Film Feature: Nathan the Wise — A Silent Film for Humanity

Thought to be lost, the only existing print of NATHAN THE WISE was discovered in Moscow in 1996. The Coolidge Corner Theatre is screening a tinted and restored version of the film, with an original score by Aaron Trant performed live by the After Quartet.

Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), based on the play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Directed by Manfred Noa. Music composed by Aaron Trant and performed by the After Quartet. At the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Sunday, September 11 @ 11 a.m.

By Bill Marx

The After Quartet — flexible enough to perform any style a film might demand. Photo: Anthony Sanna

The Coolidge Corner Theater will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with a screening of the 1922 silent film Nathan the Wise (Nathan Der Weise), an adaptation of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play by the German-Jewish director Manfred Noa (1893 -1930). Boston-based percussionist Aaron Trant and the After Quartet will perform Trant’s score, which was commissioned by the Goethe Institut-Boston. Thought to be lost, the only existing print of Nathan the Wise was discovered in Moscow (filed under the title The Storming of Jerusalem) in 1996. The print to be shown at the Coolidge Corner Theater is tinted and crisply restored.

A first-rate theater critic and dramaturg (he essentially invented the job), Lessing penned a number of dramas: Nathan the Wise, his most celebrated stage work, still receives productions around the world. (I saw a staging in New York about a decade ago.) Set in and around Jerusalem at the time of the Third Crusade, Lessing’s powerful drama shows how Christians, Muslims, and Jews, set against each other by forces of greed and hatred, reconcile via the “ring parable,” a didactic political fable which brings the three religions together in a conception of faith that raises reason over dogma.

(A special free seminar on Wednesday, September 7 at the Goethe Institut-Boston will examine the play on which the film is based)

Noa said his film version is a “plea for humanity,” its call for mutual understanding, toleration, and peace an obvious rebuke to the chaos of World War I. The film sticks closely to the play, though the crowded battle scenes and lush sets reach for epic opulence. The Nazis targeted the film’s sympathetic treatment of the Jews — they banned it. The cast includes Werner Krauss (Nathan), the crazed heavy in the German Expressionist milestone The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — ironically, the actor was tapped to play one of the evil Jews in the Nazi antisemitic propaganda film Jew Süss.

I spoke to Trant about the appeal of writing music for silent films and whether Nathan the Wise posed any special problems.

Arts Fuse: What other silent films have you written an original score for?

Aaron Trant: I have written scores for Buster Keaton’s short The Frozen North, Chris Marker’s La Jetee, and an 8 minute found footage of a driver education film. The found footage and the Keaton were written for After Quartet and the Marker film I wrote for solo percussion, which I performed for my graduate recital at New England Conservatory.

AF: What is the appeal of composing music for silent films—and for Nathan the Wise in particular?

Aaron Trant — his approach to percussion has always been melodic vs. drummy.

Trant: I have always enjoyed playing and writing with visual art. I have worked with dancers, visual artists, and performance art. Working with film is another way to add a visual element to the music.

When the Goethe Institut-Boston asked me to work with Nathan I was excited at first to compose music for a “new” film. This film was thought lost for about 60 years, so it is essentially new. As I looked into the storyline more, I was really interested in fusing the cultures and conflicts with music.

AF: How have your other scores influenced your approach to Nathan the Wise?

Trant: I’m lucky enough as a composer that I usually know and write specifically for the musicians that will be performing. This has influenced me more then my other scores for film. That said, having written for other films, I was able to organize how/what I would interact with visually and what I might ignore or not point out. This aspect of film scoring can be very daunting for the first time. It has also been helpful for organizing visual cues for the musicians.

AF: In what ways does your being a percussionist influence how you compose for silent films? Nathan the Wise is not much of an action film . . . are you concerned with overwhelming the story?

Trant: Funny you ask this! My approach to percussion has always been melodic vs. “drummy” so I always look for melody, color, and groove. Even though Nathan isn’t action based, there is one long battle scene and many other parts circling military action. This lends itself to more march or “drummy” writing. My approach to any film I’m scoring is to support the visuals and the storyline. That is what is most important. I feel the music should generally serve the visuals. My goal with Nathan was the same, music as support, not overwhelming the film.

AF: Could you talk about the musical strengths of After Quartet and the instrumentation for your score for Nathan the Wise.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: A triple threat — critic, dramaturg, and dramatist

Trant: What I admire in any musician is a high level of ability in many styles. The musicians in After Quartet (which is sometimes a trio) have to be flexible to perform any style a film might demand. This particular group is needed to play everything from standard choral type sound to straight-ahead jazz to free noise improv. Both Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Scot Fitzsimmons (bass) are very comfortable with all these styles. I decided to add drumset, vibes, and a few other percussion instruments to complete the ensemble.

AF: The religious message of harmony posed by Nathan the Wise suggests a melding of musical influences from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions. How much of a challenge did that pose for the score?

Trant: This is something I went back and forth on many times. I had several ideas written down that would fuse various musical traditions of each culture, I also tried using very traditional themes for each character. Neither of these ideas seemed right. Too cliché or contrived. I also felt I wanted to include a 4th element to incorporate the 9/11 memorial in which this is being premiered. I decided to make the music as “American” as possible. I have included jazz styles, minimalism, and free improv to connect all of these cultures. Even the choice of instruments feels very “American” to me.

AF: How much room is there for improvisation? Musicians playing with silent films will sometimes react to the mood of the crowd—this is a film with a very inspiring message.

Trant: All of my music (thus far) features some type of improvisation. Nathan includes various types of jazz improv as well as free improvisation. I think that developing a theme along with a character is often best done on the spot with good musicians. I think this score has a good balance between composed music and improvisation.

A scene from NATHAN THE WISE

AF: How does After Quartet’s silent film scoring fit in with other approaches, such as the Alloy Orchestra’s? There seems to be a fruitful tension between those opting for a traditional approach with those attempting more experimental sounds. Also, there’s an interesting conflict between those who emphasize percussion and those who don’t.

Trant: As a musician and composer for After Quartet I like fusing new/non-traditional music with old/stylized film. I think the new music element brings new life to these great movies and hopefully opens them up to a new audience. I’ve seen Alloy only a couple of times. I like what they do. I have always wanted a concert of three or four silent movie groups to do different scores to the same film. Seeing what each group chooses to emphasize or to mickey mouse would be really interesting. Music, even subtle, can really influence what a viewer can take from a film. As far as using percussion or not, I’m a percussionist, so why wouldn’t you use percussion? I need the gig!

1 Comment

  1. Susan G. Bob on August 30, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Very interesting interview. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing it.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts