Philip SAINTON (1897-1967)
Moby Dick (1956) [63.13]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra, members of Moscow Chorus/William Stromberg
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, April 1997
NAXOS FILM MUSIC CLASSICS 8.573367 [63.13]
Philip Sainton is little-known nowadays, but he was a member of what might generically be described as the ‘English pastoral school’. Some of his concert works such as The dream of the marionette and Nadir were restored to the catalogue by Chandos, the adventurous Mathias Bamert and the Philharmonia Orchestra, although no longer listed by Archiv as currently available. Music from both these scores was recycled by the composer into his only film score, that for John Huston’s controversial production of Moby Dick. The score here has been restored by John Morgan and William Stromberg, and it proves a thoroughly worthwhile rediscovery. This process of restoration included the reinstatement of music cut during the process of film editing working from the original manuscript which was apparently difficult to decipher in places. Same passages had to be transcribed — where the score had simply gone missing — from the dated sound on the film soundtrack. I should make a point here of recording the inestimable debt of gratitude we owe to those indefatigable musicians who toil to put film scores of this period into a performable state, a task which is much harder to undertake that many listeners will realise. Also we should lament the fact that so many short-sighted studios simply discarded scores and musical material after they had been recorded for the film and served their purpose, a policy from which Sainton was far from the only composer to suffer.
The film was not universally well received by critics at the time of its original release, complaints being made about the long stretches where nothing much seemed to happen and the inadequacy of the ‘special effects’ available to film-makers at the time. In fact nothing had been spared to ensure its success. The script was adapted from Melville’s infamously wordy novel by no less a writer than Ray Bradbury. Director John Huston made sure that Philip Sainton was involved with the production process from an early stage, giving him ample time to gestate and write a seriously symphonic score - which explains why some passages written had to be subsequently jettisoned. Sainton was seriously ill at the time, but the result is a masterpiece of film scoring which, if it had been written by a more established composer such as Bernard Herrmann - as had at one time been suggested - would long have laid claim to a whole batch of recordings. As it was, it had to wait until 1997 until this stereo recording emerged following extensive restoration. What is odder is the fact that it has had no successors; possibly for copyright reasons.
Be that as it may, this pioneering release did the music proud. Stromberg and his Moscow players had already made a considerable number of recordings of classic film scores for the Marco Polo label, and were thoroughly immersed in the idiom. So too were the members of the Moscow Chorus who sing the hymn in the church on one track; the scene in the film was famous for a cameo appearance by Orson Welles. Each of the film cues is separately tracked, which causes some initial concern when it is seen how fragmentary some of them are; but there is a real symphonic sweep which binds the score together, and the final scene of the encounter with the whale extends for over ten minutes of continuous music. Ian Lace, reviewing the original Marco Polo issue in December 1998 for this site, gave a very full description of the music and I would refer readers to that comprehensive review for further details. The MusicWeb International site also contains a substantial description by Bill Whitaker of the process by which this recording emerged. I only need to supplement this by the observation that the original “horrible-sounding” film soundtrack album to which he refers seems to have been deleted from the catalogues since 1998.
The Marco Polo recording now re-emerges on Naxos and commendably comes complete with the full and elaborate documentation (running to thirteen pages in the booklet) which accompanied its original release. This includes a note on the film by Ann Howard Whitaker, an elaborate descriptive analysis of the music by Bill Whitaker, a transcript of a 1956 radio talk by the composer, a note on the restoration process by John Morgan, and a brief description of the recording sessions by the composer’s daughter Barbara Clark. All of this makes this re-release something much more than simply a unique recording of a totally neglected score, and it assumes major historical importance. As such it should be immediately snapped up not only by aficionados of great film scores, but also by those interested in the byways of the English twentieth century tradition.
Paul Corfield Godfrey