere; some use music written for 1920s regional theater musicians; some improvise on piano or theater organ; others choose recently composed music, rock or swing. It seemed to us that using early music would fit right in. We got in trouble when we tried to find the right music for “Robin Hood,” though.

It’s an interesting story. The best idea seemed to take music from Robin Hood’s time and use it to accompany the film. But after I did some research, I found that no one was in agreement about exactly when he had lived. Indeed, the Robin Hood we know today was probably an amalgam of different robbers and highwaymen from the 12th-15th centuries.

Finally I chose music from the court of Henry VIII for the film; Henry was a great Robin Hood fan and many of his court composers wrote songs about the outlaw. In the film, when the King goes on crusade we switch to medieval dances which sound more Eastern.

What instruments do you use?

Happily, our performers are all multi-talented. Grant Herreid sings tenor and plays lute, early guitar, shawm, recorder, pipe and tabor, and a little cornetto; Tom Zajac plays recorders, early flutes, percussion, some sackbut, and a little harp; I play viol, vielle, renaissance violin and recorders; and our singer, soprano extraordinaire Nell Snaidas also obliges on the renaissance guitar.

Tomorrow: Fairbanks versus Flynn as Robin Hood; what the film and the music gain from each other; and audience reactions

If you go to “Robin Hood,” let The Ear know what you thought of this mixed media event using 16th century music and 20th century film.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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