After the film medium had been introduced
to the possibilities of sound in the late 1920s, the so-called “golden age” of
American film scoring would soon begin. It was first and foremost through the
musical gifts of European immigrants such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang
Korngold that the fundamental principles of film music were established, their
craft being deeply rooted in the great traditions of 19th century
Yet after a few decades featuring many fine
masterpieces, the golden age of film music began to fade towards the late 1950s
after the strong grip the commercial film industry had had on the American
moviegoers over a long period of time inevitably resulted in one huge musical
anachronism. For this reason along with the competition from television, the
music departments suffered either the sacking of many employees or were closed
down entirely. Orchestral scores began to play a smaller part in a film’s
narrative, whilst the use of popular music would become the fresh trend of a Hollywood trying to change. Eventually it was the entire Hollywood way of thinking that
needed to be changed; the flawed aesthetics of the somewhat monotonous studio
system were gradually dissolved and the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford
Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg would come to reshape the art of
film making and help establish a brand new era.
Starting in the 1990s, long after the
decline of the golden age, Naxos began an ongoing effort to reconstruct and
record brand new suites from many of the better scores of the golden age,
bringing the glamorous and enthusiastic atmosphere of the period to a younger
generation of music fans. Their Film Music Classics series is a priceless gift
to lovers of film music that offers brand new interpretations of stunning
achievements such as Steiner’s landmark King Kong score or
Shostakovich’s Hamlet. This new disc entitled Captain Blood and other
Swashbucklers is a re-issue featuring reconstructed suites from The
King’s Thief, Scaramouche, Captain Blood, and The Three
Musketeers. All the music is performed by the Brandenburg Philharmonic
Orchestra and conducted by Richard Kaufman, assisted by the acoustics of the Jesus Christ Church in Berlin, Germany.
Christopher Palmer is credited for having
prepared the single movement suite from Miklos Rozsa’s The King’s Thief (1955).
Apart from the rousing overture with a gorgeous main theme, the suite feels
like the awkward crossing of a roughly sketched first draft and a “cut and paste”
job. The second theme introduced after the overture is so similar to the theme
from the third movement of Mozart’s piano concerto no 17 in G major, that a
comparison is almost unavoidable. Because where Mozart blesses us with
luxurious counterpoint and elements of spontaneous surprise, Rozsa is far too
repetitious with his material and frankly quite lazy. The performance is
certainly very energetic and more than adequate, but it helps little when the
score remains more or less eventless and offers so little to work with both in
terms of dynamics and variation. I find it hard to believe that Rozsa, the
composer of Spellbound and Ben Hur, would compose such incoherent
mess. Perhaps Palmer’s reconstruction did not do the composer’s score justice?
Victor Young’s music for Scaramouche,
a film set during the French revolution, is apart from the adventurous overture
remarkably modest, and I mean that in a good way. Like a collection of fun
dance episodes, the music progresses from one light hearted, festive episode to
another. Seldom does it turn back to recapitulate, and seldom does any form of
complexity overshadow the pure bliss of melodic simplicity. Somewhere in there
we hear a brief quote from the French national anthem and unexpectedly, the
theme from Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony is reshaped to a happy and
straightforward dance! What we have here is just plain and simple symphonic
fun, and you can hear how much fun Kaufman and his orchestra were having with Scaramouche.
It’s a great suite with many fine moments.
But at the end of the day, the suite from
Korngold’s Captain Blood is by far the most outstanding contribution to
this album – both in terms of performance and composition. This is the music
that practically invented the Swashbuckler genre, and Korngold’s complete
command of harmony, form, melody, and counterpoint ranks this score up among
the great masterpieces of film music. The way that the overture drags the
listener into the exciting universe of heroes and villains, adventures and romance,
is to say the least – stunning.
Unlike the suite from The King’s Thief,
Captain Blood treats us to the element of surprise, with exciting dynamic
transitions, melodic creativity, and variation. In other words the entire
spectrum of the orchestra’s range of expression is presented! All credit to the
musicians of the Brandenburg philharmonic for giving us a solid performance of
a very difficult and musically very challenging score.
Closing the album is Max Steiner’s The
Three Musketeers which is, like Young’s Scaramouche, also set in France. The basic element of the score is the lovely love theme, only a few notes long and
yet instantly recognizable. As the suite progresses, all Steiner needs to do is
suggest two or three notes and we immediately know where they come from! Once
again Steiner’s love of the leitmotif resulted in an intriguingly clever
musical trigger that I’m sure enhances the film’s emotions drastically.
However, it is unfortunate how the narrow simplicity of the theme and
arrangement prevent the music from being all that interesting; eventually the
number of quotes begins to halt the progression of the suite. Apart from the
love theme, the music mainly consists of some very pompous march music that,
although brilliantly orchestrated, eventually begins to wear off its effect
just as the love theme does.
So the music from both The King’s Thief
and The Three Musketeers fails to impress, and the question is whether
it is unethical to compile these concert suites from film scores when the material
so obviously wasn’t intended to serve this purpose. In the case of Korngold, we
know that he would approach the art of film composition as he would a concert
hall project. But Steiner and Rozsa were of a different state of mind and these
suites should prove it.
For Victor Young’s Scaramouche and a
quality performance of Korngold’s Captain Blood this album is certainly
worth checking out for dedicated fans of the golden age. However, the Rozsa and
Steiner contributions I could do without.
Mark Rayen Candasamy