About this Recording
8.223608 - Historical Romances
English 

Historical Romances

Historical Romances

 

Juarez - Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Gunga Din - Alfred Newman

Devotion - Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The Charge of the Light Brigade - Max Steiner

 

George Orwell's Animal Farm dictum that "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others" might be applied in a sense to films dealing with epic historical canvasses. All films benefit from music scoring but the opportunities afforded composers in tackling sagas of history are indeed red- blooded and challenging. Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman and Max Steiner were clearly aware of this, knowing full well that in Hollywood's version of history heroism and romanticism were of much greater value than reality.

 

Of the sixteen film scores written by Korngold between 1935 and 1947 eight deal with historical settings. Two of them, Anthony Adverse (1937) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) brought him Academy Award Oscars. It was obviously a genre that appealed to his nature, allowing him the kind of scope he revealed in his operas and richly scored symphonic works. In 1939 he tackled Mexican history with Juarez, the story of Benito Juarez (Paul Muni), the leader of the democratic Mexican movement to throw off the French occupation imposed by Napoleon III (Claude Rains) in the mid-nineteenth century. What attracted Korngold to the film was the involvement of Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg (Brian Aherne), whom Napoleon attempted to set up as the emperor of Mexico, a grandiose mistake that resulted in the execution by the Mexicans of Maximilian, and the subsequent madness of Maximilian's devoted wife Carlotta (Bette Davis). It was a story appealing to a composer born during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, resulting in a score with almost as much Austrian as Mexican character.

For the premiere of Juarez in April of 1939 Korngold put together an overture, utilizing the main themes and beginning with the heraldic Maximilian fanfare. Aside from his skilful use of Mexican settings the score is notable for his poignant love theme for the doomed Maximilian and Carlotta, leading into Korngold's tender treatment of the song La Paloma, which became a favourite of the Austrian couple during their short and tragic years in Mexico.

 

Juarez was a handsomely produced, well written and mostly accurate account of the historical figures with whom it dealt. The same cannot be said for Devotion (1946), which purports to tell the story of England's literary sisters Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and their life on the Yorkshire moors. With Olivia de Havilland and Ida Lupino as the ladies who wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the film was far too romantic and rhapsodic, communicating little of the harshness of the sisters' actual lives. Korngold obviously realized he was dealing more with fiction than fact and wrote a darkly rapturous score that might have served him well had the material been later used as an opera. It glows with gothic romanticism and seems more inspired by Korngold's conception of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights than by the fanciful story told by the film. In short, the best reason for seeing Devotion is the music score.

 

Hollywood's excursions into history were, of course, never intended to be educational. History served as the framework or the setting for entertainment, especially in such lusty, action-packed adventure epics as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1937) and Gunga Din (1939), both of which deal with the British Army in nineteenth century India and both of which were largely filmed in the Californian Sierras three hundred miles north of Los Angeles amid scenery that looks exactly like India's Northwest Frontier. Gunga Din is based on Rudyard Kipling's poem about the water-boy who yearned to be a soldier. However, the main characters of the film are three sergeants - Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), romping around a la Athos, Porthos and Aramis, with Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) trailing behind like a timorous D' Artagnan. The three sergeants are sent on a dangerous mission, along with a detachment of Indian soldiers and their water- boy, to locate a band of fanatic insurgents who threaten to wrest India away from British control. The sergeants humour Din as they see him practising drill, saluting and blowing an old bugle he has somehow acquired, but they know that whenever they are in battle Din is always there at their side with his goatskin bag of water. In the battle that ends the film it is Din who saves the day; badly wounded he sounds the bugle-call that warns the approaching British regiment they are marching into a trap. The sergeants assure the dying Din that he is indeed a soldier. At the funeral Rudyard Kipling supplies a poem, the last line of which is, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

 

Gunga Din can be viewed only as entertainment, certainly not in the light of political or colonial considerations. Producer-director George Stevens clearly understood this, as did the composer he asked to write the score, Alfred Newman. The score has two basic themes. The first is the sprightly tune for the rollicking sergeants and the second is the more reflective and rather poignant theme for the brave water-boy. Newman's variations on these themes is masterful, helping to give the film the lilt and swagger that makes it one of finest of its kind.

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade takes as its climax the charge made by four regiments of light cavalry (a brigade) at Balaclava during the Crimean War (1853-56), which England and France waged to prevent the Russians from occupying Turkey and gaining access to the Mediterranean. Despite its ultimate success the war was badly managed and the charge celebrated by Tennyson in his epic poem was sheer folly. It achieved nothing and five hundred of the seven hundred cavalrymen lost their lives. The film, starring Errol Flynn as a purely fictional hero, uses the charge as its climax, after telling of the adventures of a regiment of lancers in India. It also invents a romance, with Olivia de Havilland as the daughter of a colonel, allowing among other things for a delightful waltz by Max Steiner for a ballroom sequence. It was the Viennese-born Steiner's first film for Warner Brothers, resulting in a contract that would span almost thirty years with that studio and a body of work that would firmly establish Steiner as a master of film composition.

 

Just as nothing like the Balaclava charge will be seen again, so nothing like its 1937 filming is ever likely to be tackled again. A magnificent action sequence, photographed and edited with great skill, the charge builds and builds in momentum as hundreds of handsomely uniformed soldiers thunder down the valley amid the volleys of Russian cal1l1onades. Many stuntmen were injured and a number of horses were killed, resulting in regulations that would prevent any such sequence in such fashion being done again. This incredible piece of cinema is greatly aided by Steiner's music, which accompanies the entire charge. His primary theme for the film is the march for the regiment of lancers, together with the Indian settings and the romantic interludes. The actual charge pits the march theme against quotations from Rule Britannia and the old Russian Imperial anthem, all the while building in tempo and excitement. It is truly a masterpiece of film scoring.

 

Tony Thomas

 

A Note on reconstruction:

Most of the music in this album was reconstructed from piano/conductor scores especially for this recording. The sad fact is many of our classic American film scores no longer exist in their fully orchestrated, original versions. Luckily, multiple copies of the original piano reductions were made for purposes of conducting, copyright, and timing considerations. At best, however, these piano scores (on three or four line staves) are only an approximation of the full scores. Wrong notes and missing harmonic and melodic material abound. It is an extremely tedious task to re-orchestrate this music and, with the audio of the original sound track as a guide, come as close as possible to the composer's original intentions. In some cases the "conductor score" merely consisted of a violin part! It is our sincere aim to present this music as authentically as possible.

 

John W. Morgan


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