On Wednesday evening, members of the Fourth Form were joined by a substantial audience in a suitably darkened school Chapel to witness a remarkable event – the projection onto a big screen of the 1923 black and white movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, starring Lon Cheney as the eponymous hero, to live organ accompaniment provided by Alex Mason, the Organist of Shrewsbury School.
As Mr. Pashley explained to the audience in his closing remarks, “Hunchback” was one of the most important, expensive and lucrative films in the “silent movie” era of the early 1900s, costing a staggering $1 million ($14 million in today’s money) to make, but generating a profit of $3 million ($42 million).
Alex Mason is one of the UK’s most gifted organists, and staggered the audience by improvising (spontaneously composing and performing) continuously for over an hour and a half – a tremendous feat of concentration. Rather than responding to every individual action, he chose rather to create a seamless backdrop of dark, Gothic-style harmony, over which the sinister and, at times, gruesome action on screen unfolded.
Alex explained to the audience in his introduction that he had always been inspired by the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris – the building, the organ, and many of the previous organists, most notably Pierre Cochereau, who was the “titulatire” organist there from 1955-84, and arguably the most famous improvisor of the 20th century.
Much of Alex’s own improvisation had a strong French accent – quoting famous themes from the works of Camille Saint-Saëns and Louis Vierne – but he also involved the audience by inviting them to suggest themes which he incorporated into his performance – among them “Danse macabre”, “The Pink Panther” and “Jaws”! It was a unique evening, and one long to be remembered.