Gormenghast, the BBC adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast,
the first two books of an uncompleted sequence of novels by Mervin Peak,
is a major television event. Though rather more of an event than it would
have been had the BBC not long ago rejected its obligation to a balanced
output of drama, including regular, serious, well-made and intelligent adult
science fiction and fantasy. Hopefully, Gormenghast marks the beginning
of the BBC starting to put things right, though more realistically, it will
probably be something the BBC use as an excuse to do nothing else for the
next 30 years.
For the moment though, via this lavish gothic fairytale the BBC is taking
the fantastical seriously, for which no further evidence is required than
to look at the names responsible for the music. Though not prolific, Richard
Rodney Bennett is one of our finest film composers, his great score for Far
From the Madding Crowd (1967) alone sufficient to rank him with the best.
His music is conducted by the composer John Harle, himself a member of the
Michael Nyman Orchestra, and who can currently be heard playing the saxophone
on the soundtrack of The End of the Affair. The producers managed
a further coup in signing one of the most acclaimed and popular contemporary
'classical' composers, John Tavener (which is not to say that Bennett does
not also write concert music), to provide four choral pieces. Resolutely
committed to the Greek Orthodox interpretation of the Christian faith, for
decades virtually all of Tavener's works have been serious religious
compositions, so engaging him for a television drama really is an achievement
Gormenghast is a vast, crumbling castle subject to arcane law and ruled by
a detached and eccentric aristocracy. Published in the aftermath of the Second
World War, there is clearly a large element of social satire, a commentary
on a British Empire in decline looking back to better days. The drama is
also informed by a certain orientalism of outlook, Peak having spent his
childhood in a remote part of China, though this is more implicit than explicit.
Accordingly, Bennett has fashioned a score solidly within the 20th
century English classical tradition. Here is confident, imperious music,
complete with a very strong main theme and regal fanfares such as aptly describes
the imperial and noble nature of Gormenghast. The beautifully crafted and
performed title song sets a text from Peak's books. Within this sound world
is a rich, sultry musical fantasy, an exoticism which suggests the human
desires locked within the monumental architectural and social structures.
Inside this, is darkly brooding and inventively suspenseful dramatic writing
which calls to mind Bernard Herrmann and his wonderful work for Jane
Eyre or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and, Journey to the Centre
of the Earth, without for a moment ever becoming derivative.
The range of orchestration is dazzling, for gorgeous harp and strings for
the opening of 'Ceremony in the Rain', to the glittering panoply of percussion
which runs throughout many of the tracks. 'The Death of Swelter' summons
visions of John Williams scale epic action writing, while 'Irma's Romance'
offers a waltz which may not surpass Bennett's own Murder on the Orient
Express, but is certainly a fine companion. 'The Death of Steerpike'
is a powerful finale, while the following funeral music and farewell bring
the album to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
John Tavener's music illustrates the rituals which take-place on screen in
various parts of the story. Three are new works, while one is adapted from
music the composer wrote for his father's funeral. The arrangements are by
Paul Goodwin. The music is characteristic of the composer, eloquent, beautiful,
and strange by turns.
The sound throughout is superb, with a detail and clarity befitting a first
class classical release, and the performances are magnificent. Television
music has been improving immeasurably in recent years, and regardless of
carping from certain quarters, Gormenghast is simply one of the finest
scores ever written for the medium. The album is generously expansive, but
not for a moment does it outstay its welcome, making it an absolutely essential
Gary S. Dalkin