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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (World Premier Recording of the complete score) Carl Davis conducts the Munich Symphony OrchestraVARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-5696 [65:35]  



Crotchet (UK)

Korngold's approach to his film scores was operatic and of all his scores, he regarded The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex as the one that could most easily have been developed into an opera. The film is very much a literal and theatrical treatment of Maxwell Anderson's original play with the emphasis on its two main characters and its limited scenic range (Indeed one only has to recall the "fog and bog" set designs for the Ireland sequences which reinforce this theatrical feeling.) Korngold cannily seeing the screenplay as an expression of timeless, universal ideas of love, ambition and duty and their interactive corrosive effects, elected not to use any Tudor-period source material or to write in the style of that period, but to employ a full-blooded, modern late Romantic score with a large orchestra that included three saxophones, two harps, a piano, a spinet, an organ, a vibraphone and a harmonium.

The film starred Bette Davis and to her dismay Eroll Flynn who did not particularly want the role fearing, rightly, that Davis would overshadow him (she would have preferred to have starred opposite Laurence Olivier but he was not a big enough name in Hollywood when the film was being made in 1939). Yet, interestingly, Davis, many years later, admitted that Flynn was better than she had thought at the time.

[In passing, here, I would make a plea to those who shape the policy for the Academy Awards. Surely, to celebrate the Millennium, there should be some recognition for the artists the Academy passed over during the 20th Century through, shall I dare say it, politics or prejudice? Why cannot the Academy give posthumous awards to these stars? I would nominate Errol Flynn to be one of the first artists amongst them.]

The play/film took certain liberties with the facts to make the dramatic points already identified.

It is unlikely that the Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex were actually lovers as suggested. Essex was certainly a favourite and dallied with the Queen's affections but he was only 34 when he was beheaded while the Queen was 68 two years short of her death.

This is the premiere recording of the complete score which unfolds in the chronological order of the screenplay. It is presented on this disc in the form of six suites that broadly follow the main events of the film: Elizabeth and Essex; The Queen; Reconciliation; Ireland; Essex Returns and The Tower of London.

The Main Title, and the course of the music in the first suite, contrasts the Queenly majestic, with the swagger of the headstrong young Essex and the love theme for the romance between Elizabeth and her bold young hero. This is Korngold at his dashing and hauntingly romantic best. The March is one of Korngold's finest inspirations in this genre, perfectly capturing the character of the cocky Essex. The deeper more introspective music suggests Elizabeth's more considered view of Essex's empty victory over the Spaniards, but it is the absolute refulgence of the music for the royal romance that lingers in the memory.

The Queen, suite two, is concerned with feminine politics. The music underscores the scenes in the palace. We first hear music for a military courier who has hurried to inform the Queen of defeat in Ireland we then have a theme that mocks the pomposity of the court - nice tongue in cheek Korngold this; but the main thrust of the music is with the Queen and her ladies in waiting. Lady Penelope (an unusually waspish and jealous part for Olivia de Havilland in a supporting role) who is a rival for the affections of Korngold goads the Queen to fury when she sings a song taunting her about her age. (The heavy irony is implicit in the stinging harpsichord part). The mirror scene confirms only too well that Elizabeth's charms are fleeting and one cannot help but compare Korngold's sad sympathetic music with that of Richard Strauss for his Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Then there is the warmth of the Queen's consolation for the grief-stricken Margaret who has lost her lover in the wars. This is a sharply observed and beautifully designed segment of the score.

The third suite is called Reconciliation and it brings Essex and Elizabeth together again after the Queen had banished her young hothead from her court. The suite begins with exultant hunting music as Essex's friend, Sir Francis Bacon, finds him in full pursuit of his quarry. Bacon advises Essex to return to court to save the Queen from being misled by unscrupulous courtiers. The music thus speaks of furtive conspiracy but humour follows not far behind as Essex baits Raleigh by dressing the palace guards in the pretentious silver armour which Raleigh had assumed for himself. And, of course, with the lovers reunited the music also mellows and softens into the romantic again but beneath it all Elizabeth displays an iron will, she will not be duped into allowing Essex to ascend to the throne.

Suite four takes us to Ireland for Essex, despite the Queen's warnings has been coerced into taking command of the Irish campaign but the guerrilla tactics of the Irish under Tyrone (a miscast Alan Hale) and the weather prove too much and Essex's dreams of glorious victory end in an ignominious truce. After a swell of the romantic themes comes Korngold's battle music which is not quite so assertive, it's more subdued, swagger being displaced by a tired and tattered disillusion as his soldiers try to fight an elusive enemy hidden in swirling damp mists. To add to the misery Essex's letters to the Queen and Essex have been intercepted by Palace conspirators.

The music of suite five is very dramatic. Essex returns to London not in defeat but at the head of an army prepared to claim the throne. He lets his feelings for Elizabeth triumph and instead of riding roughshod he visits her and tries to persuade her to rule with him but although she undoubtedly loves him, she ultimately refuses and orders her guards to arrest him. Korngold's operatic gifts are in full flow here adding another dimension, there is the initial victorious music for Essex's arrival, then for the dignity of the Queen before her softening to Essex's ardour (three saxophones heighten the sweetness of his passionate pleadings) Then Korngold passionately emphasises the Queen's mental turmoil as she struggles between love and duty and you feel her attitude hardening as she sends him to his fate in the Tower.

The final suite is of course darkly tragic for it is set in the Tower as Essex awaits his execution.

A last minute attempt at reconciliation only confirms to Elizabeth that Essex would make a totally unsuitable monarch so, for the safety of her realm, she is obliged to sacrifice him. Korngold sympathetically illustrates her tragic dilemma, her conflicting emotions and loyalties in the most poignant music. The execution scene is starkly vivid: a dejected march to the scaffold accompanied with bleak drum rolls and trumpetings as the Queen mourns. The End Cast music brings the score to an upbeat and brilliant close.

Carl Davis, no stranger to the best of historic film scores, draws an inspired performance from the Munich players.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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