Silent films are never really silent.
They speak through literal communication, as when frames of dialogue or plot detail pop up on the screen, and, of course, through even the slightest changes on an actor's face. They also speak through music, a key ingredient since the glory days of silent movies in the early 20th century.
Scores were composed to complement each scene, underline each emotion. Back in the day, these scores were performed live — by orchestras in the grandest movie palaces, more commonly by an organist or pianist — as the films were shown.
Some scores were fashioned on the spot by the performer, using snippets of classical repertoire, and improvising the rest.
An unusual combination of composed and improvised music will be offered Friday for a showing of a 1922 hit, "Robin Hood," at An die Musik. The live soundtrack will come from the musicians of Hesperus, a widely traveled and respected Northern Virginia-based ensemble that uses historic instruments.
"When I started on this project, I was looking for music from the age of Robin Hood," said Tina Chancey, who co-founded Hesperus in 1979 with her late husband, Scott Reiss. "But there isn't one age of Robin Hood. He's really a mixture of 11th- to 15th-century guys."
The hero depicted in 1922 with brilliant physicality and charm by Douglas Fairbanks, and in so many subsequent screen versions by all sorts of actors, is quite different from the first known references to Robin Hood.
"He was originally described as a low-class trickster," Chancey said. "Then, around the time of Henry VIII, Robin Hood became a nobleman. Maid Marian was added around then, too. And in the 18th century, Robin started having a social conscience, and the Merry Men were added."
After digging into all of this background, Chancey settled on some music to fit the flavor of the classic movie.
"Henry VIII was a very big Robin Hood fan," she said, "so we use a lot of music that was played at Henry's court. And when the film switches from England to the Crusades, we switch to medieval French and Italian music, which sounds a little Arabic."
The players, who keep an eye on a video monitor while the audience watches the movie on a screen, frequently make fresh contributions to the score during a performance.
"We have it all planned," Chancey said, "but timing can vary. There is a maybe five-second grace period between scenes, so if a piece we're playing ends up being too short, we improvise."
With Hesperus, it is not just a matter of what music is played, but how.
Chancey's instruments include the medieval-era string instrument called the vielle, renaissance fiddle, viola da gamba and recorder. Grant Herreid will have at his disposal a lute, shawm (a double-reed instrument), pipe and tabor, and more. And Kathryn Montoya will add to the mix more recorders, another shawm and a Renaissance-era reed instrument, the sordune.
Completing the ensemble for "Robin Hood" will be soprano Rosa Lamoreaux.
In addition to "Robin Hood," Chancey has developed scores for four other silent films: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "The Mark of Zorro," "The Golem," and Buster Keaton's "The General." In each case, the music comes from (or is close to that of) the era depicted in the movie, and it allows for improvisatory embellishment.
"It is really exhilarating for us to do this kind of thing," she said. "I've heard people say you can't have a [musical] collaboration with something that's fixed, but we have done 'Robin Hood' 25 to 30 times now, and we'll all swear that the film changes a little each time."
If you go
"Robin Hood" with music score by Hesperus will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10 to $15. Call 410-385-2638 or go to andiemusik.live.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times