Act 1 No 4: Nocturne [3'03]
Our recording of, issued in January 1999, produced an enormous approving postbag from which we discovered that there is still a strong affection for English musical comedies from the early years of the last century. Encouraged by its success we have now recorded The Maid of the Mountains, the smash hit of 1917. A more romantic tale than The Geisha, it has probably even more 'hit' numbers, the most famous of which are A bachelor gay ('At seventeen he falls in love quite madly …'), Love will find a way ('Whate'er befall, I still recall that sunlit mountainside, where hearts are true, and skies are blue, and love's the only guide'), Husbands and wives and A paradise for two. There are also humorous interludes from Richard Suart (I understood and Dirty work). Altogether well over an hour's worth of tuneful and good-natured entertainment with a strong cast directed by the master of English light music, Ronald Corp.
During the dark days of the First World War, two shows provided London theatre-goers with romantic musical escapism. The Oscar Asche/Frederic Norton ‘musical tale of the east’ Chu Chin Chow notched up a London long-running record of 2,238 consecutive performances that would last for almost forty years. Though the 1,352 consecutive performances of The Maid of the Mountains seem modest by comparison, that itself was almost twice the previous record, and the run was terminated only when its leading lady José Collins cried ‘Enough!’.
The show’s composer was born Harold Fraser Simson (the hyphen came later) at 3 Dawson Place, Bayswater, London, on 15 August 1872. He was the second child and eldest son of a well-to-do family, his father Arthur Theodore Simson being an East Indies merchant. His mother, née Jane Anne Catherine Fraser, was the daughter of a Scottish civil servant in the East Indies, and it was there that the eldest child was born. After returning to London they lived briefly in Bayswater before settling in south London. Harold Fraser Simson spent just two terms at Charterhouse School in 1886, before continuing his education locally at Dulwich College, where he became a member of the 3rd XV. According to Who’s Who, his subsequent education was at King’s College and in France, and he is also credited with being decorated a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur—presumably for service in World War I.
He worked for some years for a firm of ship-owners in Mincing Lane in the City of London, before the City gave way to his musical ambitions. These were first demonstrated by some published songs, after which he gained entry to the London musical theatre in 1911 with the comic opera Bonita. Though no great success at the Queen’s Theatre, it was evidently sufficient to gain him the commission to compose the score for The Maid of the Mountains when he was already in his mid-forties.
The book of The Maid of the Mountains is by Frederick Lonsdale (1881–1954), who had already offered it to various impresarios before it was accepted by Robert Evett, who was then managing the estate of the impresario George Edwardes, who had died in 1915. Evett had been London’s original Camille de Rosillon in London’s first Merry Widow at Daly’s Theatre in Leicester Square, the home of so many glamorous musical shows in late-Victorian and Edwardian days. It was there that The Maid of the Mountains was scheduled. Its production has been described as a ‘death or glory venture’, since the George Edwardes estate was reputedly £80,000 in the red—a considerable sum at that time.
For the lyrics, Evett recruited Harry Graham (1874–1936), a former captain in the Coldstream Guards. To direct, he engaged that same Oscar Asche who as book author, lyricist, director and leading performer was behind the long-running Chu Chin Chow. For the leading male role of the bandit chief Baldassare (or Baldasarre—the vocal score and libretto disagree) he engaged the non-singing actor Arthur Wontner. The title role of Teresa was earmarked for José Collins (1887– 1959), whom Evett had wooed back to London from America, where she had been appearing in The Ziegfeld Follies. Mindful of the Edwardes estate’s perilous state, he had secured her services for only a fraction of what she had been earning in America. The leading male singing role was that of the brigand Beppo, played by the baritone Thorpe Bates, with support from comics Lauri de Frece as the bandit Tonio, Mabel Sealby as his abandoned wife Vittoria, and Mark Lester as General Malona, the provincial governor.
So much depended on José Collins and Oscar Asche to make the show a success that, when both advocated substantial changes to the book, Lonsdale was in no strong position to resist. Straight away José Collins rejected the original ending, which reconciled her to life with the bandit Beppo, in favour of winning the bandit chief Baldassare she had pursued throughout the show. The overall aim of the changes was to lighten the piece and, although the out-of-town try-out at the Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, on 23 December 1916 was a success, rewriting continued—to the extent that Lonsdale temporarily walked out. Nor did the score escape, since it was felt it lacked hit-number appeal. Fortunately José Collins knew just the man for that—her stepfather James W Tate, who happened to be in Manchester at the time.
Born in Wolverhampton, the son of a publican, James William Tate (1875–1922) was the eldest brother of the operatic soprano Maggie Teyte. In 1902 he had married José Collins’s mother, the dancer–singer Lottie Collins (1865– 1910), famous for introducing the song ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ to Britain. After Lottie Collins’s death, he married the variety singer Clarice Mayne, and served as her accompanist in a variety act known as ‘Clarice Mayne and ‘That’’. What is relevant here is that he was a highly talented composer of catchy songs, which included ‘I was a good little girl till I met you’ (1914), ‘A Broken Doll’ (1916), ‘Ev’ry little while’ (1916) and ‘Give me a little cosy corner’ (1918).
Tate wired his lyricist partners, Frank Clifford Harris (1875–1949) and ‘Valentine’ (Archibald Thomas Pechey, 1876–1961), to join him in Manchester. (‘Valentine’, incidentally, was the father of the television cook Fanny Craddock.) Altogether Tate and his lyricists added four songs, of which three (‘My life is love’, ‘A bachelor gay’ and ‘A paradise for two’) became outstanding hits alongside Fraser-Simson’s ‘Love will find a way’. Indeed, at the London first night it was Tate’s ‘A bachelor gay’ that, according to The Times, ‘compelled the producer to break through his stern rule of refusing encores’.
The rapturous reception given to The Maid of the Mountains at Daly’s launched it on its record-breaking path. It not only rescued the George Edwardes estate from bankruptcy but it also made the reputations and fortunes of those associated with it. Harold Fraser-Simson, especially, was able to complement his comfortable home in Acacia Road, NW8, with the purchase of Dalcross Castle at Croy in the Scottish Highlands, to the north-east of Inverness.
The show’s success was something which none of its participants could hope to repeat. James W Tate lived only a short time longer, dying in Stoke-on-Trent on 5 December 1922, aged forty-six, of pneumonia caught while travelling the country with his touring revues. Harold Fraser-Simon continued for a few years to compose scores in similar vein to The Maid of the Mountains. After A Southern Maid (Manchester, 1917; Daly’s 1920), came Our Peg (Manchester, 1919; revised as Our Nell, Lyric, 1924), Missy Jo (1921), Head Over Heels (1923), The Street Singer (1924) and Betty in Mayfair (1925). Audiences recognized his shows as an oasis of old-fashioned European romance amidst the currently popular American dance-style musical comedies.
Fraser-Simson also composed two ballets, A Venetian Wedding and The Nightingale and the Rose, and had considerable success with his incidental music for A A Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall (1929). Based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, it was revived in London as a Christmas show many times. He also published settings from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and songs from Milne’s When We Were Very Young, including once celebrated settings of ‘They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace’ and ‘Christopher Robin is saying his prayers’.
In 1925 Fraser-Simson wrote in some detail of his approach to composing The Maid of the Mountains:
In The Maid of the Mountains I tried to get the feeling of the rough camaraderie of the brigands on the lonely mountains, with a presage of romance and drama to come … To me, the tune must come at once, spontaneously, to be of any use … [The] ‘Song of the Brigands’ … gave me some trouble—and that came to me with the even beat of the wheels of the train on a railway journey. Another curious thing is that quite unconsciously ‘Sing hey! Sing ho!’ … is the exact interval of a bell in a church opposite the house in which I was staying at the time of writing it. ‘Love will find a way’ was written in Mr Robert Evett’s office at Daly’s. I played him a suggested waltz, and we were neither of us quite satisfied. Then he paced up and down the room and told me the situation again, and the atmosphere he wanted. … Then suddenly I said, ‘I know exactly what you mean’, and I played the tune practically as it now stands.
According to Frederick Lonsdale’s daughter and biographer Frances Donaldson, it was no accident that the first eight notes of the refrain of ‘Love will find a way’ are the first four notes of Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz, each played twice. She said her father had told her: ‘We all said to Fraser-Simson, “What we want is a waltz like The Merry Widow”. And he went home and wrote it.’
Fraser-Simson’s was a modest talent that he used to maximum effect. Such numbers as the beautiful barcarolle that opens Act 3 of The Maid of the Mountains stand out from the routine musical theatre music of the time. Testimony to the pride he took in his music is his collection of finely bound manuscript scores, which is now in The British Library. The collection includes full scores of Bonita, The Maid of the Mountains (with Fraser-Simson’s duet ‘Friendship and love’ in place of Tate’s ‘Paradise for two’), A Southern Maid, Our Peg, The Street Singer, Betty in Mayfair and Toad of Toad Hall and the two ballets, plus the vocal score of When We Were Very Young.
In his study Composers of Operetta, Gervase Hughes summed up the composer’s abilities thus: ‘Fraser-Simson’s melodies, though tiresomely conventional in pattern, were often very pretty; he rarely descended to vulgarity or cheap sentimentality and never fell a prey to jazz’. However, Hughes’s reference to the later scores as ‘more perfunctory’ sparked a response from the baritone George Baker, who recorded many of Fraser-Simson’s songs and knew him well:
[A] less perfunctory man never existed … To meet Fraser-Simson one would never guess he had ever tasted success in such large measure. He was modest to the point of shyness, and his heart was in the Highlands. Once his many theatre successes had been established, he left his charming house on the east side of Regent’s Park with all speed for Scotland.
In Harold Fraser-Simson there was indeed seemingly something of the country squire who loved, and took immense pride in, music as a diversion. A member of the Garrick Club and Richmond Golf Club, he listed his recreations in Who’s Who in the Theatre as ‘shooting, fishing, tennis and music’. From their Highland home, he and his wife Cicely took a great interest in all forms of cultural activity. During World War II, Cicely also did valuable work as organizer of the North of Scotland Blood Transfusion Service.
It was after an accident on the circular stone staircase at Dalcross Castle in his beloved Highlands that Harold Fraser-Simson died, aged 71, in an Inverness nursing home on 19 January 1944.
Andrew Lamb © 2000