Taking audiences back to the past

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Renaissance & Baroque Society presented the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame Jan. 19, featuring a live score performed by musical group Hesperus. This one-day event took place Downtown at the Byham Theater.The 1923 silent film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Wallace Worsley, stars Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda and is one of the more famous film adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Hesperus, a local group of collaborative, performing musicians, worked to invigorate the show through a variety of programs presenting many different musical genres and fusions.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Universal’s most successful silent film, grossing over $3 million and earning the studio’s “Super Jewel” title. It was this film that further raised Lon Chaney’s already elevated status in Hollywood. The film is known for both Chaney’s acting and make-up, which would influence future horror films, as well as its spectacular sets that recreate 15th-century Paris.

The film begins by introducing each key character during the Festival of Fools, an annual event in which Parisians could indulge without worries of monarchical oppression. It is during this festival that the gypsy Esmeralda is first seen by both Captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) and Quasimodo. After the festival, Captain Phoebus and Esmeralda fall in love, causing Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the King of the Beggars, and Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the sinful brother of the Reverend, to proceed to try to break them apart — Clopin out of fatherly love corrupted by contempt for the nobility and Jehan out of sheer, vicious jealousy. In the midst of this 15th-century amalgam of love, lust, and social commentary is Quasimodo, the deformed, half-blind, and deaf slave mocked by all of Paris and abused by his master, Jehan. A hateful and bitter “creature,” Quasimodo lives in the Angelus church, his only joy and outlet being the ringing of the tower bells.

Quasimodo, after being unjustly sentenced to a public whipping, experiences kindness for the first time from a stranger, as Esmeralda gives him a drink of water and helps him into his clothes. Eventually, Esmeralda is framed for stabbing Phoebus by Jehan and sentenced to death. It is then that Quasimodo repays his debt and saves her from execution, giving her sanctuary inside Angelus Church. Led by Clopin, an army of beggars storms the church to take back Esmeralda and repay the nobility. Quasimodo fends off the beggars from the roof and saves Esmeralda, who is reunited with Phoebus. He dies as he rings the bells for the last time.

Originally, silent films were not viewed in silence, but with musical accompaniment, whether by a single, improvising pianist or a larger group of musicians following a score. The current silent film revival finds many musicians taking up these old positions, thus tackling the problem of accompaniment. As explained by Hesperus members before the screening, some musicians go back to find a film’s original score and reconstruct it. Others take up the task of writing a brand new score, in styles that range from jazz to atonal music. The very brave even improvise the whole score as they watch the film on a piano, to give audiences that authentic ’20s feel.

Hesperus, on the other hand, with a mission to connect the past to the present, tackled the problem with an eye for musical history. As the film was set in 15th-century France, the four-member Hesperus performed music from the 14th and 15th centuries, and expanded the repertoire to include works from the 16th century. They featured well-known masters such as Guillame de Machaut, Jehan l’Escurel, Guillaume Dufay, and lesser-known composers such as Vaillant, Morton, and Borlet. To add to the authenticity of the period, they performed on replicas of period instruments, including a lute, vielle (a bowed-string instrument similar to the modern violin), and a series of wooden recorders. The strings of some instruments were made of the lining of sheep organs, as they would have in the 15th century, so Hesperus member Grant Herreid added with lament, “Unfortunately, we must say that some animals were harmed for the making of this event.”

Watching a silent film with musical accompaniment is a grander event than watching anything in a modern theater. The combination provides two spectacles, that of film and that of the musicians. It also gives the added effect of being in a concert, so the experience is much more alive. The senses are much more engaged, making it a giddier affair. If theaters still played films with live and varied musicians, just imagine the value of re-watching.

Hesperus created theme music for each character, and put together a score that hoped to also highlight irony and emotion. The main flaw in Hesperus’ performance was the lack of a powerful bell. The scenes where Lon Chaney madly and vigorously rings the church bell is ruined with the juxtaposition of a palm-sized, puny, and almost inaudible Tibetan prayer bell. Additionally, Hesperus’ attempt at irony by playing festive music alongside violence in one scene was just plain awkward, even uncalled for, although the group did accept commentary at the end of the performance so they could improve the score. Despite these two flaws, the performance was worthwhile. Besides, the film stars Lon Chaney, which is reason enough to watch, with or without live musical accompaniment.