July 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Music for the films of Val Lewton:
Cat People; The Seventh Victim; The Body Snatcher; I Walked With A Zombie

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) William T. Stromberg
Marco Polo 8.225125 [69:53]
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Of all the film music discs produced by Marco Polo and conducted by William Stromberg, this is, in my opinion, the most important. I am aware of only one other disc devoted to the music of Roy Webb and that was a release of original soundtracks on the Silva Screen label (CNS 5008). It is an essential buy but it contains only one extended suite (the marvelous Curse of the Cat People). Most of the cues last only a couple of minutes and offer a mere sampling of the work Webb was doing at RKO during the 1940s. The sound of these recordings is in mono but is excellent nonetheless. Aside from the Silva disc and a couple of re-recorded suites (Notorious on Varese Sarabande and The Seventh Victim on a long-out-of-print Decca album entitled Satan Superstar!), Webb's music has been largely ignored. Why this is may have to do with the nature of Webb's scoring which is unusually restrained when compared with that of his contemporaries. I've often noticed how a Webb score lurks in the background--an ominous presence more felt than heard.

What happens when you pull this music away from its source and bring it out into the light? To me the result is a revelation. Far from being just a series of chromatic chords and orchestral effects, Webb's music is multi-layered; relying on complex counterpoint, impressionist-like harmonies and thoroughly-worked thematic development for its effect. He's been described as a composer ahead of his time and I can understand why. His methods of scoring resemble those more commonly used in the 1950s and 60s when composers such as North, Friedhofer, Bernstein and Goldsmith were paring down the rhetoric and bombast that had afflicted so many scores during Hollywood's "Golden Age". Webb seems to have led the way in this regard and its sad that he has lingered in near obscurity for so long.

I should have known that John Morgan and Bill Stromberg would come to the rescue. They have similarly served other underrated composers such as H.J. Salter, Frank Skinner and Hugo Friedhofer and their discs devoted to these composers have been the highlights of the Marco Polo series. This new Webb disc is now my absolute favorite. Aside from the fact that the music is extraordinarily good, I also feel this disc features Bill Stromberg's very best and most sensitive conducting captured in sound that is superior to other issues in this series. That may be the result of a change of recording venues for this disc, along with the brilliant new recording of mystery and horror scores by Salter and Skinner, was recorded using the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra rather than the usual Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The war in Serbia evidently made it impossible for Morgan and Stromberg to get to Moscow at the time these recordings were made. I was initially disappointed when I learned that Marco Polo had chosen Bratislava and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra because I haven't been too impressed with that orchestra's playing on other Marco Polo discs - especially those conducted by Adriano. Here they sound completely in sync with Webb's idiom. I can only guess that the combination of the music and Stromberg's inspired musical leadership drew from them their very best playing.

As is usually the case with these old scores, Morgan had to rely on piano reductions and his extraordinary ears to reconstruct the music. Webb's scoring is much more subtle and chamber-like and Morgan has resisted the temptation to beef it up. There were only a few places where I felt a fuller string sound would have helped such as in the main titles for Bedlam and The Seventh Victim, otherwise the reconstructions sound note perfect to my ears. Morgan had literally hundreds of Webb scores to chose from when compiling this disc but he selected a few that Webb wrote for RKO producer Val Lewton. It was the perfect choice. The Lewton/Webb partnership is one of the less lauded but most significant in the history of film. Lewton's films are frequently described as psychological horror films and almost all contain a "walk" or long stretch during which one of the characters travels through some ominous landscape to escape danger or resolve a conflict. The most famous example may be the walk through the sugar canes in I Walked With A Zombie or little Teresa's evening journey to buy flour in The Leopard Man. These segments are devoid of dialogue. A less sophisticated composer may have papered such delicate scenes with layers of music but not Roy Webb. His scoring, when it's used, is subtly integrated into all the other elements of the scene in a way uncommon with film scoring during that time. Lewton was extremely fortunate to have had access to a composer whose understated style so beautifully reflected his own.

This disc contains extended suites from Cat People and The Seventh Victim and shorter suites from Bedlam, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With A Zombie. It's a generously filled disc (70 minutes) and Morgan has done his usual masterful job in putting the suites together. I'm especially pleased that he has given us so much of the score for The Seventh Victim. It is an absolute masterpiece and the highlight of this disc. The film itself is Lewton's darkest and Webb's score is mesmerizing in the way that it is manages to be both eerily beautiful and deeply unsettling. Listen to the cues "The Palladists' Trial", "The Chase" and "Desirous of Death" and you'll hear Webb's art at its absolute zenith. His use of instrumental color is as original as Bernard Herrmann's but a good deal more subtle. His use of whirling counterpoint disturbed by occasional flashes of harsh dissonance is typical as is the emphasis on harmony and instrumental sonority. In this regard, Webb's music sounds very impressionistic but he is more of the English than French school, I believe.

Webb's music does at times remind me of the music of Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge and John Ireland and I like to think that hearing these scores gives us some idea of what those masters might have written if they had ever composed music for a horror film.

My only complaint about this Seventh Victim suite is that it omits the tender music for the scene where Jason and Mary view the search light outside his apartment window. It was included in Christopher Palmer's much briefer suite recorded by Stanley Black but that recording is long out of print. I suspect there was not enough time available to include it here but its absence is sorely felt.

We do get a lengthy suite from Cat People and that music has its moments of menace but the overall tone is tragic for it expresses the conflicted emotions of the film's protagonist, the haunted Irena, so beautifully played by the great Simone Simon. Also beautiful is the score for I Walked With A Zombie.

Morgan assembled a small chorus of basses for the "Zombie Chant" and their inclusion is indicative of the care and attention given to recreating these scores for recording. They've also included the street beggar's ballad from The Body Snatcher sung by Maria Knapkova. Her diction is a little awkward but she captures the spirit of the song and it adds immensely to the suite. I hope Morgan and Stromberg can be convinced to give us the complete score to The Body Snatcher for it is another masterwork and there is much great music not included in this suite. I would recommend Webb's score for Curse of The Cat

People as a companion. I'd love to hear what Morgan and Stromberg would do with that gorgeous music. The Slovak orchestra plays these scores with tremendous sensitivity. Bill Stromberg captures the atmosphere and mood of the music without allowing it to become staid or monotonous. He has really developed into a fine conductor and I'm delighted to see him branching out into recording concert music as well. I can't imagine his performances of this music ever being bettered and I suspect Roy Webb would have been thrilled if he had lived long enough to hear it. I hope having more of his music available will bring about a renewed interest in his music for he was one of the greatest and most original practitioners in his field. This disc receives my highest possible recommendation.


Richard R. Adams

Ian Lace adds:-

I heartily endorse everything Richard has said in his fine perceptive review above. Roy Web has always been underrated. This important release confirms what we have long suspected from listening to the SILVA SCREEN OST release, and the scores while watching Lewton's superior horror films (better classified as psychological thrillers), that Webb should be celebrated with Korngold, Steiner and Waxman et al, as another important pioneer of original film music. Listening to the Cat People Suite I was conscious of a marked similarity to Max Steiner's music especially in the warmer romantic, more compassionate music but there is an added subtlety too that is entirely Webb's own to portray the complex and tormented character that is Irena. But then Webb follows Lewton's intent to make his characters seem real and three-dimensional rather than the stock 'cut-outs' of the Universal and Hammer horrors. Webb's restraint and sympathy impresses just as much as the music that makes us shudder - and he certainly does this especially his jagged unsettling Cat theme particularly when it is given to the high woodwinds - it makes the flesh creep.

Webb's ability to seamlessly mix 18th century elegance with modern dissonance for the more terrifying sequences in Bedlam impresses as does his brooding 'Scottish' music for The Body Snatcher. I agree with everything Richard says about The Seventh Victim - a marvellous score but I am equally impressed with the shimmering beauty and infinite sadness of Webb's music for I Walked with a Zombie.

It is also good to hear the RKO Studio Fanfare prefacing the three major scores on this album and the booklet notes as is usual for this series are very full and instructive

Ian Lace


Richard R. Adams

Ian Lace

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