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Early mu­sic meets the movies

Most mu­sic lovers perk up at the men­tion of the 1938 Warner Broth­ers movie The Ad­ven­tures of Robin Hood be­cause it was the first Hol­ly­wood film with a score by Erich Wolf­gang Korn­gold. He sur­rounded the ti­tle char­ac­ter (played by Er­rol Flynn) with a swash­buck­ling sound that set the stan­dard for en­su­ing gen­er­a­tions of film com­posers. But when Art Shein­berg thinks of the mu­sic in The Ad­ven­tures of Robin Hood, he fo­cuses in­stead on a placid pas­sage where Lit­tle John (Alan Hale), strolling through Sher­wood For­est, whis­tles a snip­pet of a tune just be­fore en­gag­ing Robin in a joust on a foot­bridge while Robin’s co­hort Will Scar­lett (Pa­tric Knowles) strums on a bizarre stage prop that is sup­posed to re­sem­ble a lute. The whistling lasts only a few sec­onds, but it’s a high­light of the film for Shein­berg, a found­ing mem­ber of Música An­tigua de Al­bu­querque. “It’s the song ‘Sumer is icu­men in,’ ” he re­ports — a me­dieval English round, or “rota,” in a Mid­dle English di­alect ap­par­ently dat­ing to the 13th cen­tury. It will be the first piece in the con­cert Old Tunes Never Die: Early Mu­sic Meets the Movies, which his en­sem­ble will per­form Sun­day, Nov. 13, at Christ Lutheran Church.

The Ad­ven­tures of Robin Hood was not quite the first movie to use early mu­sic in its un­der­pin­ning, but it was one of a clus­ter of films in the late 1930s to draw on me­dieval or Re­nais­sance com­po­si­tions to re­in­force a pe­riod fla­vor. The con­cert makes a bow to an­other two of them. Shein­berg cites Fire Over

Eng­land, a 1937 drama about the 16th­cen­tury con­flict be­tween Eng­land and Spain (with Flora Rob­son, Raymond Massey, Lau­rence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh), where the In­qui­si­tion-era fla­vor of the Span­ish court is sum­moned up through the tones of Tomás Luís de Vic­to­ria’s motet “O mag­num mys­terium” (or at least some­thing adapted from it). The “La­mento di Tris­tano,” which dates from around 1400, fig­ures in the sound­track of the 1939 ver­sion of The Hunch­back

of Notre Dame (with Charles Laughton and Mau­reen O’Hara), which is set in 15th-cen­tury France.

“The idea for this pro­gram has been per­co­lat­ing for a long time,” said Shein­berg, whose wife, Colleen, also per­forms with the six-mem­ber en­sem­ble. “We’re al­ways struck when we hear a bit of early mu­sic in the movies, but we got down to re­search­ing it more se­ri­ously dur­ing this past year. It was very fun do­ing the re­search. It crosses over into some­thing we don’t do a lot of, which is watch­ing movies. We weren’t mem­bers of Net­flix or Ama­zon Movies, so we had to get in­volved with that.”

In film sound­tracks, even his­tor­i­cal reper­toire is of­ten or­ches­trated for large in­stru­men­tal forces — for ex­am­ple, Wil­liam Wal­ton’s use of the “Agin­court Carol” in his sym­phonic score for the ac­claimed 1944 film of Shake­speare’s Henry V. Música An­tigua de Al­bu­querque’s pro­gram, how­ever, presents these pieces on a more mod­est scale, draw­ing from their as­sem­blage of early in­stru­ments — vi­ola da gamba, vielle, sack­but, recorder, shawm, and so on.

The pro­gram com­prises 37 short pieces, which the play­ers have or­ga­nized into “chap­ters” that un­der­score how the mu­sic re­lates to film his­tory or sound­track tech­nique. In some cases, the con­nec­tion is ob­vi­ous — for ex­am­ple, 16th-cen­tury English mu­sic for the 1972 TV minis­eries Henry VIII and His Six Wives, for which the leg­endary early mu­sic cham­pion David Mun­row served as mu­sic direc­tor. “Mun­row didn’t just work on pe­riod pieces,” said Shein­berg. “We’re also play­ing mu­sic from a sur­pris­ing film for which he did the mu­sic, which is La course en tête, a 1974 doc­u­men­tary about the Bel­gian bi­cy­clist Eddy Mer­ckx — an odd movie.” Early reper­toire comes as a sur­prise in other films as well. “Some tunes are used in lots of movies,” Shain­berg ob­served, like the “Dies irae,” the me­dieval chant that is sung as part of the Ro­man Catholic Re­quiem Mass. “It is used in tons of movies. We found maybe 15 movies for just that one tune. It’s in Star Wars, Ground­hog Day, It’s a Won­der­ful Life. There’s no telling how many times I watched It’s a Won­der­ful Life be­fore I no­ticed that ‘Dies irae’ is played at the point where Jimmy Ste­wart is ask­ing to be brought back from the dead.”

Me­dieval and Re­nais­sance pieces can pop up where you would least ex­pect them, as when the song “Como po­den per sas cul­pas,” from the Canti­gas de Santa Maria (a col­lec­tion of mono­phonic songs from the 13th cen­tury), makes an ap­pear­ance in Co­nan the Bar­bar­ian (1982) with Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, a fig­ure not widely associated with the world of early mu­sic. “An­other unan­tic­i­pated jux­ta­po­si­tion,” said Shein­berg, “is the use of mu­sic by the me­dieval abbess Hilde­gard of Bin­gen in a 2004 film called Iron Jawed An­gels, with Hi­lary Swank and An­jel­ica Hus­ton. It’s about the women’s suf­frage move­ment. At one point, there’s a riot — all this chaos, vi­o­lence against these suf­fragettes — and be­neath it is this eerie, calm, ethe­real melody of Hilde­gard. It’s fit­ting, be­cause she was a rare woman com­poser in her time, which cor­re­sponds to the im­age we’re watch­ing of women get­ting beaten up for protest­ing for the right to vote.”

“A film that was new to us,” he con­tin­ued, “was The Reader, a 2008 Holo­caust movie. They’re go­ing out into the coun­try­side, to a ru­ral church, and we hear a chil­dren’s choir. The mu­sic they’re re­hears­ing is a piece by [Gio­vanni Pier­luigi da] Palest­rina. Its text is about the He­brew chil­dren bear­ing olive branches, and I’m sure that was very in­ten­tional. They didn’t use ‘just any’ Palest­rina. It’s quite sub­tle. The fact that the com­posers use early mu­sic is a val­i­da­tion of our love of it and our feel­ing that early mu­sic has great power to con­vey mean­ing and feel­ing, just as much as later mu­sic can.”

The Ad­ven­tures of Robin Hood (1938)

Música An­tigua de Al­bu­querque

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