Asta Nielsen’s 1921 movie ‘Hamlet’ in Sage, with Dennis James and Michael Tsalka

The Department of Music, Cornell Cinema, and the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies present a live screening of Asta Nielsen’s silent movie Hamlet accompanied by live performance of the musical score by Dennis James (organ), Michael Tsalka (harpsichord and piano), and Marija Bosnar (mezzo soprano).

What if Hamlet was actually … a woman? That is the central premise of this touring music and media project featuring the now-restored 1921 German silent film Hamlet, starring Asta Nielsen, Denmark’s most famous film actress, in the lead role. Nielsen conceived of her film production as a major gender-revision with herself playing the part of Prince Hamlet as female, disguised by her mother Gertrude as a man to protect the family’s claim to power. Part of a golden age of German film adaptations of Shakespeare, the film was thought lost until a tinted print was found in 2005 and subsequently restored by a German film archive.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. commissioned The Filmharmonia Duo to create a new musical score for the film. Founded by Dennis James, Filmharmonia ensembles showcase unusual musical instruments in traditional accompaniment scorings that recapture the silent film era’s sounds and musical styles in historically accurate and entertaining performances. Filmharmonia selected the score’s source music from the compositions of the sons of J.S. Bach (C.Ph.E., Joh.C. and Wm F.), making up an all-18th century classical keyboard compilation, with the addition of a mezzo- soprano performing five songs within the score and keeping with the plot point of Hamlet as a woman. The focus on historical music and instruments, period repertoire, and authentic performance styles are perfect as live silent film accompaniment, lending emotional auditory weight to the on- screen visuals.

Discussing the musical elements in an interview with Harpsichord and Fortepiano Magazine, performer Michael Tsalka says “it was Dennis’s brilliant idea to use music only by Bach’s sons. Having created a puzzle assemblage out of many short pieces and excerpts of lengthier ones to suit the film, it is truly remarkable how well the gestures and musical style of the early classical period work with the film. Playing live as we watch the film, there must, of course, be some improvisation for detailing precise synchronization, especially when it comes to humorous moments, or moments of great dramatic power and flair.”

Dennis James has dedicated his professional career to the theatrical traditions of organ performance and furthering public interest in the pipe organ. For more than 40 years, James has played a pivotal role in the international revival of silent films with live music. Beginning as an accompanist for university screenings, James now tours worldwide with his Silent Film Concerts production company presenting professional silent film programs with accompaniments ranging from solo piano to full symphony orchestras. Performing to film throughout the world, James is celebrated for providing the most comprehensive selection of authentic silent films with live music presentations available today.

Active as a concert and recording artist worldwide while holding professional positions in the Netherlands, Michael Tsalka currently resides in Valencia, Spain. A versatile musician who performs a wide span of repertoire, from the early Baroque to modern times, Tsalka is virtuosic on the harpsichord, fortepiano, clavichord, square piano, chamber organ and modern piano.

The presentation of this film and live concert will take place in Sage Chapel at 8pm on Thursday, September 14, 2017. At 7:15pm a pre-film lecture/discussion with the performers will explore the fascinating interaction of the music and the film. The film begins at 8:00pm and runs for 110 minutes.

This event is free and open to the public. Patrons may wish to bring a seat cushion for the pews. For more information, please visit music.cornell.edu or cinema.cornell.edu