Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Jerry GOLDSMITH The Sand Pebbles Jerry Goldsmith conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-5795 [43:28]    


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The Sand Pebbles
, released in 1966 starred Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen and Richard Attenborough with Richard Crenna. It was an action drama set in China in 1926, a time when the country finds itself on the brink of revolution. Into this turbulent environment sails a small U.S. gunboat, the U.S.S. San Pablo, to patrol the Yangtse river. Its crew members refer to themselves as the "sand pebbles".

For this Twentieth Century Fox film, Jerry Goldsmith wrote one of his most memorable and exotic scores. The famous love theme, which was turned into a song - "And We Were Lovers" - with lyrics by Johnny Mercer gave Goldsmith some anxious moments, "I battled for weeks until I finally said: 'I can't wait any longer.' So I sketched out a melody that I intended to use in the first cue. Well before long what I had originally written started to take an entirely different shape. All of a sudden it became a pretty tune. The process was really magical and the theme went on to become a commercial success."

From basic two-note and four-note patterns Goldsmith weaves a colourful score that captures the essential Chinese atmosphere and the enfolding drama of rebellion and the two parallel love stories. The score opens momentously with the Overture, a bold brass fanfare that ascends into a wild shriek, a foreboding of impending conflict and tragedy; then come a few bars to set the Chinese and Yangtse setting before the famous love theme enters. The Main Title music is permeated with an insistent repeated wooden block/drum motif as the music moves slowly from the serene to agitated and threatening. "Getting Aquainted" begins with a beautiful calm Chinese setting and again there is that wooden block, insistent rhythm, beneath the love theme played slowly and coolly as engineer Jake (Steve McQueen), meets a young missionary Shirley Eckert on board a steamer destined for San Pablo. The love theme flowers hauntingly in the later cue "Jake and Shirley".

Coplandeque rhythms inform the early part of Repel Boarders cue superseded by snarling brass chords underlined by percussive piano as the San Pablo lies under siege. "Changsha Dock" is another scintillating cue; the atmospheric scoring combines variations of the four-note love motif with seductive, far eastern orchestrations.

Kevin Mulhall, who has written the informed and articulate booklet notes, reports that of  "Death of a Thousand Cuts" for the scene in which bilge coolie Po-han is tortured to death Goldsmith had commented. '...the cue is one of my favourite really tears your heart out...' Mulhall goes on to say : "The torture is left unscored. The music enters after Jake, in direct violation of the cease-fire shoots Po-han out of compassion. Goldsmith's music stresses the emotional and political consequences of the event...The composer's ability to create immediate expression from such small musical units and quiet dynamics is both impressive and affecting."

"My Secret" is another impressive cue. Beginning violently with another strongly rhythmic drum, block and piano passage, the music quietens to introduce a secondary more plaintive love theme associated with Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough) and Maily (Marayat Andrianne). It comments on the complexity of Chinese/American relationships at the time. I must also mention the exquisitely beautiful romantic music in the form of variations on the themes for the two romances, for "The Wedding" underscoring the forbidden marriage of Frenchy and Maily; and the lovely moving music for "Frenchy's Death" suggesting a transcendence for Frenchy who will live on through Maily's unborn child.

Very strongly recommended

Ian Lace

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