September 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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The Magnificent Ambersons  
  Australian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tony Bremner
  PREAMBLE  PRCD1783  [51:32]

Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, (RKO Radio 1942) followed Citizen Kane which was not, initially, the success it is today; therefore the studio imposed more strictures on Welles and his Amberson's venture. Following preview audience's apathetic reaction, the studio re-shot several scenes and cut the original 131 minute duration to the 88 minute screenplay we know today. Tragically, in a studio clear-out, all the unused footage that Welles shot was destroyed so we have a very incomplete version of Welles vision, his adaptation of the Both Tarkington novel that had so fascinated him. These facts and many more fascinating details are revealed in the lavish booklet that comes with this fine Preamble re-release.

The inside front cover is devoted to a fascinating analysis/segmentation of the scenes of the 131 minute long version, and an equally absorbing account of the production of the film follows; plus a scene-by-scene synopsis in which Hermann's music cues are positioned. There is also a fulsome article on Herrmann's compositional response to the screenplay. It appears that half of Herrmann's score was removed from the soundtrack of the released shorter version and worse that Roy Webb was engaged to write for the extra scenes demanded by the studio after the disastrous preview. Herrmann vituperatively threatened legal action unless his name was removed as well. With that he bitterly severed ties with the film and remembered it with the deepest regret to the end of his life.

Herrmann uses, but develops considerably material from Waldteufel's Toujours au jamais ('Always and never'). This Walteufel material proves to be a powerful and versatile unifying device with the 'always and never' theme making a shrewd comment on the narrative's core dramatic issues.

The early music, the seven-minute opening cue 'Theme and Variations; George's Homecoming' sets the early scenes showing the Ambersons in their magnificence. The music speaks of their rich cosy lives; softly shifting harp arpeggios and high strings seem to speak of lace curtains swaying gently in the breeze protecting large, elegant, heavily furnished rooms away from the prying eyes of the riff-raff as the boorish, bullying son George describes the poorer townsfolk. Many of these lighter variations suggest genteel horse and carriage rides, with the occupants proud and haughty and the horses perfectly groomed and disciplined. Through the variations the tempi vary moving from the sedate to the scurrying. Finally, homely music on the celeste, very much in the manner of a musical box, re-establishes the feeling of old-world chintz.

The pleasanter aspects of the score resurface in such cues as the glittering 'Snow Ride' and the innocence of the 'Pleasure Trip'. Darker music underscores the malign machinations of George ruining the romance of his widowed mother, Isabel and her old admirer, Eugene; plus the downfall of the Ambersons through ill-advised investments and George's spend-thrift irresponsibility and arrogance. Contastingly tender music for the plight of George's doting but ineffective and crushed mother and her romance with Eugene comes in a number of other cues including 'Garden scene, Second Letter scene: Romanza and the First Nocturne with its delicious violin solo. The second nocturne with a solo cello is more introspective and poignant. As always Herrmann's orchestrations are very impressive and add considerably to the drama of the scenes.

This is one of Bernard Herrmann's masterpieces. Tender and lyrical, witty and ironic -- and sinister in its depiction of the corrosive effects of family tensions and jealousies.

Recommended unreservedly.

Ian Lace



Ian Lace


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