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Nell joins Hesperus and the Madison Early Music Festival

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Hesperus provides the live soundtrack to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

The 1923 silent film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was based on a novel by Victor Hugo (1802-1885).  Hugo, whose father had been a general in Napoleon’s army during the French Revolution of 1789, conceived the novel during the revolution of July 1830.  Published as Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831, it became an immediate success.

Silent films were never meant to be silent; they were intended to be performed with musical accompaniment. During the current silent film revival, musicians are approaching that challenge in a number of creative ways. Some are finding and reconstructing the original music written for a film when it was first produced. Others are writing their own scores, in every style from atonal music to jazz. More than a few old theaters have renovated their mammoth theater organs, and keyboard players improvise soundtracks today as they did in the 20s. 

HESPERUS is doing something different. We have crafted a soundtrack of music centered upon the time and place the film was set, 15th century France, and perform the music on copies of period instruments. Actually, we’ve expanded our parameters to include French and Burgundian music from 1300-1500, giving us a chance to feature such masters as Guillaume de Machaut, Jehan l’Escurel, Guillaume Dufay, as well as lesser-known composers such as Vaillant, Morton and Borlet. We use this music in different ways—some individual characters, like Esmeralda and Quasimodo have their own themes. There’s also a love theme, and a theme for the beggars. Some pieces were written in 3 or 4 parts, and although we may vary the instrumentation, we perform the music as written. Others are monophonic, single-line pieces and we use the melodies as vehicles for improvisation. Occasionally we’ll string together tunes with a similar spirit and make medleys; or we’ll mirror the fight between the nobles and beggars with contrasting tunes.  We’ll introduce our instruments just before the film starts, and then you’ll have a choice during the film, whether to watch the screen or the performers.  

The Hunchback is our second ‘History’s Soundtrack’ presentation, and audiences tell us that the combination of film and early music gives the action an unexpected depth and poignancy. This fits right into HESPERUS’s mission: to find points of connection between the past and present.