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
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
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.