Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


September 1999 Supplement

Bernard HERRMANN Jason and the Argonauts   Bruce Broughton conducts the Sinfonia of London   INTRADA MAF7083 [61:33]



Jason and the Argonauts (1963) marked the fourth, and arguably the best, of the collaborations between fantasy films producer Charles Schneer and Bernard Herrmann who composed to the wondrous special effects of Ray Harryhausen. [The others were: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958); The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960); and Mysterious Island (1961).] This is the world premiere recording of the whole score.

Herrmann, as usual, creates striking, evocative sonic images and brilliant colours by using extraordinary combinations of instruments. For Jason and the Argonauts he chooses to ignore strings altogether. On the other hand, he expands the winds and percussion to a massively huge ensemble. In most cases he triples or quadruples the instrumental requirements over the standard symphony orchestra. Standard pairs of woodwinds are increased to: 4 flutes and piccolos, 6 oboes, 6 cor anglais, 6 clarinets, including bass and contrabass clarinets, and 6 bassoons including contra-bassoons. The mammoth brass section has 8 French horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones and 4 tubas!

The immense battery of percussion has 26+ instruments plus 2 complete groups of 5 timpani each. The cymbals alone feature: 4 suspended cymbals, 2 separate pairs of large crash cymbals plus 1 large tam-tam and 1 medium tam-tam! For these instruments, Herrmann wrote music that explored the extreme compasses of the range of many of them, giving an impressive top-to-bottom, and wide dynamic range. He also organised the music so that it filled a wide and deep sonic stage. (Even though the soundtrack was mixed down to mono.)

I have asked the question before, but I will pose it again; however did Herrmann imagine these effects and calculate the forces to interpret them?

The score begins very powerfully with the exuberant and muscular 'Jason Prelude' that introduces the heroic Argonauts theme complete with crashing cymbals and strident brass. In the following cue, 'The Prophesy/The Battle', Herrmann creates an atmosphere of foreboding with a creepy choir of six bassoons with occasional striking harp arpeggio figures. (Throughout Herrmann's writing for the harp is extremely creative and evocative). The battle is marked by very striking, rapid-fire rhythms alternating between horns and bassoons. Herrman creates some exotic dance music in 'The Feast' and later in 'Temple dance' the latter very much in the style of the sensuous Egyptian dancing. The quiet, intense music associated with 'The Oak Grove and Hermes ascension is also impressive with flute and harp prominent.

It is, of course, the music associated with the monsters that Jason encounters which lingers in the memory. The first of these is the metal giant Talos. His might is represented by a pounding four-note figure in minor thirds, hammered out by all the tubas and both sets of timpani. This pounding intensifies to a monstrous (controlled) cacophony as Talos lifts the Argonauts boat and shakes it. For the harpies, the winged monsters, Herrmann creates appropriately screeching music played by the piccolos with brass and harps jabbing away in support. For the huge figure of Triton, who rises from the sea to push apart the "clashing rocks", Herrmann uses the whole range of his symphonic winds from low tuba to high picolo, to convey Triton's might, the surging waters and the creaking rocks. The scoring for the multi-headed Hydra, is particularly dense and jagged with the music rising and falling as the combatants strike at each other. Finally, there is the famous attack of the skeletons. Here Herrmann uses woodblocks and castanets to great menacing effect.

The Sinfonia of London are in top form and Bruce Broughton delivers a reading that would surely have had Herrmann applauding enthusiastically.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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