Home > Reviews > THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME – Alfred Newman



Original Review by Craig Lysy

The dawning of the new age of film with dialogue and music had arrived and Universal Studio executives decided to explore a remake of their 1923 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A favorable fan poll in 1936 added impetus to the endeavor, but the studio was never able to assemble the lead actors to launch the project and so sold the film rights to MGM, which in turn sold them to RKO. RKO was committed to the project and built a massive recreation of Paris and the cathedral on their ranch in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. Pedro Berman was hired to produce the film and provided a massive budget of $1.8 million. William Dieterle was given the reigns to direct the film, which would again be adapted from Victor Hugo’s famous 1831 novel Sonya Levien and Bruno Frank provided the screenplay and a fine cast was assembled, which included Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Jehan Frollo, Thomas Mitchell as Clopin, Maureen O’Hara in her screen debut as Esmeralda, Edmund O’Brien as Pierre Gringoire, Walter Hampden as Archbishop Claude Frollo, and Harry Davenport as King Louis XI of France.

The film takes place in France during the reign of King Louis XI circa 1461. The story centers on the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda who is pursued by the corrupt Chief Justice Frollo. Frollo sends Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, to capture the girl, which he does, only to himself be arrested by Phoebus, Captain of the King’s guards. Frollo does not come to Quasimodo’s defense, and he is sentenced to be cruelly flogged. Esmeralda comes upon him after the flogging and out of pity gives him water to drink, which elicits love in him. Later Phoebus is stabbed to death and Esmeralda is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to death. She is however saved from the gallows by her husband Gringoire, who convinces the King of her innocence, and Quasimodo, who heroically fights off Clopin’s assault on Notre Dame. He then comes to Esmeralda’s rescue, defeating Frollo’s effort to murder her in the bell tower, by tossing him from the bell tower. In the end Esmeralda departs with her husband and Quasimodo is again left alone and unloved in the bell tower where he asks a gargoyle statue “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?” The film was a commercial success, earning $3.16 million for a handsome profit of $1.33 million. However, despite favorable reviews it was only nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Sound and Best Film Score.

Alfred Newman had firmly established himself in the 1930s as a tier one composer with five Academy Award nominations and one win. He gladly accepted the assignment as the film provided a grand tapestry on which to compose. He understood that at its core this was a film of unrequited love for the pathetic and deformed Quasimodo. Additionally, his soundscape would need to speak to both the sacred and profane, supporting the crowded and bustling streets of Paris, the imposing magnificence of the Notre Dame cathedral and the haunting, loneliness of the bell towers. To glorify the sacred, Newman used angelic, ethereal choir with stirring effect, as well as interpolating the 16th century hymn “Ave Maria” by Tomas Luis de Victoria. This sacred writing offered a profound juxtaposition to the evil actions and cruelty of the villain Frollo.

For his soundscape Newman would provide five primary themes including; Esmeralda’s Theme, which serves as her identity and the sole feminine construct of the score. Her lush string melody is at once vibrant, ethnic and yet also full of passion. The theme is malleable, becoming lustful and transformed into a Love Theme when she assumes the role of seductress. Quasimodo’s Theme is astutely constructed by Newman and perfectly conceived. He speaks outwardly to his grotesque appearance and deformity with comic woodwinds synced to his abnormal gait, yet within the notes we discern a pathos of alienation and loneliness. Gringoire’s Theme serves as the identity of the poet and husband of Esmeralda. Warm strings nobile adorned with woodwinds tenero grace us with beauty and speak to his refinement, integrity and essential goodness. Frollo’s Theme embodies his sinister persona as the story’s chief villain. A seemingly benign alto flute gentile carries the four-note phrases, yet within its minor modal expression we discern an articulation that is not wholesome, but instead, lurking, a dark malevolence cloaked with a veneer of propriety. The adornment with eerie metallic effects disquiets an alludes to his evil designs. The King’s Theme emotes with the structure and polyphonic sensibilities of Renaissance music. Newman imparts a madrigal quality with his small ensemble, which perfectly captures the nature of this wise and affable king. Later in the film it is transformed into both fanfare and an anthem, which supports his troops the final battle. Two secondary themes include the Korngoldesque Phoebus’ Theme, which abounds with unbridled heroism, and provides classic swashbuckling bravado for this bold knight. It offers the score’s most exciting theme, and one of the finest in Newman’s canon. Lastly, we have the Beggars Theme, which support Clopin the ‘king’ of beggars and thieves as well as this community of outcasts as. It is jaunty and irreverent, which perfectly speaks to their outcast status. Later in the film it is militarized, transformed into a marica bravura as the come to Esmeralda’s aid.

We open with the RKO Radio Pictures logo. “Main Title and Forward” ushers in book pages, which display the film’s title and the roll of the opening credits. Newman masterfully sets the tone of the film with tolling church bells, which accompany the serenity of the choral rendered “Ave Marie” hymn. At 1:02 an uplifting transition on strings sereni bathes us in religioso auras and accompany script, which informs us of France enjoying peace for the first time in 100 years under the reign of King Louis XI. In the next scene King Louis XI inspects the printing press and first books created by it. He is favorably disposed towards this and believe his people and France will benefit from them. He is vigorously opposed by his Chief Justice Frollo, a reactionary Catholic conservative who argues that books will corrupt the faithful and threaten the order provided by King and Church. Newman supports the scene with and extended and inspiring rendering of “Ave Maria” radiant with hope, which informs us of the King’s wisdom in supporting this new technology. The confluence of music and narrative is exquisite, unfortunately the album does not contain the music for this scene.

“The Gypsies” reveals a caravan arriving at the Paris city gates, only to be lashed back cruelly by the guards who declare that foreigners are no long welcome. Newman introduces his ethnically rich Esmeralda’s Theme born by vibrant strings sensuali as her radiant beauty carries her rebellious sneaking into the city. At 0:26 forlorn woodwinds quote Quasimodo’s Theme as women scream of his appearance. Esmeralda’s Theme emoted as flight music carries her progress as we see her wide eyed and exploring the city. “The Festival” reveals the people celebrating “Fools Day” with al kinds of revelry and debauchery, which Newman supports this with energetic and celebratory festival music. “In The King’s Box” we see the King once again debating the need for progress with his stern reactionary advisors. We open with the madrigal King’s Theme, which emotes with the structure and polyphonic sensibilities of Renaissance music. Fanfare reale ushers in at 0:45 Gringoire’s Theme atop strings nobile as his name enters the conversation. “The Dance of Death” reveals a stage production with the black draped Death character wielding his all severing scythe. Newman supports the scene exotically with a danza macabre replete with serpentine strings, grotesque woodwinds and dazzling ethnic percussive adornment.

“Garbage at Gringoire” offers inspired and spot on writing by Newman. The play with the Death character is written by Gringoire, but it is too cerebral for the drunken crowd. They boo and chase him and his troupe off the stage showering them in a torrent of garbage. Newman supports the inglorious retreat with discordant farcical horns, and a comic torrent of woodwinds and strings, which crown the moment with a comic stepped descent of ignominy. “Esmeralda’s Dance” offers a score highlight, which reveals her performing a dance for the crowd. Her stunning beauty mesmerizes the crowd and catches the eyes of the King, Frollo, and a hidden Quasimodo. Newman supports her with an ethnic rendering of her theme emoted as a danza sensuali adorned with tambourine. Grim strings at 1:32 support her making eye contact with the partially hidden Quasimodo, which frightens her. Forlorn strings and woodwinds carry his theme as he flees under the stage to escape the crowd. The theme swells, mutates, and becomes grotesque as he is captured and his deformity revealed to the crowd who at first recoil from his ugliness, but then mock him with their laughter. For “Quasimodo is Crowned King of Fools”, the music for this scene was not included on the album. The crowd, believes him deaf and dumb, and so crowns Quasimodo “King of Fools”. Newman supports the wild celebration with mocking faux horns reale and then unleashes a festive orchestral torrent as Quasimodo is carried by the crowd through the streets in a celebratory frenzy. Frollo will have none of it and rides to Quasimodo, breaks his scepter, and orders him to follow on foot. A dire rendering of Frollo’s Theme supports his intervention and as Quasimodo travels on foot behind him robbed of his moment in the sun, we hear a forlorn, grieving rendering of his theme. These scenes reveal Newman’s mastery of his craft as he imparts emotional potency to Laughton’s superb performance.

In “Thank You Mother of God” we have an extended film sequence with multiple scenes, all supported musically, but not all the music is found on the album. City guards recognize Esmeralda as the gypsy who snuck into the city and pursue her as she flees fearing arrest. The music enters as we see Esmeralda running up the entry stairs of Notre Dame, supported powerfully by horns solenne resounding the Ave Maria Theme. She enters Notre Dame and the priests forestall the guards as she has gained the Divine sanctuary of the church and now lies beyond the King’s power. Frollo arrives at Notre Dame to visit his brother, the Archbishop. As a priest escorts Esmeralda into the cathedral we see people arriving for mass and praying. She knells before a stature of Mary and also begins praying. Newman uses the Ave Maria Theme to poignantly support a powerful juxtaposition – we see one townsfolk after another selfishly praying for God to give them, beauty, wealth and happiness, while Esmeralda prays for the safety and happiness of her people.

The music for this scene is not found on the album. Frollo comes upon her praying and threatens to have her killed as she is a heathen, yet as they converse his resolve weakens and we see him transfixed by her beauty. He lets his guard down and shares a mutual love of animals. The King, who is praying nearby hears her prayers for her people and agrees to consider her request. This extended scene is supported solely by the Ave Maria hymn. After the King’s departure Frollo counsels Esmeralda to remain in the bell tower protected by Quasimodo. The album cue resumes here at 0:13 with Frollo’s Theme carried by a solo alto flute sinistre. We discern an articulation that is not genuine, but instead, lurking, a dark malevolence cloaked with a veneer of patrician propriety. As they ascend eerie textural writing (not on the album) sow unease. As he greets them, she is frightened and at 1:02 flees carried her theme emoted as desperate flight music, which is countered by Quasimodo’s Theme empowered by dire horns. Frollo signals Quasimodo to apprehend her and he pursues as they exit the cathedral. A diminuendo of unease enters as he stalks her. We build to an orchestral shriek as he captures her and flight music carries his run back to the Cathedral until the alarm is sounded at 2:49 as Captain of the Guards Phoebus rides to rescue her. Newman launches his unbridled Phoebus’ Theme, which resounds with grand fanfare eroico. His theme propels his pursuit and rescue of Esmeralda. At 3:51 lustful strings emote the Love Theme, which support his obvious desire to bed Esmeralda who seems equally smitten by his beauty, strength and charm. As he rides off, he is carried by a muted rendering of his theme.

“Esmeralda Marries Gringoire” offers a scene whose music is not found on the album. Gringoire stumbles into the den of beggars and thieves. Tense suspense music supports his capture, trial and execution ordered by their ‘king’, Clopin. Yet as he is about to be hanged, he is saved by Esmeralda who agrees to marry him. A romantic rendering of her theme carries the moment as they lock eyes, both pleased with the other’s beauty. After they marry a festive song carries them to the bridal chamber. As Gringoire tells her tales of Prometheus’ gift of fire we are graced by a romantic rendering of his theme. Yet when she confesses that she is in love with Phoebus, his theme intrudes and Gringoire is devastated. Yet, he recovers and agrees to resign himself to friendship and we close on his theme. The moment is shattered as guards enter the den and arrest all the women, hoping to ensnare Esmeralda. Later that night Frollo, carried with dark purpose by his resounding theme inspects the women brought him in hope of finding Esmeralda. He does not find her and vents his anger. “Whipping” Quasimodo has been convicted of abduction and resisting arrest and is sentenced to the pillory to be whipped. Fanfare announces his arrival at the pillory (not on the album) and a bleak rendering of his theme carries him upwards and supports the pathos of his merciless whipping, which he bears with silence. Fleeting references to Frollo’s Theme inform us of his betrayal and abandonment of Quasimodo who was only doing his bidding. We conclude on a crescendo of pain as the crowd mocks and torments him by throwing garbage.

“Esmeralda Walks up Steps” offers perhaps the score’s finest moment and one of Newman’s greatest achievements of his career where we see a perfect confluence of music, acting and film narrative. Esmeralda arrives to find the suffering Quasimodo begging for water. She tentatively climbs the stairs carried softly by a gentle rendering of her theme. He at first refuses her gift, yet he succumbs to her beauty and compassion. As their eyes lock, her theme becomes refulgent and a stirring confluence of emotions unfolds before our eyes; pity, love yearning, and despair. Interplay with Frollo’s Theme reminds us that he is the architect of this tragedy. Quasimodo soon is unshackled and beaten off the pillory. He desperately seeks refuge in the sanctuary of Notre Dame, yet each step is painful and he repeatedly stumbles and falls. His theme, now unbearable and bereft with the pathos of suffering carries his progress. We crescendo on his theme as he at last enters the safety of the cathedral and bars the door. At 3:24 he comes face to face with Frollo who offers no sympathy supported by a cold and unfeeling rendering of his theme by alto flute. As Quasimodo relates to him that she gave him water, interplay with her theme expresses the thankfulness in his eyes and the anger in Frollo’s.

In “A Woman Has Bewitched Me” we are graced with one of the score’s finest cues, where Newman’s romanticism is on full display. Frollo meets Esmeralda at a party where she is to dance. All pretenses are dropped and he confesses to her that she has disturbed the tranquility of his life, and that he loves her. His theme assumes a romantic expression, and we can see in his eyes he for the first time in his life that he feels love for another. Yet there is no ardor or passion in the notes, instead we discern desperation tinged with sadness. As he begs her to come away and be with him her theme joins, but it is aggrieved in its expression as we see she has no desire to be with him. In the end she rejects him and when Phoebus embraces her after she dances, we see dark purpose in Frollo’s eyes. “Phoebus is Murdered” reveals Esmeralda playing the seductress as she spends a quiet interlude with Phoebus. The lustful Love Theme joined supports her seduction and intimacy. It is clear that this is one sided and there is no music expressing what Phoebus feels, as for him, she is just another in his long line of conquests. The moment is lost however when she becomes unsettled, feeling someone is watching. Later a scream brings people to her where they find Phoebus dead and a knife in her hand. The music for this scene is not on the album.

In “Frollo’s Confession” he confesses to his brother that he murdered Phoebus and intends to make sure Esmeralda is executed for the crime, asserting that he was not at fault as she bewitched him. This leads to his brother disowning him. No music supports this scene. “Esmeralda is Sentenced to Death” reveals a show trial with Frollo acting as judge. She is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. No music supports this scene. “Esmeralda is Taken to the Gallows” reveals her on a cart bound and taken to the steps of Notre Dame to profess public penance before her execution. As the Archbishop and his retinue emerge from the Cathedral a solemn ecclesiastical choral elegy carries their progress. The Archbishop greets her, and she confesses her innocence, which he acknowledges, declaring to the crowd that he forbids public penance as she is innocent. Frollo is outraged, overrules his brother and orders her taken to the gallows. As she is taken the choral elegy returns and we see Quasimodo climbing down from the cathedral ramparts. The music for this scene is not included on the album. In “Hallelujah” Quasimodo gallantly swings across to the gallows on a rope, secures her and swings back safely to the Cathedral, declaring “Sanctuary”! Newman supports the rescue with a celebratory choral rendering of “Hallelujah”, as we see a now ecstatic crowd.

“Esmeralda in Bell Tower” reveals Esmeralda bonding with Quasimodo who declares he saved her for her act of kindness in bringing him water. She takes pity on him, his deformity, his deafness, and the loneliness of his existence in the bell tower. The next day as she looks out to the square below, a wistful rendering of her theme supports her contemplation. Quasimodo’s Theme on woodwinds joins as he brings her a gift – a caged songbird. Her theme warms and finds tender expression as the Love Theme as we see gratitude in her eyes, yet Quasimodo cannot bear her gaze at his ugliness, cowers, and then flees carried by his theme on a crescendo of pain. In this aftermath Esmeralda weeps, comforted by a priest, and supported by a plaintive rendering of her theme. At 1:35 we change scenes atop Gringoire’s Theme as we see him writing an appeal to the King while arguing with Clopin against using violence. Gringoire’s Theme blossoms with confidence as he takes his handiwork to the King. “Conspiracy of the Nobles” reveals the nobles signing a legal demand that the King lift the Sanctuary exception to French law so they might bring Esmeralda to execution. Frollo is the last to sign this direct challenge to the King’s authority. A coup d’état is planned if the king refuses. No music was used for this scene. In “Frollo’s Confession” Gringoire’s petition has roused the people of Paris who assemble outside the royal palace to protect the King from the influence of the corrupt nobles. Inside the Archbishop declares Esmeralda innocent, which elicits the King’s demand that he reveal the murderer. Frollo relents, declares he is the murderer and departs. The King is stunned, hesitates, and then orders Frollo’s arrest. No music supports this scene.

“Clopin Calls Charge” offers a grand score highlight, which supports the battle of Notre Dame. It reveals Frollo on horseback viewing Notre Dame from afar as Clopin has assembled his army of thieves and beggars for an imminent assault to retrieve Esmeralda and protect her from the nobles. Frollo’s malignant theme speaks of his design to enter the cathedral and kill Esmeralda. Clopin and his guards approach the cathedral carried by the Beggar’s Theme emoted as a proud anthem and demand that the Archbishop release Esmeralda to their care and protection. This anthem is not presented on the album. As the town’s craftsmen and priests join and form a line in front of the cathedral, they assert they come to defend sanctuary from all, including the nobles. Clopin orders his men to charge and the cue begins with a determined Beggars Theme emoted as a marcia bravura supporting his men approaching Notre Dame. Interplay with Quasimodo’s Theme unfolds on a solo oboe and kindred woodwinds as we see him scurrying in Notre Dame making preparations for defense. When he alerts Esmeralda that a mob has come to execute her, her plaintive theme sounds (not on the album cue). Newman whips his orchestra into action as the Beggar’s Theme contests with a militarized rendering of Quasimodo Theme, who defends Notre Dame single handily by pummeling the people below with huge blocks of wood and bricks. We build to a crescendo that culminates with trilling woodwinds at 1:57 as Quasimodo overturns a cauldron of molten metal which rains down on the men below as a shower of death. Spirited thematic interplay continues joined at 3:07 by the horn declared King’s Theme emoted as an anthem as the royal guard rides in to the rescue. It gains ascendency as the crowd is overwhelmed. We segue seamlessly into “Victory at Notre Dame”, another outstanding cue with wonderful thematic interplay. We shift aloft to the bell tower as Esmeralda rings the bell as a call for help. Interplay between Quasimodo’s Theme and the horn declared King’s Theme contests with Frollo’s Theme as he ascends the bell tower ladders and we see Frollo chasing Esmeralda. At 2:07 we begin an inspired crescendo empowered by horns declaring the King’s Theme, which culminates with Quasimodo dispatching Frollo of his knife and then throwing him off the tower to his death.

In “Clopin on Ground” Gringoire declares that Esmeralda has been pardoned and that the Gypsies are welcome to live freely in France, which elicits celebratory cheers from the crowd. Gringoire is then summoned to Clopin who is mortally wounded. An elegy supports Gringoire stating that he should have had faith and that violence was not needed. Clopin passes uttering he believed it to be a poet’s dream. As Esmeralda departs Notre Dame the Ave Maria Theme supports her exit and thanks to the Archbishop. As she and Gringoire depart together her theme unfolds as a Love Theme as a dispirited Quasimodo watches from above. At 1:13 Esmeralda turns back to gaze at Notre Dame, Quasimodo in her thoughts and a plaintive quote of his theme brings home the tragedy that sadly his heroism does not change his circumstance. The film closes sadly with Quasimodo sitting next to a gargoyle and asking his brother “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?” We segue at 1:32 into “Hallelujah Reprise” and are graced with an orchestral embellished reprise of the celebratory hymn, which ends gloriously in a flourish. “End Cast” supports the roll of the end credits and we are graced one last time with a sumptuous rendering of Esmeralda’s Theme, which culminates in a flourish.

Editor’s Note: this review relates to the music as heard on the compilation album The Classic Film Music of Alfred Newman, and contains music from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and two other classic Newman scores, Beau Geste and All About Eve. The music was reconstructed by film music archivists William Stromberg and John Morgan and re-recorded in Moscow; it has been released twice, first by the Marco Polo label in 1997, and then again (with identical content) by Naxos in 2007.

I would like to thank Betta International, the Marco Polo Label, and the creative team of John Morgan and William Stromberg for this premier recording of Alfred Newman’s Oscar nominated score “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. The digital recording offers exceptional quality, however as noted by John Morgan in public comments at Film Score Monthly, there were challenges and some imperfections with the performance as influenza ravaged many of the regular performers and the substitutes in both the orchestra and choir were less than satisfactory. I believe that despite these small imperfections, the beauty of Newman’s music shines through and affords the listener a wonderful listening experience. Newman was not a religious man and yet throughout his career he demonstrated a gift for tapping into the Divine. He was challenged by this film to speak to the sacred, and the profane, the contest between good versus evil, and of heroism versus villainy.

I believe he succeeded on all counts. Notable is how his themes captured the personas of the main characters, fleshed out their feelings and motivations. I believe that Maureen O’Hara’s debut performance, which launched her career was aided by Newman’s sensual theme for Esmeralda. How his music spoke to Quasimodo’s deformity and loneliness as well as the sinister motivations and barren heart of Frollo profoundly enhanced and fortified their performances. The thematic interplay was engaging as well as the film ending action pieces, which helped propel the story’s narrative. Folks, I commend John Morgan for his restoration and orchestration of Newman’s masterwork as well as William Stromberg’s masterful conducting under challenging circumstances. I consider this one of the finest of Newman’s early canon and a gem of the Golden Age. This compilation album, which also includes a recording of Newman’s score to “Beau Geste” (reconstructed by William Stromberg) and a suite from “All About Eve” offer a quality product, which I recommend you add to your collection. I again commend the creative team for their efforts to resurrect classic film scores of the Golden Age so they are available to new generations of devoted fans.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the score’s most evocative cue – “Esmeralda Walks The Steps” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gO_YQLN6Zx8

Buy the Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title and Forward (1:47)
  • The Gypsies (1:13)
  • The Festival (1:05)
  • In The King’s Box (1:19)
  • The Dance of Death (0:52)
  • Garbage at Gringoire (0:40)
  • Esmeralda’s Dance (2:30)
  • Thank You Mother of God (4:57)
  • Whipping (2:38)
  • Esmeralda Walks up Steps (4:10)
  • A Woman Has Bewitched Me (3:28)
  • Hallelujah (0:58)
  • Esmeralda in Bell Tower (2:43)
  • Clopin Calls Charge (4:03)
  • Victory at Notre Dame (3:07)
  • Clopin on Ground – Hallelujah Reprise (2:29)
  • End Cast (0:47)

Running Time: 38 minutes 40 seconds

Marco Polo 8-223750 (1939/1997)
Naxos 8-570187 (1939/2007)

Music composed by Alfred Newman. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by The Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Eddie Powell, Robert Russell Bennett, Leonid Raab and Conrad Salinger. Recorded and mixed by Edvard Shakhnazarian and Vitaly Ivanov. Score produced by Alfred Newman.

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