Mortimer WILSON (1876–1932)
The Thief of Bagdad, Op. 74 (1924)
Score Reconstruction: Mark Fitz-Gerald (first recording)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Mark Fitz-Gerald
rec. 11 April 2019 at the Sendesaal, Hessicher Rundfunk, Frankfurt, Germany
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR126 [74:45]
Douglas Fairbanks Sr. began his film career in 1915, and for the next five years appeared in contemporary social comedies. By chance, I saw two of those recently: they were delightful. But in viewing them one senses that Fairbanks needed a larger canvas for his athleticism and flamboyant personality. He achieved this in 1920 with “The Mark of Zorro”, and from then until the end of the Silent Era he was known for his historical swashbucklers. It was these films that made him “The King of Hollywood”.
Fairbanks paid attention to every detail of a film’s production, and added new elements to each new film. In “The Thief of Bagdad” of 1924, he sought out the composer Mortimer Wilson to provide a full-fledged classical score. He told Wilson to “make your score as artistic as you can and don’t jump around like a banderlog from one mood to another at the expense of your musical ideas”. This is a far cry from the cue sheets with pre-existing music that were common in movie theatres of the time. Mark Fitz-Gerald has restored this “screen symphony” to its original form and orchestration, as he has done with many other silent and sound films (review ~ review ~ review). The result is a work of art in itself.
Before we get to the score, a little about Mortimer Wilson, a respected composer in his day, but almost forgotten now. He was born in Ohio and studied in Chicago, and years later with Reger. In his lifetime, he was well-known for his six years as the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. Later he was consulting editor for the National Academy of Music in New York. His musical style is similar to that of his contemporaries Henry Hadley and Frederick Shepherd Converse. Wilson wrote five symphonies and a number of other orchestral and chamber works, but currently none are available on disc except his 1911 Suite "From my youth". Among his works are Silhouettes from the Screen, dating from 1919, which included a portrait of Douglas Fairbanks (cf. Koechlin’s Seven Stars Symphony). Wilson attended the filming of “The Thief of Bagdad” and spent many hours in the editing room combining his music with the film. He provided leit-motifs for each character. They are developed symphonically in a manner somewhat similar to that of Korngold, whose description of his own film scores – “…little operas without singing” – could apply to Wilson’s score as well.
The plot of the film, a combination of several Arabian Nights tales, centers on Ahmed, the Thief of Bagdad, who spends much of Part 1 of the film athletically plying his trade. After pretending to be one of the suitors for the hand of the Caliph of Bagdad’s daughter, he falls in love with the Princess, a feeling that is mutual. To forestall the other suitors, the Princess says that she will marry the man who brings back the “rarest treasure”. The suitors head off on the quest, as does Ahmed, with the help and advice of a Holy Man. Much of Part 2 relates the efforts of Ahmed and the other suitors to find the “rarest treasure”, although most of the adventures are Ahmed’s. With each one, he obtains another magic treasure that will be useful later in the film. It is in his descriptions of the adventures of all four suitors that, as Patrick Stansbury informs us in his section of the notes to this disc, that Wilson’s studies with Reger are evident. He shows great harmonic and orchestral daring in his music. Ahmed’s three rivals return to Bagdad, but the Princess, waiting for Ahmed’s return, again puts them off. One of the three suitors, the evil Mongol Prince, with the help of a “fifth column” within Bagdad, takes over the city, and is about to marry the Princess, when Ahmed appears and defeats the Mongol Prince with the help of one of his treasures, a magic army (track 38). The Princess and Ahmed fly off on another of Ahmed’s treasures, the Magic Carpet.
We can only point out a few highlights of Wilson’s score. The Prelude (track 1), laying out the principal themes, would make a good encore at an orchestral concert, and the episodes associated with Ahmed’s friend the Holy Man (tracks 2, 6) are moving without being treacly. Equally notable are Wilson’s transformation of Ahmed’s theme into that of the evil Mongol Prince (track 9), reminiscent of Liszt’s transformation of Faust’s theme in the Faust Symphony, and the beautiful music for Ahmed’s first view of the Princess (track 12). I have already mentioned the music of the various quests in Part 2, but cannot forebear citing Wilson’s description of the giant bats in the Cavern of the Enchanted Trees (track 28).
Mark Fitz-Gerald’s meticulous reconstruction of Wilson’s score never sounds anything but fresh and spontaneous. It is important to mention that his conducting is as good as his reconstructing, and it is superfluous to say that he commands the style of silent-film music. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony play brilliantly, and their first-desk players deal superbly with the many instrumental solos. Recording is crisp and the placement of microphones well-thought out. Mortimer Wilson wrote the music for Fairbanks’s next two films, “Don Q, Son of Zorro” (1925) and “The Black Pirate” (1926). Given the riches of his score for “The Thief of Bagdad”, one would hope that Mark Fitz-Gerald turns his attention to these two scores. As for this disc, it is very much worthy of your attention, even if you have no familiarity with the film.
Previous review: NÚstor Castiglione