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HESPERUS records a score for The Mark of Zorro in March.

In 1920 Douglas Fairbanks was tired of making romantic comedies; he wanted roles that exploited his athleticism, his flair for romantic drama, and his interest in the exotic and historic. The Mark of Zorro was his first attempt at this new type of film, soon called a swashbuckler, and Zorro was so successful that it jump-started a whole new genre.

Three Musketeers
D'Artagnan and the three musketeers

The termswashbuckler’ was first used in the 16th century to describe a rough, noisy and boastful swordsman who fought with a long sword in one hand and a small shield, called a buckler, in the other. In the 20th century, ‘swashbuckler’ expanded to describe a fictional, adventurous, sword-wielding, male character seeking to win the heart of a beautiful lady while rescuing society from the clutches of a dastardly villain. Such characters, including D’Artagnan, Ivanhoe, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood and Zorro, were often portrayed in film by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr., Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power.

The character of Zorro was first introduced in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 fictional story, ‘The Curse of Capistrano.’ Although Zorro was only a supporting character, Fairbanks saw him as the lynch pin around whom the whole plot turned, and the screenplay was adapted from the original tale with few changes.

The imaginative McCulley took a few liberties with California history; Don Diego de la Vega is supposed to have returned to California from Spain in 1840, but Mexico actually took over governance of California in 1821 and expelled anyone with connections to Spain. Still, this artistic license encouraged HESPERUS to take a few liberties of its own with the musical score; we’ve selected a musical genre first popular in the 16th century, but still played in Spain and Latin American up to the present day—improvised melodies over a variety of ‘ground basses.’

These short, repeating renaissance bass patterns with names such as the Romanesca, Folia, Passamezzo Antico, Passamezzo Moderno, Ruggiero and La Gamba were the ancestors of such hits as Greensleeves and the Pachelbel Canon, as well as more recent favorites like Heart and Soul and Smoke in the Water. In all these pieces the bass came first and the tune was then improvised or written above it.

Spanish music of the 16th and 17th centuries abounded in written out ground bass variations, and learning how to create them became so important that treatises were published by such masters as Diego Ortiz, whose method book of 1530 included eight well-constructed variation sets over what he called ‘Italian tenors.’ Later, some of the melodic variations became well-known tunes in their own right such as Greensleeves, based on both the Passamezzo Antico and Romanesca ground basses.

For our Zorro score, we use these ground basses, as well as a few other well-known combinations of bass pattern and tune; Aria del Gran Duca from 1592 and Michel Praetorius’ 17th c. Pavan da Spaigne, and Spagnoletta. In mid-March, Grant Herreid and I will go into the studio to record the score as we watch the film. It will be edited with Pro Tools, an editing system that shows both video and audio tracks, and should be released in the summer. This will be HESPERUS’ first complete silent film score, and it’s about time!