EDITORs CHOICE May 2001
OST Conducted by the composer
Varese Sarabande VS 302
066 224 2 * (Disc 1: 76:12 ; Disc 2: 74:49)
After breaking new ground with his score to Spartacus just three years
earlier, Alex North went even further with Cleopatra, writing music that,
particularly in the film's first half, defies Hollywood fashion by conceding
the barest minimum to conventional thematic melody. Instead, jagged, clashing
rhythms and jabs of percussive dissonance dominate an almost unrelenting
succession of cues in this monumental work. This is not easily accessible
music. The score is so massive -- 53 cues totalling 151 minutes! -- and
meticulous that it defies quick assessment, making what follows more a series
of impressions rather than a studied analysis.
One of the score's larger cues is 'Cleopatra's Entry to Rome,' something
Rozsa or Newman would have turned into a grand set-piece complete with full
orchestral treatment of bold thematic material. North, however, scores it
with what sounds like obscure percussion and brass, sounding rather like
primitive source music.
Even where the music is more readily accessible - in the overture and opening
title theme for Caesar and Cleopatra - North makes it clear that what melody
is offered will focus on intimate portraits rather than sprawling grandeur.
The overture, for example, is based wholly on North's theme for Cleopatra's
ambition, underlining her sensuous, sinister nature, while the Caesar-Cleopatra
theme is voiced largely in subdued woodwinds with soft harpsichord punctuation.
It would seem evident from this approach that North was working closely with
writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose vision of an intimate spectacle
is equally apparent from the film's many finely crafted scenes. (See the
January 1988 Films in Review for a fascinating account of the director's
original intentions in this much-storied production.)
This musical intimacy, first suggested in North's delicate yet detached treatment
of Cleopatra's and Caesar's cerebrally and politically based relationship,
takes a decidedly warmer turn in the film's second half as Cleopatra and
Mark Antony's relationship develops. The musical material for Antony and
Cleopatra, naturally, forms the core of the film's second half, examining
and illuminating the many layers of the two lovers' tortured relationship.
The cue 'Love and Hate' begins softly before dissolving into throbbing string
chords as a tearfully raging Cleopatra grabs a knife and repeatedly stabs
the bedding she and Antony had shared. As her agony overcomes even her anger,
she crumples amid the ripped and torn bedsheets, accompanied by North's music
which now becomes -- as described by Mankiewicz in what must be the most
literate, insightful liner notes ever penned by a filmmaker -- for all the
world a simple lullaby, gently soothing the sobbing queen.
But it's North's use of brass and percussion that especially stand out -
at least on an initial listening.
Caesar's assassination, which is depicted from Cleopatra's perspective, opens
softly with the Caesar-Cleopatra theme, after which North introduces ominous
stirrings as the plotters close in, finally erupting in a maelstrom of shrieking
brass. (North has referred to this scene as among the best-scored of his
'Sea Battle' -- at 14 minutes, the score's longest cue -- is a small masterpiece
unto itself, not least for North's conducting. Generals are sometimes described
as directing their battles like conductors; here, the simile can be turned
around: North marshals his brass and percussion like a general directing
a great field battle. (And it's here, by the way, that the composer allows
himself one of his few quotations from the earlier Spartacus.)
Also worthy of special attention is the cue 'Grant Me an Honorable Way to
Die," in which North's brass echoes the frustration of Antony, his troops
having deserted him, as he flings himself repeatedly against Octavian's troops
who refuse to strike back. Again, from the LP liner notes, Mankiewicz' own
description is best: "The muted trumpets scream, in Antony's name, an anguish
which cannot be written, in a voice no actor can project."' (My only quibble
with Jeff Bond's exhaustive and otherwise excellent notes is the failure
to include at least some part of Mankiewicz' original notes.)
Shortly after this score became available, thanks mainly to the efforts of
Varese Sarabande's Robert Townson and producer Nick Redman, Film Score
Monthly's Lukas Kendall - who also had a hand in its production - voiced
frustration at what he perceived to be a lack of public response. The reason,
he speculated, might well be North's musical style which, as already noted,
defies quick or easy appreciation. The ensuing discussion has been spirited,
to say the least, including testy comments from Townson.
Not to worry, ladies and gentlemen: If my own experience in learning to
appreciate North is any example, it's just a matter of time. I can still
recall, as a teenager, getting the soundtrack album to Spartacus.
I'd already been introduced to Tiomkin, Rozsa and Jarre, so this one looked
like a natural. I put the record on the turntable - and then listened,
dumbfounded, to nearly 40 minutes of the most obscure music (well, save for
that love theme) I'd ever heard. One more listen confirmed my initial impressions
and the album went on the shelf. Several years later, I picked it up on a
whim and gave it another listen -- and was shocked to discover how good a
composer Alex North had become!
So just be patient, everyone. "Cleopatra" is an acquired taste, and thanks
to these gentlemen, now we can acquire it!
Ian Lace also urges you to acquire this album:-
I heartily agree with everything that John says in his adroit review above.
I hasten to add that there is much that can be enjoyed at a first hearing.
(Although I would agree that more and more riches are revealed on repeated
hearings.) This is a complex, densely textured score, very richly orchestrated.
For the most part there is always something to arrest and interest the ear.
It is a score that works supremely well with the on-screen images. Occasionally
it is quite surprising. Take for instance the syncopated figures in 'Moon
One admires the cleverness of communicating, simultaneously, so much atmosphere
and diversity. Take for instance, 'Cleopatra Enters Rome', you not only sense
the grandeur and excitement of the occasion, but you also feel that the slow
sinuous swaying figures paralleling the progress of Cleopatra's enormously
imposing 'train', is not so subtly mocking the pride of the great Roman empire.
Balancing the trumpetings and drum beats that herald the might of Rome, are
the sensuous rhythms associated with Egypt, employing a rich diversity of
percussion: intriguing and glittering in 'A Gift for Caesar' sinister and
sinuous in 'A Taste of Death', voluptuous in 'Cleopatra's Barge' and hedonistic
I have to say that the least interesting facet of North's talent is his romantic
music. For the most part, like Herrmann (Vertigo excepting), he does not
seem to be able to write a memorable romantic theme. Although his love music
works admirably in the film, one is not (at least this reviewer isn't)
sufficiently moved by it divorced from the on-screen images. There is too
much reliance on high string 'sweet nothings'. I therefore found some 8 minutes
of this material, spread over two or three consecutive cues on CD 2, tedious.
But this is a minor carp in the context of a fascinating 2½ hours of
masterly screen scoring.