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Philip SAINTON Moby Dick


Philip SAINTON (1891-1967) Moby Dick William T. Stromberg conducts the Moscow Symphony Orchestra Marco Polo 8.225050   


Crotchet (UK)

Philip Sainton is a name that is little known even to lovers of British music. His output was small; the total number of his titles would easily cover one A4 sheet of paper leaving plenty of white space. It is therefore remarkable that John Huston, the great American film director should choose to use Sainton for he had all Hollywood's compositional resources to select from: Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, and Victor Young etc were all at work in the major studios; so too was Bernard Herrmann who had actually composed a cantata called Moby Dick - that, actually, did not impress Huston. Then there was his frequent collaborator Alex North. But Huston insisted that he needed a composer who had a strong empathy with the sea and its ever-changing moods and perplexing mysteries. He knew that many British composers had written such music. There was Arnold Bax, Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten to name but three composers who might have been induced to score his film. Yet Huston chose Sainton on the slight evidence of his orchestration and arrangement of a Jack Gerber piece Fiesta that Huston happened to hear, confirmed by Sainton's seafaring hymn "Ribs and Terrors in the Whale" which is cue 4 on this CD. (It has generally been assumed that Huston's choice was made on the evidence of Sainton's seascape writing in his moody seventeen-minute symphonic poem, The Island [available with Patrick Hadley's masterpiece The Trees So High, on Chandos CHAN 9181]). There was, of course, another more mundane factor that must have influenced the choice, in that the production of the film took place in and off the coast of Ireland (also Wales, Portugal and the Canary Islands), far away from the U.S.A., so there was probably a logistical expediency to consider; yet Huston's faith and confidence in a composer who was so little known and who was habitually plagued by self-doubt paid off handsomely for this is undoubtedly one of the best film scores to have been written by an English composer. In passing it is worth noting that, for this score, Sainton recycled material from some of his earlier works including The Dream of the Marionette and Nadir both of which can be heard on Chandos CHAN 9539.

Special arrangements were made for Sainton to see the film being shot, so that he could absorb the atmosphere and, more importantly, gain extra time for composition because inspiration came painfully and slowly. (The usual time for the film scoring process is about six weeks after filming has been completed.)

The music for the Main Title, which shows more than a passing influence of Vaughan Williams, is strong and virile. (RVW's influence is apparent in many cues in this score.) It presents Sainton's themes for the obsessive Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck), for Moby Dick the huge white whale and warmer, more humane music to represent the friendship between the Polynesian headhunter- turned-harpooner Queequeg and the young whaler Ishmael (Richard Basehart). It is also a graphic portrait of turbulent, heaving, cross-waved seas whipped by gales.

The following cue, "Sea Music", is in direct contrast for here is the sea in calmer friendlier mood and Sainton's lovely evocation displays influences of Ravel and especially Delius, using flutes, clarinets, harp and celeste in gentle glittering arpeggios. Comedy writing that includes a droll bassoon commentary informs the first meeting between Queequeg and Ishmael when through a mixup at a New Bedford hotel the former finds the latter in his bed. The hymn mentioned above, sung by the whalers, is reverent in the best tradition of church hymns and is worthy to be included in the English Hymnal. The hymn tune is reprised in full orchestral dress before the "Dock Scene" which is jolly and optimistic and full of high-spirited rhythmic vitality as the sailors look forward to their adventure and freedom from domestic cares at sea. There follows an alternative take on this scene which has a memorable tune that could have been a British light music classic. This music is developed in "Going Aboard".

Now the music darkens as the "Stranger" Elijah foretells that all save one aboard the Pequod will perish. "Preparing for Departure" and "Pequod's Departure" contrasts optimistic muscular seafaring music as Ahab's ship music leaves the shore with anxious figures representing the fears of the women left behind on the quayside. The music plunges deeper into the abyss with the introduction of Captain Ahab and we are left in no doubt about the man's compulsive obsession with hunting down Moby Dick; the music positively exudes malice. More than any other cue in the score, "Ahab's Introduction", lasting some six minutes, reflects Huston's request to Sainton to score much of the film as though he were writing an opera.

"There She Blows" is an exuberant, cantering-paced musical sea chase when whales are first sighted. Huston asked for some high-spirited "Carnival" music to depict the crew's joy and exultation and Sainton responded accordingly with this jubilant cue but it is shadowed in its closing bars by a remembrance of the stranger's dockside prophesy. From now on the music is practically all doom and gloom. "Meeting at Sea" in which Ahab learns from those aboard a passing ship that Moby Dick is close by prompts more dark brooding and hammering psychological maelstroms in the orchestra. "Waiting" is a fine shimmering evocation of the Pequod caught in the doldrums as she lies becalmed in a pressing heatwave. The sudden appearance of Moby Dick in the next cue sees the orchestra whipped into thunder although the doldrums continue forbidding a chase. Then, in "The Search Continues", the darker realms of Arnold Bax are recalled as Ahab becomes more and more possessed with his blood lust. It is also a portrait of a storm tossed sea at night. In "St Elmo's fire", Sainton offers a variation of Debussy's Sirènes, though the women's wordless voices, here, are sounding not a lure but more of a warning against Ahab's profanity. Unnerving tension is created at the beginning of the ten minute cue "Eerie Calm/He Rises" by massed violins playing harmonics with two violins and two flutes quietly commenting. But when Moby Dick appears all hell is let loose. The only pause in the thundering rage in the orchestra comes when Ahab, now dead and lashed forever to Moby Dick, beckons his whalers on, drawing from Sainton a magnificent dirge with the brass leading the orchestra to divide so that, simultaneously, the music reaches defiantly to the heights and plunges to the depths foreboding the obsession, now tainting the crew, that will lead to the deaths of all of them save Ishmael who lives to tell the tale.

Sadly the only other film scoring opportunity that came Sainton's way was from Charlie Chaplin for King in New York but Sainton quickly left the project after an artistic disagreement.

The CD booklet is well up to the very complete and lavish standards set by other releases in Marco Polo's classic film score series. It includes an essay on the adaptation of Herman Melville's formidable book and the making of the film by Ann Howard Whitaker, another informative essay on how Philip Sainton composed the music and a detailed track-by-track analysis of the score by Bill Whitaker from which I have quoted or paraphrased above; plus a reproduction of a radio talk by Sainton himself on scoring for Moby Dick; a note about the restoration of the music by John Morgan and an Afterward from Barbara Clark, the composer's daughter.

I end this review with the apposite words of renowned Sci-fi and fantasy writer, Ray Bradbury who wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick and who contributes a message in this CD's booklet. It summarises exactly what I feel about this marvellous recording: "...When the film was finished and, for the first time, I heard this score by Philip Sainton, [I] was delighted to discover that it struck all the right notes and chords to play out the drama...Moby Dick, the film is Melville and Sainton is both Melville and Moby Dick."


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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