Based on Patrick O'Brian's tenth book in his successful Aubrey-Maturin Series, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World follows Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe, who, incidentally, took violin lessons with concertmaster and score co-composer Richard Tognetti to fit into his frequently music-minded role), ship's doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), and others of the HMS Surprise on a deadly sea-chase during the Napoleonic Wars. Knowing only this, you might expect a typical seafaring soundtrack.
Tognetti, Iva Davis, and Christopher Gordon meet a different set of expectations.
Instead of swashbuckling cues, several brilliantly arranged folk melodies give a hint of the salty air. Classic selections from Mozart, Corelli, Bach (including a performance by Yo-Yo Ma), Boccherini, and anachronistic use of 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' by Vaughan Williams lend feelings of timelessness, of antiquity. But the score's composers proffer themes that exist as another layer of texture over the orchestral bedding, rather than melodic centrepieces that linger in memory. It is rewarding for reasons unrelated to the use of shadowy motifs; it is technically astounding in the manner that subtleties and simplicities pile upon one another to form a complex musical essay. Proficiency, atmosphere and mood set the course.
Alas, the score provides little value for pure enjoyment. Forget about casual listening; it demands close attention, though once it has the listener's ears its banging action cues and dark dramatic chords provide their own distractions. A true collaborative effort, backed by obviously strong talent, Master and Commander succeeds as one of those strange soundtrack albums where the most excellent asset--intense, detailed writing, in this case--is also the greatest fault. There is such a thick & dreary musical fog that, despite the guiding lights, it seems like a monochromatic haze. This is an interesting but oppressive experience.
Mark Hockley adds:-
This is something of an oddity in modern film scoring terms with three composers credited, and although at first I suspected that they must have contributed individual pieces to the score, my research tells me that this is in fact a true collaborative effort. There is also a strong dose of classical music on offer with, among others, Mozart’s ‘Violin Concerto No. 3 K.216, 3rd Movement’, Vaughan Williams’ masterful ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ and Bach’s ‘Prelude From The Unaccompanied Cello Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007’ (performed by Yo Yo Ma).
Of the original music, the first piece "The Far Side of the World" has a dramatic opening driven by percussion and strings, although it trails away midway through into some less engaging low-key classical territory. This propulsive percussive energy with tense string work continues in ‘Into the Fog’ and there are several other effective cues in the same vein. In contrast there are the folksy, fiddle based "The Cuckold Comes Out of the Amery" and "Folk Medley", a couple of jaunty jigs for sailors to dance to!
A mixture of familiar classical work and darkly percussive action/suspense cues, all done with polish, if perhaps a little one dimensional.
Gary Dalkin adds:-
You may also be interested in Christopher Gordon’s superb score for the nautically themed On The Beach (2000).
Visit www.christophergordon.net for a much more in-depth look at the music for Master and Commander, including an interview with the composer.