Indy Early Music Festival goes to the cinema 

click to enlarge Hesperus performs to Robin Hood.
  • Hesperus performs to Robin Hood.

Prepare to be enchanted. This Sunday, to close out the Indianapolis Early Music Festival - the country's longest continually-running early music festival - the adventurous ensemble Hesperus will play a live "soundtrack" of early music to the Douglas Fairbanks produced--and starring in the--1922 silent feature, Robin Hood. The blockbuster film was the most expensive movie ever made when it debuted in 1922, with spectacular sets, costumes, enormous crowd scenes, and enough castle-climbing, moat-leaping, and acrobatic swordplay to keep even today's action-addled kids happy.

Given his fictional nature, we don't know precisely when Robin Hood lived - or even his actual century, as it varied in the myths and legends of oral tradition. Though he's often associated with the period of the Crusades, Hesperus created a soundtrack using Renaissance music from the time of Henry VIII for the courtly scenes set in England, and medieval music for when the king goes on crusade.

Tina Chancey, Hesperus's director, explained to NUVO her procedure for matching the action at any given plot point in the movie to the specific piece or song selected to go with it: "Since this repertoire is one I know well, ideas came to me as I watched the film. Renaissance music has an immediate punch; happy, sad, angry, frustrated, with the first note you know what the piece is about. That makes it perfect to accompany film, since that's how screenwriters from the '20s created their scripts. There's also a rhythmic aspect to silent film acting that helps me determine the underlying 'tactus' of the scene, making it easier to choose music for it.

"If I use a song, I make sure the words are sympathetic to the action, though they probably won't match it exactly. There are times a performer needs to 'tweak' a piece of music to make it match better - for example, while Henry VIII's "Tandernaken" is a fast piece, in the film it's used when Maid Marian escapes so it must sound desperate. There are other times we must interrupt a piece to reflect the action, or change articulation or sound quality. We try to memorize the music so we can watch the screen. Occasionally, when a scene is moody or leads up to a dramatic moment, we improvise over the tune, reserving ourselves for the next shift in energy. It's quite stimulating to play, though it takes a good deal of practice to get comfortable."

Was there a special reason for choosing so many Henry VIII selections? "Henry was a big Robin Hood fan; he loved the idea of a renegade nobleman, and much of his court music and poetry revolved around the tale of Robin Hood," Chancey said. "Since his legend is an amalgam of tales, some true and some almost true, starting in the 12th century and continuing through the 18th, we've chosen Henry's music since it best reflects the outlaw's qualities: chivalry, daring, honor, roguish good humor, an ardent heart and a generous spirit."

For more interesting details about this historic film, click here.

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Tom Aldridge

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