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EARLY MUSIC MEETS THE MOVIES
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