Saturday, October 08, 2016

Film concert The Thief of Bagdad (1924), score: Mortimer Wilson, conductor: Mark Fitz-Gerald, performed by: Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone

Serata finale / Closing Night

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (Il ladro di Bagdad) (US 1924). D: Raoul Walsh. AD: William Cameron Menzies. C: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong. PC: Douglas Fairbanks Pictures. DCP, 154', col. (tinted); titles: ENG. Source: Photoplay Productions / Patrick Stanbury Collection, London.
    Score by Mortimer Wilson (1924), courtesy of Photoplay Productions / Patrick Stanbury Collection.
    Score arranged and synchronized by Mark Fitz-Gerald.
    Performed live by: Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone; conductor: Mark Fitz-Gerald.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Eventi Speciali.
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti, 8 Oct 2016.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 poster, Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (Il ladro di Bagdad) Elaborazione grafica, Giulio Calderini, Carmen Marchese, photo Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

The Music

Mark Fitz-Gerald (GCM Catalog and website): "Douglas Fairbanks’s commission to Mortimer Wilson (1876–1932) to create the orchestral score for The Thief of Bagdad was revolutionary – a revolution not altogether welcomed by Hollywood producers and musicians content with the industrial status quo of music for film performance. For the first time, Fairbanks recognized the composer as a creative collaborator, from the start, in the overall composition of his film – a situation paralleled to some degree by Shostakovich’s work on New Babylon, four years later."

"Wilson, a serious classical composer, proved an inspired choice. Born in rural Iowa, he studied organ, violin, and composition with Frederick Grant Gleason at the Chicago Music College, and at 25 was appointed head of the Department of Theory and Composition at the University of Nebraska. He moved on to Leipzig to study composition with the noted German composer Max Reger."

"Returning to the States, from 1911 to 1916 he conducted the Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra and taught at the Atlanta Conservatory, and thereafter until his early death was consulting editor for the National Academy of Music in New York. At the same time he was clearly already fascinated by motion pictures: in 1919 he published Silhouettes from the Screen, op. 55, whose five “Scriabinesque” movements were dedicated to William S. Hart, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Douglas Fairbanks (“Tempo di valse”)."

"Fairbanks, it was widely reported, instructed Wilson, “Make your score as artistic as you can and don’t feel that you have to jump like a banderlog from one mood to another at the expense of the development of your musical ideas.” In the New York Morning Telegraph, the composer and critic Theodore Stearns celebrated: “A big motion picture producer who is artist enough to say that to a composer has made musical history.” The Literary Digest observed that “Mr. Wilson has worked in the same spirit as the composer of a symphony employs in pursuing his ends. He is permitted to see his ideas develop with a regard to their own integrity and not become merely a running comment on the text of the picture.”"

"Uniquely, Wilson was present throughout the rehearsals and shooting of the film, constantly jotting down notes and ideas for the characters and moods. Subsequently he spent many hours in the projection room working out precise timings for every scene."

"Fairbanks’s revolution and Wilson’s finished score were however to meet fierce opposition as the premiere – at the Liberty Theatre, New York, on 18 March 1924 – drew near. Fairbanks had engaged the prominent Lithuanian-born impresario Morris Gest (Moishe Gershnowitz, 1875–1942), at a fee of $3,000 a week, to promote the film. One of Gest’s first contributions was to exhort Fairbanks to drop Mortimer Wilson’s score in favour of a composer “with a big name”. "

"Gillian Anderson (without citing the source) has given us Wilson’s personal account of what followed. With only two weeks to go and the parts already printed, Wilson was permitted to conduct his own score for the premiere and the first two weeks of the run. Gest’s only interference at this stage was to insist on the interpolation of a few (Wilson remembered ten) compilation extracts by other composers. Wilson managed imperceptibly to “lose” these in the first few days, though some were still with the score as we received it, and have been faithfully “unpinned” for our current restoration."

"A fortnight after the opening, however, the relentless Gest announced that a new compilation score – apparently the work of James C. Bradford (1885–1941) – was now ready and would be tried out. The unfortunate orchestra was consequently obliged to rehearse this for five hours each morning before going on to perform the matinee and evening performances with Wilson’s score. The new score (alleged to have cost $7,000) was finally tried for a single day; Wilson ironically comments that it “proved to be as good as any assembled score can be”. Bradford’s score was quietly forgotten, and Wilson’s was resumed for the rest of the run and went on to be performed in ten other cities."

"Wilson recalled that while Fairbanks had expressed his enthusiasm in a number of interviews, Gest instructed his New York press staff to “lay off the music”; and music critics were only invited after the abortive compilation try-out. “When the music critics did come, they made our score famous all over the United States in a few short weeks. The Literary Digest gave two pages to a review of the outstanding critiques... and a committee from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, after a visit to The Thief of Bagdad, performed a suite from our score at the Stadium concerts.” The veteran music critic and great Wagnerian Henry T. Finck declared in the New York Evening Post, “Yesterday he conducted the score as only the creator of the work [could] – he happened to be a born leader.”"

"Wilson was understandably unmoved by Gest’s first-night telegram, “I know you have the goods”: “It only goes to show that the serious American composer and conductor will be discriminated against just so long as certain European managers who are un-Americanized are active in catering to the American public.”"

"Wilson’s work with Reger had evidently endowed him with an enormous palette of harmonic skills as well as particular ingenuity with orchestration and counterpoint – exemplif ied in the miniature fugue which introduces the three eunuchs in Part One of The Thief. Like Shostakovich, Wilson did not propose precise metronome speeds, but only added vague traditional indications like allegro and largo. The only precise indication in Wilson’s Thief score is the note “Film speed: 85’”, which evidently indicates feet per minute, and is equivalent to 22.6 frames per second – guidance more helpful to the projectionist than to the conductor. (Patrick Stanbury has chosen to run the film slightly slower than this indicated speed.)"

"The restoration of the score has inevitably been a challenge. In late 2015, in advance of receiving a working copy of this new restoration of the film, Patrick Stanbury introduced me to his collection of material for Wilson’s score. This was without a full score, but a “piano conductor” score with many instrumental cues. This contains very few errors, and must have been well supervised by the composer himself. However, the original orchestral parts, which were also present, were riddled with errors and problems. A basic diff iculty was that on each page the clef and key signature appear only once, on the top line – a fairly standard practice at that time, buthazardously confusing for a complex composition with endless concealed new key signature and clef changes."

"There were innumerable errors to be spotted and corrected, not only involving incorrect notes. For example, we discovered that some of the trumpet part (in B flat) had been copied in error into the horn part – in F. A compensation was that the instrumental parts had been printed on stiff paper in folding concertina form, precluding awkward page turns and cascading scores. The parts had evidently been cheerfully used without correction."

"Wilson organizes his score in 82 titled sections, with only half a dozen specific cues. During many weeks of measuring and constantly re-checking the 82 sections with a stop-watch and metronome, it became clear that only about 80% of the music could be fitted with the film. Of the other 20%, there were some passages where there was music but no film, and even more passages where there was film but no corresponding music. Many of the problems came in Part Two. In total there were 2 sections of music and no film; 7 sections where there was either no – or in a couple of cases not enough – music, adding up to over 15 minutes. Some of these lacunae could be filled by careful addition. A couple of sections for which the score provided no music could only be sorted by constructing them from other parts of the film."

"A total of 11 repeats had to be removed, and 3 new repeats added. In this work, the collaboration of our small team of expert computer copyists – Stephen Anthony Brown, Christopher Taylor, and Ray Lee – was indispensable."

"The explanation of these gaps and inconsistencies was given by Wilson himself, in an unsourced letter of 1927, again cited by Gillian Anderson: “I have seen the film grow daily, from one hundred feet to fifteen or twenty thousand feet, in four months, and subsequently viewed the cutting process back to ten thousand feet, as ready for the market. During this time I have written the music for every foot of the film, finally, cutting to match the footage. Now here is where the main difficulty lies. The producer never knows what the sequence of the footage will be until after the first public performances. It is a case, you see, of trying it on the dog, so to speak. Now the original score must keep pace with all the various changes in footage and sequence which are made from time to time. That would be simple enough, of course, if the tempos of various operators in the booth were somewhat similar, but you will readily understand that the interest of the average operator is not with the music in such a case, but with his own comfort.” As it survives, the score shows that the composer was not always able to keep abreast of the cuts and insertions after the premiere."

"Wilson chose to work with an orchestra of moderate size, presumably in the hope that this would make the project available to smaller outlying cinemas. It is written for 1 flute (= piccolo), 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, harp, percussion, and a flexible string section. The work is sometimes referred to as “a screen symphony”. Despite being complex structurally and harmonically, it has a great musical unity. To respect this symphonic continuity, Wilson resists slavishly following every small action of the film. He delights in allusions to the styles of other composers. The film opens and closes with the priest (imam) revealing the moral of the tale, written in the stars: “Happiness must be earned.” The music here seems to allude to Puccini’s aria “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, while in the second part, the music for the flying horse is not without hints of Wagner’s Valkyrie steeds."

"Do not be deceived by the music in Part One, with its exotic mood to suit pickpockets and prayers, as well as moments of fabulous verismo-erotic love music. In Part Two, as the Thief undertakes the trial of the six moons, the music develops a grotesque and terrifying character, not unrelated to some of the more extreme moments of Alban Berg. The six moon sections are skilfully shaped in the form of a stylized rondo; and as the Thief triumphs over each ordeal there is a frisky scherzo coda, in which we recognize a distinctly Regeresque allusion to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony."

"With the ending, the “magic carpet” music takes on a character of beautiful simplicity, with gentle woodwind trills as the opening motto, “Happiness must be earned”, is again written in the stars as the Thief and his Princess fly serenely past the Moon on their magic carpet.

– Mark Fitz-Gerald

"Wilson went on to compose scores for Fairbanks’s Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) and The Black Pirate (1926). A Wikipedia reference to a score for The Mark of Zorro (1920) cannot be substantiated by reference to the Mortimer Wilson archive, now at UCLA."

The Thief of Bagdad, Aerial view of the set construction, photo: Photoplay Productions.

The Thief of Bagdad, photo: Menzies Family Collection, Barry Lauesen.

The Thief of Bagdad, photo: Photoplay Productions.

The Thief of Bagdad. Anna May Wong, Douglas Fairbanks.

Arthur F. Kales: Anna May Wong in Thief of Bagdad, 1924.

AA: We saw in Helsinki on 26 March 2004 Carl Davis at the Finlandia Hall conducting his magnificent score for The Thief of Bagdad, performed by the Radio Symphony Orchestra. We were delighted to hear the inspired interpretation and arrangement based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Played by a Finnish orchestra it was impossible to ignore the association that Sibelius must have heard it before composing his Violin Concerto. That gave us a sweet and thrilling bonus. The cultural context was perfect since Douglas Fairbanks was inspired by Ballets Russes, Nijinsky, Bakst – and Diaghilev's Scheherazade.

But I have been aware for a long time that according to Gillian Anderson Mortimer Wilson's original music for The Thief of Bagdad is the finest of all American silent film scores. I had been looking forward to hear it at last.

But it was late, and the main film started 50 minutes after the start of the closing gala with an overture of seven minutes. I watched some 40 minutes with a growing awareness of a wake-up call five hours later to an early morning flight before which I had my packing to do. I could not focus anymore and left my back row seat on the second balcony. (I usually sit in the very first row but I had failed to queue on time this year).

What I heard was very good, but I was aware from Mark Fitz-Gerald's program note that the most rewarding passages of the music would be forthcoming in Part Two. I am now looking forward even more determinedly to finally to hear the entire Mortimer Wilson score at last!

Scheherazade. Set and costume design for Sergei Diaghilev: Léon Bakst.

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