Hesperus, an early music trio, rounded out the 2012 Washington DC Early Music Festival by performing a live soundtrack of assorted Medieval European music to a screening of the 1923 movie version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney.
The musicians — Rosa Lamoreaux, Tina Chancey and Priscilla Smith — focused on monophonic music (a tune played on a recorder, shawm or voice, accompanied by a drone on a bagpipe or vielle, for example) which gave them the flexibility they needed to fit the music to what was going on on screen. It also helped the audience maintain a balanced focus on the music and the visuals, which would have been more difficult to do with a complex polyphonic soundtrack. (In earlier performances, Chancey told us, Hesperus used more polyphony and it proved to be less flexible and more distracting.)
The mixture of pieces by Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay and Hildegard von Bingen as well as a bunch of stuff from 12-15th century Europe whose authors were unidentified, enlivened the movie. The performances by the members of Hesperus were nuanced and virtuoistic throughout.
On the other hand, Hunchback is already a heavily dramatic film. (Anne Midgette, the Washington Post’s classical music critic, who was in the audience last night, remarked after the screening ended that Hunchback is really a 19th century opera in disguise; even the title cards, which say things like “Assassin!” are Verdian in style.)
As such, the highly descriptive live soundtrack perhaps lays it on too thick. At times, the score veered the experience into the land of kitsch. Jaunty salterellos and estampas gave the party scenes Monty Pythonesque proportions as actors in Medieval garb frolicked down Parisian streets. And hallowed Hildegard von Bingen chants (beautifully sung by Rosa Lamoreaux) added slightly schlocky gravitas to moments of churchly devotion.
I didn’t mind too much though. The Hesperus Hunchback is first and foremost a lot of fun. What an amazing, unexpected way to start my two month sojourn here in Washington DC!
And I have Twitter to thank for the experience. I sent out a tweet yesterday from the airport in San Francisco simply saying I was on my way East to work for the Library of Congress’s music division for the summer. When I landed, there was a tweet from @seatedovation (music scholar and critic Will Robin) saying that he too was in DC working at the Library of Congress for the summer. In the ensuing flurry of tweets that passed between us, Will told me about the Washington Early Music Festival. Bingo. It was fun to meet him in person there.