, December 2004
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You know, many people find the holiday season one of the most difficult times of the year. Even without the pressures our commercial world heaps on these holidays, it would be difficult to live in December. The days are extremely short and darkness is all around; the crisp air of October and November has turned downright cold. And all we have to look forward to are at least three more months of the same kinds of conditions. It's enough to drive you mad.
Fortunately for film score lovers, there are so many delights this year to warm yourself by that December's coldness is little more than a nuisance. Take, for example, Naxos's release of Max Steiner's Oscar-nominated score The Adventures of Mark Twain. Here is one of the best scores from one of the best composers from the Golden Age restored and recorded by one of the best teams working today. It really doesn't get much better than this release.
I've often written about the work conductor William Stromberg and film musicologist John Morgan have been doing, with yeomen help from the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, for the better part of a decade. They have restored and released countless classic scores, and I, for one, am in their debt if only for their recording of Korngold's The Adventures of Robin Hood. For their first release on the Naxos label (previous efforts were released under Marco Polo), the two have turned to a wonderful Americana score by a master of that genre.
The Adventures of Mark Twain follows the exploits of one of the United States' most celebrated authors. While the film lacks the zest that characterizes Twain's best writing, the musical score more than makes up for any deficiency in that area. Steiner perfectly captures 19th century America and the mercurial nature of the film's mischievous and brilliant protagonist. In cues like "The River Pilot," Steiner depicts Twain's childhood on the Mississippi River's wide expanse, through full brass chords, and turbulent waters, through swirling string patterns. In the aptly titled "Inspiration," he shows Twain working out his ideas through the juxtaposition of full string and brass swells with playfully delicate piano, harp, and bells. Finally, we hear the elder-statesman traveling the world in "World Tour Begins" and "World Tour Continues." Exotic evocations of Hawaii, China, Spain, and other locales weave in and out of statements of Twain's theme that was presented in the very first cue.
In order to fully achieve this "American" sound, Steiner used a variety of methods cultivated over many years of scoring. He used sound effects along with appropriate musical forms, such as the clip-clop of horses accompanying the up-tempo statement of Twain's theme in "Buggy Ride." He also quoted from numerous American folk tunes. Stephen Foster's "Oh Susanna" appears at the beginning of "Gold Rush," and the hymn "Battle Hymn of the Republic" underscores the Civil War in "Meeting General Grant." Finally, and most subtly, he adopted a predominantly brass and open string orchestration in a manner that has long been associated with evocations of America.
There are too many delights on this recording to go into more detail, especially as Morgan restored such much music to the score that it now stretches over seventy minutes. The music speaks so well for itself, and it is also available as an SACD hybrid disc and a DVD-Audio, with full 5.1 sound and behind-the-scenes photos. So do yourself a favor, counteract those end-of-the-year holiday blues, and immerse yourself in Steiner's world.