About this Recording
8.573367 - SAINTON, P.: Moby Dick (restored by J. Morgan and W. Stromberg) (Moscow Symphony, Stromberg)
English 

Moby Dick: The Film

Translating Herman Melville’s formidable novel Moby-Dick to film must have been a whale of a job, regardless of how many times director John Huston and screenwriter Ray Bradbury read the novel (at least nine times by Bradbury’s count). The novel’s pages are jam-packed with metaphorical meaning and symbolism; multitudinous details about whales and whaling; Melville’s anti-transcendentalist philosophy; and, sandwiched in between it all, the narrative of the story itself. Of one hundred and thirty-five chapters, about thirty-five can be eliminated without the basic storyline being harmed. On the other hand, many of those thirty-five chapters are crucial to grasping the whole of Melville’s message.

Tackling this mammoth writing task must have been as imposing an ordeal as Captain Ahab’s attempt to kill the ubiquitous, semi-supernatural white leviathan himself. But whereas driven Ahab ultimately fails in his quest to destroy the white whale, John Huston’s 1956 film succeeds in capturing the essence of the novel, thanks to a carefully crafted script, Huston’s direction and often inspired casting, and Philip Sainton’s musical score, which evokes the mysteries of the sea and the men who venture out upon it.

Paradoxically, the film is in some respects less than the novel, yet at the same time more than the novel. Although no film could ever include all levels of meaning and texture in the book within the time-frame and limitations of the film medium, Huston’s effort succeeds more than one might imagine possible. Bradbury and Huston could have treated the film as mere adventure—man goes to sea, crazed captain maniacally pursues monster whale, all save one die in the end—but the film-makers do far more than simply skim the surface of the novel. Certainly, it is a tribute to the spirit of the finished novel, though it is also worth noting that when Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne saw the first draft of Moby-Dick, it was a mere adventure story. This prompted Hawthorne to suggest adding to the book a wealth of symbolism, ensuring the book would offer various universal themes (and also ensuring it would confound and challenge literary critics for the ages).

The film-makers, too, proposed some rearranging and altering of certain incidents in the novel, thus building suspense and heightening dramatic tension, especially in the final scene where Ahab is lashed to the side of the furious whale—a thrillingly ingenious idea that, while almost drowning actor Gregory Peck during shooting, added a fittingly ironic twist to the film. The very idea of Ahab forever bound to the white whale he has so relentlessly pursued works visually as well as symbolically, indicating an infinite link between the two adversaries (which is also borne out in Sainton’s music). Perhaps it is for this reason details of the shabby stranger’s prophecy have also been changed for the film. In the film Elijah (Royal Dano) provides the disturbing dockside prophecy: “At sea one day, you’ll smell land where there be no land. And on that day Ahab will go to his grave, but he’ll rise again within the hour. He will rise and beckon—then all, all save one, shall follow.” The novel’s prophecy is a much more complicated matter and not so stirring as the film’s.

And yet the film is faithful to some of Melville’s major themes. As in the novel, the Pequod serves as a microcosm of the world, representing men of all ethnic backgrounds. Ishmael (Richard Basehart), who establishes himself in the first scene as the teller of the tale, introduces these characters as the Pequod sets sail on its odyssey. Other multi-faceted themes evolve: the necessity of forming a brotherhood to ensure the survival of the community; the power and unfathomable mystery of the sea and nature; Ishmael’s journey of the soul and the lessons the sea has to teach him; and Captain Ahab’s single-minded obsession for vengeance and inability to see the whale-god as anything other than evil. In fact, the film builds upon some of these matters. For example, in Chapter 128 of the novel, The Pequod Meets the Rachel, as Captain Gardiner of the Rachel searches for several lost crew members, including his own son, he appeals to Ahab’s humanity by mentioning Ahab’s own young son. Omission of this detail in the film, however, only dehumanizes Ahab further, signifying his alienation from fellow man and family.

Although the whaling life is a man’s world and women contribute little to Melville’s novel, one brief but memorable scene involving women early in the film effectively portrays the woman’s rôle in the lives of these hardy whalers. As the men prepare for the mighty adventure that will take them away from land and family, the women look on stoically. All the while, the men sing and work joyously, as if eager to free themselves from responsibilities and confinement of their land-locked lives (or, at least, all with the seeming exception of First Mate Starbuck). For countless months ahead, their mistress will be the sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent sea.

While the film omits many chapters that do not advance the plot, it does make use of several of the novel’s many symbols. Film-makers understandably dispensed with Chapter 99, The Doubloon, but served up repetition of the doubloon’s visual image—the spectacle of the gold coin posted within sight of the crew—as a potential reward. Literally, the doubloon functions as a device to prevent the crew from legally usurping control of the ship when Ahab insists on his obsessive pursuit of the white whale rather than taking advantage of hundreds of other whales nearby. In the end, the repeated image of light glinting off the coin reminds us of the appeal of materialism to Ahab’s crew—and to us all. Likewise, the whalers’ chapel with its “marble tablets” displayed on the wall takes up a full chapter in the novel, while the film manages to accomplish the same effect within a few seconds as the camera pans the inscriptions and worshippers sing a solemn hymn about God and whales.

Considering the film Moby Dick was released back in 1956 (minus the hyphen of the book’s title), long before the days of Jaws, the monster whale’s appearance offers astonishing impact. Although Huston later wished more advanced technology had been available, even the modern-day viewer should have no trouble suspending disbelief when the elusive Moby Dick finally emerges, especially given the marvelously insightful editing involved. And if the whale sometimes seems unreal (as opposed to looking “fake”), then it only matches the mad captain’s obsession and the resulting catastrophe in which the enraged whale not only brings doom to captain and crew but, in a final incredible act, rams and sinks Ahab’s ship. (And, just for the record, the novel’s title figure was inspired by a notorious white sperm whale named Mocha Dick, “the stout gentleman of the latitudes,” whose first recorded battle with whalers was in 1819—the very year of Melville’s birth—and whose penchant for smashing ships and drowning whalers and confounding mariners was still mightily evident in 1850, when Melville was writing his novel.)

Volumes have been written about the novel, but precious little attention has been devoted to the film, even though the symbol of the white whale remains one of the most imposing in American literature. Today Herman Melville’s novel is read mostly by scholars, largely because its many digressions and multi-layered text make it tough-going for all but the most tenacious. But while reading a book and then watching a film version of that book often proves disappointing, Huston and Bradbury’s Moby Dick is the exception because much of the novel’s substance has been preserved.

The unsolvable problems and unanswerable questions faced by the characters on the microcosmic voyage of the Pequod still speak to the Ahabs and Ishmaels of our present-day society, though in different ways as time goes by. Today the whale is increasingly viewed as one of earth’s most wondrous creatures, while the whaling industry, in what quarters it still continues, is increasingly viewed with disdain and outrage. But the whale as a symbol—of exploitation in the name of virtue for material gain, of the unconquerable, unknowable, or indifferent nature of the universe—continues to be relevant, just as Ahab and Ishmael continue to live in our consciousness, and “the great shroud of the sea” rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Ann Howard Whitaker 1998

Moby Dick: The Score

Of all director John Huston’s films, the most fascinatingly flawed is Moby Dick. Had any of a dozen or so other directors helmed this sea-going cinematic effort, it might have been hailed as the high point of his or her film-making career. But as a John Huston work, Moby Dick falls just short of the high standards set by the same director in such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). Reasons for the film’s failure to achieve classic status include long-winded stretches with little in the way of conventional action; what some critics maintain as the glaring miscasting of Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab (including a few who referred to him as looking more like Abraham Lincoln than the obsessed whale-hunting captain, something Huston refused to accept); and finally, to hear Huston himself, the lack of vivid special effects needed to make the feared white whale sufficiently terrifying in the film’s catastrophic climax, in which the title figure not only kills all but one of Captain Ahab’s whalers but even sinks his ship for good measure. Yet, can one really imagine anyone bettering Huston’s ambitious take on what is admittedly a darkly complex classic novel? Is there anyone else who could take this sprawling work and translate it to film more successfully, remaining faithful to the book’s rampant symbolism, sly irony and universal truths?

Huston’s fascination with Herman Melville’s masterpiece—a credit to American literature and curse to many a student assigned to read it—began as a teenager. Even before he at last got his chance behind the camera, Huston had contemplated turning this great American novel into a film. In 1954, with several successful films behind him, the lusty American director finally got his chance. If nothing else, Huston proved resourceful and imaginative in assembling talent for the job ahead. Among the writers he tapped to pen scripts (most of which he rejected) were American author Ray Bradbury and British writer Roald Dahl. The cast ranged from booming Orson Welles as Father Mapple to Friedrich Ledebur, a six-foot-four eccentric aristocrat, as noble headhunter-turned-harpooner Queequeg (a “George Washington cannibalistically developed,” Melville wryly described the character) to solid, raw-boned Harry Andrews as the ship’s high-spirited second mate. Into this intriguing mix came Philip Sainton, a 63-year-old English composer whose fame had been fleeting, thanks to a reputation built upon his exceptional talents as a violist—a reputation he found hard to eclipse as a scribbler of music. His assignment: Furnish a substantial score for Moby Dick—and reportedly in just six weeks.

On the surface, Sainton’s selection seems odd. For one thing, he had never scored a film before. For another, one is well-justified in wondering why an American composer was not selected to score the movie version of what many claim as the foremost American novel. Some have pondered what the result might have been had Bernard Herrmann been tapped, especially in view of the composer’s inspired cantata Moby Dick—clearly a tribute to Herman Melville’s genius. (And, indeed, during his stormy relationship with Huston while scripting Moby Dick in Ireland, Ray Bradbury made that very suggestion.) It is also tempting to guess what Alex North, later a frequent Huston collaborator, might have done with the film. In any case, Huston apparently felt the most important quality for the composer of Moby Dick was a clear-cut empathy with the sea and its ever-changing moods and perplexing mysteries. And, after all, Great Britain’s composers of the twentieth century, ranging from Granville Bantock and Frank Bridge to Arnold Bax and Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, have always been mightily sensitive of the sea and the coast. Even then, Huston’s choice of Sainton seems odd. There were other British composers working then who might have sprung more immediately to mind for the assignment.

Philip Sainton, whose immense self-doubt sadly precluded his ever being as prolific as the above-mentioned composers, nevertheless shared that deep love of the sea. The result of his work on Moby Dick was one of the most virile sea scores ever penned, something that certainly appealed to the film’s director. Indeed, Sainton’s moody, seventeen-minute symphonic poem The Island (1942) today seems like a shimmering first study for his Moby Dick music. Although it has been widely assumed that The Island won Sainton the job of scoring Huston’s epic film, the truth is far stranger. For twenty years, Sainton maintained a friendship with Jack Gerber, a steel manufacturer of Lowmoor, whose two hobbies were, to quote Sainton himself, “as dissimilar as you could find—horse-racing and music.” An amateur composer, Gerber often tapped Sainton to orchestrate and arrange his more ambitious works. It was an HMV recording Sainton himself conducted of one of these works, Fiesta, that Huston happened to hear, prompting him to request a meeting with Sainton.

In a 1956 article for the summer issue of Film Music, Sainton admitted the chance to write a film score was something he often dreamed about but never really expected would happen. Besides, he knew from others the heavy demands on film composers when it came to deadlines and the need to compose quickly. “A piece of music that takes a minute to play takes a day to write and orchestrate for full orchestra—that is what it takes me, at any rate—and so I was never really sanguine enough to hope that the day would come when a director would not only request of me the sort of music I love but would also leave me, within reasonable limits, free to write it at my own pace and in my own time.” In fact, when Sainton, always cautious, always self-critical, explained to Huston it would be quite impossible for him to wait until the film’s completion and then write a film score in just six weeks from a print of the film, Huston invited the composer to come to the set itself in late 1954. And so he did. Armed with a stop-watch to time individual scenes, Sainton watched the director run the cast through its paces, relishing all the while the chance to watch Huston at work. From January to April 1955, the composer recalled later, he leisurely worked on the themes and motifs for the film in the Surrey town of Haslemere, “across the hill from Blackdown where Tennyson used to walk the woodlands and declaim his poetry.” All the while Sainton concocted grand designs for the scoring of individual scenes spelled out in the script.

Sainton found the challenge of scoring John Huston’s much-ballyhooed Moby Dick irresistible, especially considering his lack of recognition as a composer. Although Bernard Shore once recalled how an astrologer told Sainton his life would be fraught with disappointment, the composer had every right, early on, to expect good fortune. His grandfather, violinist and composer Prosper Philippe Sainton, first visited England from his native France in 1844 and appeared as soloist at a Philharmonic Society concert conducted by Mendelssohn. The following year, Prosper Philippe Sainton settled in London, became a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, led the orchestra of the Philharmonic Society and the Royal Italian Opera Orchestra at Covent Garden and, in 1860, married Helen Dolby, the famous English contralto to whom Mendelssohn dedicated the English edition of his Six Songs and for whom Mendelssohn also wrote the contralto part in Elijah. Unfortunately, Philip Sainton’s father did not share the family interest in music and, in fact, dampened not only young Philip’s pursuit of music but also his self-confidence.

Born on 10 November 1891, in France (less than two months after the death of forgotten, utterly miserable Herman Melville in New York City), Sainton did not come to live permanently in England until he was six. He started to study the violin in his teens but received little encouragement from his father. On at least one occasion, Philip’s father declared the sound his son produced enough to make his illustrious grandfather turn in his grave. What is more, young Philip showed little patience with the standard educational system. “He used to tell me that he was told to stand on the bench at the back of the class so many times,” daughter Barbara Clark said later, “that one morning he simply went straight to it and, when questioned about it, replied that as he always ended up there, he felt it would be sensible to start there.” Despite his dislike of regimentation (enough that his parents eventually decided to have him taught by a governess) and also what bordered on downright discouragement regarding his music, Philip went on and, in his teens, began to compose. Ironically, he had no idea how to set out a score and, when he took his efforts to a music teacher, was promptly told he had done it upside-down. However, he received not only solid instruction but much-needed encouragement and so was able to go forward under formal training, culminating in a period of study at the Royal Academy of Music, including composition under Frederick Corder.

Even then, Philip Sainton’s life was never easy. Although he eventually gained a position as principal violist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and even saw one of his pieces, Serenade Fantastique for viola and orchestra, given its first performance in 1935 under Sir Henry Wood, with Bernard Shore as soloist, the performer-composer’s career came to an end during the days of the London Blitz, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra had moved to Bedford. “He happened to be mending the iron one morning,” his daughter said. “In those days, we still had direct current. Dad had forgotten this and, although the iron was switched off, it was not unplugged. Suddenly there was an enormous bang and Dad held up a completely blackened hand. All might have been well except that he had burned the skin between his thumb and first finger on his left hand, the hand he played with. Had it been his bowing hand, then things might have been different, but he could no longer make the stretch required to reach the strings.”

It was in the wake of this that Sainton, by now married with a young daughter, concentrated more on his composing. “He was his own harshest critic,” Barbara Clark said. “His small output is due, to a large extent, to the fact he was dissatisfied with a great deal of his work, which ended up in the dustbin. Probably his father’s lack of encouragement left a scar that lasted a lifetime.” Indeed, the list of works this easy-going, quietly principled composer left upon his death is a comparatively short one, including Harlequin and Columbine, The Dream of a Marionette—a Ballet, the tone poem Nadir (penned in response to the horrors he witnessed at the start of World War II, specifically the death of a child during a bombing raid) and Sea Pictures, which besides being one of his earliest works also reflected his passion for the sea, heard in more solid form in The Island and yet further on with his score for Moby Dick.

If Sainton had his hands full writing his first motion picture score, Huston, his cast and the rest of the crew at times seemed well in over their heads. The most costly and challenging film Huston had tackled up till that time, Moby Dick saw much of its photography shot on the sometimes tempestuous sea off the coasts of Ireland, Wales, Portugal and the Canary Islands. In addition, Huston fussily presided over what was then the most expensive colour process ever devised, shading the film in a bleak, blue-grey hue the director felt complemented the script’s brooding air. Weather woes, creative differences, even visa problems complicated the shoot. “It was an impossible picture to make,” Gregory Peck told a Newsweek reporter upon completion of the film in late 1955. “A ship at sea with scenes on its decks. Scenes in a rowboat being dragged about 25 knots. It was technically impossible, but we did it.” And while some criticism of Huston’s direction of Moby Dick might be justified, including a strange element of disorganization that infects even his best work, Peck was the first to acknowledge that Huston’s drive kept the cast and crew going. “John really wanted to play Ahab himself,” the actor said. “He visualised him as a combination of himself and his father (craggy actor Walter Huston, who had died a few years earlier). The hardest thing about the rôle was keeping Ahab’s wooden leg away from him.” Huston, who in his colourful 1980 autobiography, An Open Book, described the film as the most physically difficult he ever tackled, credited a higher power than himself for the trying times: “The picture, like the book, is a blasphemy, so I suppose we can lay it to God’s defending Himself when He sent those awful winds and waves against us.”

By all accounts, Philip Sainton enjoyed his work scoring Moby Dick, despite poor health. “In his later years, his health became a chronic problem,” his daughter Barbara Clark said, “causing him to resign from the Savage Club. Because of this he then gradually lost touch with his world. The commission to work on Moby Dick was a marvellous filip for him, but he was constantly fighting against discomfort and at times pain. He worked at an upright piano with a metronome as a constant companion. Hearing it all in his head, he would play the chords that the orchestra was playing. While my mother and I could hear the chords, we were confident all was well. It was the silences that bothered us. One of us would take him in a coffee and a sandwich and find him sitting in his armchair, his elbows on his knees and his head held in his hands, staring at the carpet. The refreshments would be put down quietly and we would retreat. Then suddenly more chords and a strange ‘teatum, teatum, tea, teatum’ would come over the top of them. The block had been broken. We could carry on with the rest of the day.”

Considering lingering self-doubt and ignorance of filmscoring techniques, Sainton’s score for Moby Dick ranks as one of the most remarkable ever penned, brimming with a vitality that easily renders it far more than mere background music. In the grand tradition of most golden-age film music, the Main Title [1] of Moby Dick promptly summons up some of the score’s most crucial musical ideas, including almost immediately an insistent motif in the trumpets and trombones for Captain Ahab, illustrating, as Sainton later noted, “the hammering of his Moby Dick obsession.” In the Main Title, this motif is barely announced before rolling over into a thundering motif for Moby Dick, conveying the full awe and terror inherent in a beast that, to quote Second Mate Stubb early in the film, “can jump up like an earthquake and come down on you like a mountain somehow put to sea.” Before the Main Title is done, though, a theme for the ill-fated whaling ship Pequod briefly sets sail, tinged with hope for the voyage ahead. The Main Title is followed by Sea Music [2], showing the way to the sea and displaying the influences of Ravel and especially Delius: flutes, clarinets, harp and the celeste playing gentle arpeggios conveying the cascading waters of a stream, warm brass promising far-off adventure and the orchestra swelling to celebrate “the magic in water that draws all men away from the land, leads them over the hills, down creeks and streams and rivers to the sea... the sea, where each man, as in a mirror, finds himself.” Incidentally, when producers of the original 1956 soundtrack album arranged this music, they set it before the main title and laid down an adjoining track of birds chirping, seemingly to stress this was “nature music.” Although the bird songs did not hinder the music any more than Respighi’s birds did in The Pines of Rome, producers of the re-recording at hand decided to avoid any and all animal sounds.

If Sainton’s music for Queequeg’s Entrance [3] seems somewhat exaggerated, it is only to match the high comedy of this memorable scene, in which the giant Polynesian headhunter-turned-harpooner Queequeg returns to his New Bedford inn room to retire for the night, only to discover a young whaler named Ishmael already under the covers, a situation that leads to a comic misunderstanding before the landlord comes in to settle things. The music for this brief cue is treated almost like a cartoon score, with droll commentary from bassoon and the like paving the way for the mix-up to come and mounting chords from the rest of the orchestra announcing the stark realisation the head-peddling harpooner comes to. The landlord’s arrival quickly brings calm to the scene, with a lone clarinet introducing a sweet motif that underscores the warm if somewhat humorous bond that now links Ishmael and his new friend. In the film, as Queequeg blows out the candle before slipping off into bed and finding Ishmael, Sainton has an agile chorus of woodwinds help extinguish the light.

It was upon the strength of Sainton’s writing of an original church hymn, The Ribs and Terrors in the Whale [4], that Huston made the final decision to engage the English composer for Moby Dick. “At our first meeting, he asked me to set to music Melville’s hymn, The Ribs and Terrors in the Whale,” Sainton wrote later. “In a day or two I wrote the original tune that is sung in the chapel-scene. It is of a type that might well have been sung by fisherfolk a hundred years ago. Leslie Woodgate recorded it for me, and it was sent to John Huston in Ireland. It was on this slender evidence that Huston later commissioned me to write the whole orchestral score.” Sung by a congregation in a whalers’ chapel marked with grave memorials to the many seamen lost in whaling ventures, the music is sombre and reverent in the best tradition of church hymns. For this recording, two stanzas of the hymn are sung:

The ribs and terrors in the whale,
Arched over me a dismal gloom,
While all Godʼs sun-lit waves rolled by,
And left me deepening down to doom.

In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe him mine,
He bowed his ear to my complaints—
No more the whale did me confine.

Towards the end of Father Mapple’s lofty and reassuring sermon (the filming of which Huston once declared was his very favourite scene in the movie), Sainton picks up the more hopeful tones of his hymn, this time in orchestral guise [5], before returning to the Spouter Inn where Queequeg and Ishmael confirm their friendship by resolving to ship out to sea together, wonderfully marked by the same sweet motif that coloured their first meeting the night before, though this time played by a single violin.

Scoring for the Dock Scene [6] the day of the Pequod’s departure—somewhat rearranged in the film—is filled with the high-spirited rhythmic vitality of sea shanties, yet also coloured by melancholy moments of doubt and looming catastrophe. The music composed for the very opening quay scene, as Ishmael and his cannibal friend seek out a whaling adventure, begins and ends with the aforementioned friendship motif, this time caught up in an invigorating arrangement accented by sprightly winds. An alternate cue [7] was reworked slightly for the film and incorporated into scenes of the Pequod preparing for departure. Queequeg’s Signing [9] and Going Aboard [10] play upon the excitement and humour evident when the heathen origins of this lanky “son of darkness” are questioned by the ship’s Quaker owners, only for all such concerns to fall away to nothing as Queequeg scoffs, then gives a brilliant display of his harpooning talents. As Queequeg scrawls his mark—tellingly, a whale—below Ishmael’s on the ship’s registry, the friendship motif once again makes a high-spirited appearance, before the orchestra returns to the joyfully indomitable tune first heard in the above-mentioned alternate dock cue.

Darker moments surface when Ishmael pauses in his sea-going quest aboard the Pequod because of Ahab’s “wicked name” (though the cue Ishmael Signs Aboard [8] was later trimmed from the film) and further on when the stranger Elijah encounters Ishmael and Queequeg and foretells how all but one of the Pequod crew will perish under the thundering madman serving as their captain (music again edited in the film, shorn of the plunging chords that open this cue [11] and will, fittingly enough, sound again during the film’s climax). But perhaps the most moving music in this section remains that in Pequod’s Departure [12], in which the ship finally sails out to sea as women and children watch sadly and wave from shore, the theme of the Pequod (intoned by clarinet, oboes and trumpets) bravely persevering above the melancholy strains in the strings that convey not only the uncertainty of its journey but the heartbreak and long separation and even tragedy such trips can result in. Nevertheless, as the cue comes to its conclusion, heroic horns propel the crew on.

By the time ominous chords on the keyboard introduce At Sea [12], the tone has changed. As members of the crew are introduced, one by one, a sad air begins to dominate this sea-going music, driving away much of the optimism heard moments earlier in the score. But all plunges to new depths in Ahab’s Introduction [13], written for the rousing scene in which Ahab finally emerges from his cabin and whips his crew into a frenzy, inciting one and all to seek the white whale that torments him so. More than any other cue in the score, the six-minute Ahab’s Introduction reflects Huston’s request that Sainton score much of the film as if he were writing an opera, a most challenging request, considering Sainton had also never written an opera. However, the composer’s ability to change mood within a few measures works wonders here. An almost malevolent restlessness in the orchestra with the hammering motif first sounded in the Main Title conveys Captain Ahab’s dark obsession with the whale Moby Dick. This is interrupted only briefly by an upbeat passage suggesting the naive crew’s simple, seafaring passions, something developed vigorously in the following cue, There She Blows [14], when the whalers are at last permitted to do what they signed on to do. As for the captain’s first appearance before his crew, all ends in an incredible scene that really does play like an opera, with the harpooners caught up in the madness sparked by Ahab, Sainton’s frantic scoring sustaining what, without such music, could have easily come off as absurd, even ridiculous. It is a credit to Sainton’s unheralded talent that such a scene works, and even more so that the music sings with such mounting purpose, even apart from the film.

Although scholars now tout Melville’s early-day environmental message, more obvious in the book than the movie, there is no doubt that much excitement erupted during the dangerous hunting of whales, illustrated by the driving music Sainton furnished for such sequences in Huston’s film. There She Blows, scored for the sequence in which a whale is first sighted and pursued, swims with great vigour, much of it centred on the hunting motif heard so briefly in the previous cue. Merrily mixed into the action is the traditional tune Hill and Gully Rider, first sounded by the clarinets, then among other instruments. (Alas, this cue is heard in a heavily edited form in the film.) For a later sequence in which the whalers come upon an enormous school of whales and thus, from the crew’s point of view, the voyage attains its mission, Huston asked Sainton for “carnival music” to depict the crew’s joy and exultation. Sainton again rose to the challenge, constructing his theme “round old French hunting calls, using mainly the open notes of the French horn” and, along the way, serving up a dazzling display of counterpoint. These two cues contain some of the most ecstatic music ever written for film. Even in The Journey Continues [15], the cue that separates the thrilling There She Blows and Carnival [16], the gathering obsession of Ahab suggested in the beginning is yet unable to cap the upbeat mood of the crew. Ishmael’s climb to the masthead, conveyed by the orchestra as it resorts, step by step, to its highest registers, concludes with a hugely satisfying statement on life at sea before horns announce the sighting of the aforementioned school of whales. But such joy and hope end forever with Carnival when suggestions of Elijah’s dockside prophecy suddenly usher uncertainty into the cue’s final moments.

After this, almost everything that remains in the film and Sainton’s score is gloom and doom, reflecting the supreme trials demanded by an ever-changing sea and the rigid focus maintained by the ship’s clearly unbalanced captain. Meeting at Sea [17], scored for that scene in which Ahab learns from another whaling captain of Moby Dick’s proximity, quickly finds Ahab’s hammering motif taken up by one section of the orchestra, then another, suggesting that Ahab’s fixation is beginning to consume him even more, like cracks branching out in a shattered mirror, to the extent Ahab is quite content to leave a fertile whale-hunting stretch to pursue the accursed leviathan. An almost ghostly passage stressing nervous strings and muted trumpet reflects the Pequod’s new and uncertain course. And there is a wonderful moment in the film when Ahab, contending with a reluctant and confused crew, resolutely insists his command should have the impact of the last trump, prompting from the composer a sharp blast of Ahab’s motif in the brass (heard toward the end of this cue). The mood of madness and melancholy continues in On the Lookout [18], which reveals Ahab searching the seemingly endless sea for his devil, the orchestra’s nether-regions quietly churning away all the while. Beginning with a sad violin solo that was largely trimmed from the finished film, Waiting [19] finds the ship Pequod at last slowed to a still in a horrible heatwave and the unhappy crew wondering if the wind will once again favour them and provide relief from a boiling sun, a scene that prompted the director to ask for “desert music” from his composer, reflecting, as Sainton himself stated later, “the perpetual heat and the sameness of the land,” bringing to everyone on board (and in the theatre) “a feeling of maddening monotony.” The sudden appearance of Moby Dick in the following cue [20] brings the orchestra to its most thundering level yet, though the wind again fails Ahab and the crew finds its collective misery must continue. Only briefly does the brass summon the high-spirited, fullblooded tones first heard back in New England, this time signalling the longed-for return of a fair wind.

Despite these fleeting moments of hope, Ahab’s ever-insistent motif presses on in The Search Continues [21], heard after Ahab refuses to help a fellow whaling captain search for crew members lost at sea, preferring instead to pursue his demon. For this re-recording, production supervisor and arranger John Morgan presents two pieces of music of almost identical length written for the above scene, though only the second is heard in the film. In both, a rushing, ascending figure in the orchestra captures the bloodlust that drives Ahab and his crew on. The two cues, at points echoing the darker realms of Arnold Bax, also remind viewers how crucial music was for certain scenes in this film. Peck’s portrayal of Ahab might have seemed well over the top without Sainton’s scoring, but with it Ahab comes across as chillingly believable. For a subsequent scene (Saint Elmo’s Fire [22]) upon a storm-tossed sea at night, during which Ahab amazes his impressionable whalers by “grabbing St. Elmo’s fire by the tail,” Sainton offers up his own take on Debussy’s Sirènes, though the fair voices here do not beckon but warn, almost as if to suggest the very profanity of Ahab’s mission. Some of this is also caught up in the following cue, Ahab’s Madness [23], in which First Mate Starbuck deplores the crew’s helplessness before Ahab and resolves to kill the captain himself. In the cue, Sainton wonderfully sketches the turmoil that so riles the brave, level-headed first mate. The cue The Great White Whale [24] serves up another reminder of Elijah’s prophecy, though it registers little impact upon the actual sighting of Moby Dick, its motif eventually sounding from the depths of the orchestra in an earth-shaking, four-note motif, the first two notes calling forth the deepest of brass.

When in Eerie Calm – He Rises [25] the boats are away from the ship and Ahab’s crew is at last ready to face down the captain’s tormentor, unnerving tension comes from the orchestra’s highest regions, including massed violins playing harmonics while two solo violins and two flutes trade comments quietly. Upon Moby Dick’s violent reappearance, the orchestra erupts in the chaos the enraged whale quickly brings down upon Ahab’s crew, snare drums thrillingly suggesting the mad passion of the whalers as they engage a beast they can never hope to subdue, a fact driven home by the very plunging chords that introduced Elijah’s prophecy early in the film. (And listen for, shortly after Moby Dick’s entry in this cataclysmic music, eleven sharp, desperate jabs by the orchestra as the whalers’ harpoons fly home, all to no avail.) The only pause in this wildly dramatic music comes as Ahab, now dead and lashed forever to Moby Dick, yet beckons his whalers on, eliciting from Sainton a magnificent dirge in which the brass leads the rest of the orchestra to divide, reaching defiantly to the heights and plunging to the depths at the very same time. Ahab’s beckoning even in death and Starbuck’s battle-cry to pursue Moby Dick again prompt bewildered and incensed crew members to attack the whale with renewed vigour and a bizarre fervour all their own. Thundering rage in the orchestra then resumes, daring the heavens to intrude and ending as Moby Dick not only brings about the seeming demise of the entire crew but rams the ship and creates a huge maelstrom that causes the Pequod to vanish beneath the waves, a nightmarish piece of musical wizardry that, at its most exciting, finds the orchestra caught up in a repeated four-note figure rooted in the hammering motif of Ahab. As the ship disappears, Moby Dick’s presence soars high above the waves, this time in more melancholy guise. The aforementioned plunging chords from Elijah’s dock-side prophecy eventually finish off the ship in heavily deliberate fashion. Only the score’s Finale [26] offers any hope in the rescue of Ishmael, who in the tradition of all epic tales, lives to tell the tale of the ill-fated crew of the Pequod.

Considering the ambitious undertaking of the film Moby Dick, Sainton’s contribution has been absurdly neglected. Today the score stands as one of the most remarkable and unique in film music, gorgeous and shimmering in its most rhapsodic depictions of the sea, yet brawny and deliberately (and delightfully) sinewy in texture when devoted to the film’s stronger moments, whether they concern men or nature. Although made up of more than two dozen cues, their relation by mood, motifs and instrumentation ensures musical continuity throughout. With the exception of the long period during which the sun-baked Pequod crew is stranded at sea without wind, the score is almost always rhythmically alive, pulsating with the spirit of sea shanties or the captain’s obsessions. Ironically, Philip Sainton knew little of America’s greatest novel. “Since those days,” Sainton wrote later, “many people have said to me that they supposed, since the score breathes the passion and excitement of the book, that I must have been a lover of Moby-Dick since childhood. They are amazed—just as Huston was at our first interview—when I tell them that I had never even read it, indeed had scarcely heard of it. Huston actually gave me a copy of the novel to read at the same time as he handed me the script that had been prepared for the film. If the score I subsequently wrote is deemed a success, I want to underline the two factors that made it so. The first is that John Huston has a great understanding of music and knows exactly the kind of sound he wants for each sequence in his films. He told me that I must treat Moby Dick just as if I were writing an opera. There were no words that I better wanted to hear. This treatment ideally suited my own inclinations, and in his view it ideally suited the book as well.”

Although production documents of the period show Sainton wrote the entire Moby Dick orchestral score, the hymn The Ribs and Terrors in the Whale, both vocal and orchestral arrangements of Hill and Gully Rider and even the accordion music heard in Peter Coffin’s Spouter Inn early in the film, music director Louis Levy, an experienced hand in the film business since 1916, helped in arranging some of the traditional passages sung by Ahab’s crew. In a few sections of Sainton’s Moby Dick, the composer also had occasion to borrow from his earlier concert works. For instance, for the heart-warming scenes where Queequeg and Ishmael become friends in New Bedford, Sainton recycled some of the music from his witty 1929 ballet The Dream of the Marionette. In addition, some of the spirited dock music he uses in Moby Dick comes from the ballet’s third movement. And some of Moby Dick’s more dramatic sections, including the mighty confrontation scenes at the film’s climax and the concluding music scored in its wake, owe much to Sainton’s own darkly hued masterpiece Nadir as well as a march in, once again, The Dream of the Marionette. In any case, the score for Moby Dick remains an inspired creation all its own, and whatever music Sainton may have borrowed from earlier works, themselves quickly fading from the minds of his concert-hall peers, was completely reworked with an eye and ear for the immense task at hand.

For a composer fast slipping into relative obscurity at the time of his commission to compose Moby Dick, Philip Sainton found his first experience at film composition not only enlightening but invigorating. “Writing this score was a tremendous and sometimes frightening experience,” he remarked, “for one whose previous work has been done in calmer and less momentous circumstances.” However challenging it might have been, Sainton hoped similar commissions might present themselves, at least from Huston. (Months before his death in 1987, while contemplating filming Melville’s Benito Cereno, the ailing director informed admiring Hollywood writer Preston Neal Jones that, for all its difficulties, “if I have a favourite film, Moby Dick would probably be it.”) Sadly, the only opportunity Sainton received at film scoring after Moby Dick came from film-maker and aging star Charlie Chaplin, but Sainton soon left the A King in New York assignment after a disagreement with the eccentric filmmaker, apparently over Chaplin’s habit of appropriating and assuming credit for many aspects in film production he actually had little right to claim. Thereafter Sainton faded from Britain’s busy musical scene, composing little, if anything. Ill health dashed many of his dreams, including his plans one day to write a full-scale symphony. By the time of his death in 1967, he had been largely forgotten.

Today Philip Sainton’s music is gradually regaining some of the ground it lost through the years. In any case, his vibrant score for Moby Dick remains one of his creative highlights, to the extent officials from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, when consulted about the present recording, firmly discouraged any notion of recording a mere suite Sainton had fashioned from the score, stressing instead the many merits of the full film score. Whatever praise the film itself deserves, the score rates a spot alongside the best of Britain’s sea music, including Vaughan Williams’ own Sea Symphony, Frank Bridge’s The Sea and Arnold Bax’s Fourth Symphony. In some ways, in scope and grandeur and energy and mood, the Moby Dick score is the very symphony that sea-loving Philip Sainton thought he never wrote.

Bill Whitaker 1998

Moby Dick: A Radio Talk by Philip Sainton 30 August 1956

If the score I have written for Moby Dick is deemed a success, I want to underline two factors that helped me enormously. The first is that John Huston has a great understanding of music and was able to give me a vivid idea of the kind of sound or music he wanted for the majority of the scenes. He started by telling me that I must treat Moby Dick as though it were an opera and went so far as to describe the scene where Ahab first addresses the crew as “Ahab’s aria.” This suited my own inclinations, providing, as I told him, that I was given enough time in which to turn out sentences of grammatical music to fit the timings precisely, so that however long or short the periods might be, the music should come as it were to a logically placed comma or fullstop.

An opera does not contain one theme but many, hence the reason why Moby Dick has no main theme but a number of them. In some sequences, Huston asked me to intensify in sound the visual scene; in others, he required the music to reflect the thoughts and feelings of the characters. For instance, in the first hunting sequence, he told me to write music that would be alive with the zest of the chase. The excitement of the whalers was to be transmitted in sound, leaving the sound of the sea to “effects.” Then, when the Pequod later comes upon a huge school of whales and, thus, from the crew’s point of view, the voyage had attained its objective, he asked for carnival music.

It will be readily understood how very helpful it was for me (for I had no previous experience of film-making) to be guided thus, by a producer who knew so clearly what he wanted. Although he has no actual technical knowledge of music, Huston is urgently aware of the effects music can create; and having indicated what he wanted, left me to do it in my own way and gave me enough time in which to do the work to the best of my ability. In November 1954, I went on most days to Elstree to see the film in the making, and from the following January to April, I concentrated on the script and in my own time wrote those themes that would be wanted. There were six of them, all quite short, and these I reduced for a septet to play, and recorded them at Elstree. These records I took to Huston in Ireland and the commission to write the whole score was confirmed.

The first sheets of timings arrived at the end of May, and those well-versed in the writing of film music may laugh when I say that, as I looked at the pages of timings for “Ahab’s aria,” I gasped with fright, so many of them were there. I had to accompany the dialogue as if it were being sung and with the mood continually changing. I soon discarded the stopwatch and metronome and solved the timings by elementary arithmetic, the sum being, “How many beats of music are wanted to cover seventeen seconds, if the tempo is 144 beats per minute.”

Here I would like to say that I was greatly assisted by Louis Levy, director of music at Elstree, who gave me a record of the dialogue in the scene I have just mentioned. He conducted the whole score, and I am indebted to him for the able way he directed and fitted the music to the film. I hope that those of you who have seen the picture and have noticed the music will recognize the superlative quality of the orchestra, which was made up from London’s finest players. Jean Pougnet led as a rule. The recording sessions—twelve in all—continued from July until December. Progress was often slow because sequences were frequently cut or lengthened and the music had to be rewritten. At these recordings, Huston was represented by Russell Lloyd. Here again, I was lucky in working for an editor whose deep appreciation of music enabled him to use the music to its best advantage. It may be of interest to listeners to know that I’ve just finished making an orchestral concert suite of the music of Moby Dick, naming each of the six movements after their respective moods.

Moby Dick: The Restoration

Shortly after recording the complete House of Frankenstein score for Marco Polo, Bill Whitaker and I were throwing around film titles for possible future recordings and Bill brought up Philip Sainton’s score for John Huston’s version of Moby Dick. I was very familiar with the music, having seen the film many times and having the old RCA soundtrack album issued at the time of the film’s 1956 release.

Knowing full well this was one of the finest scores to come from England in the 1950s, and also knowing the original soundtrack album had very poor mono sound with lots of artificial reverberation added, I agreed with Bill that the time was right to attempt a re-recording of this score with modern stereo sound. My enthusiasm was dampened only by the fact so few British film scores survive in written form. I also knew that piano/conductor books, prevalent in American-studio films, were very rarely used in Britain. This meant that if the full scores or/and orchestral parts could not be found, a complete, authentic reconstruction would not be possible. Bill’s enthusiasm, meanwhile, led him to Barbara Clark, Philip Sainton’s daughter, who not only had the full scores but was very enthusiastic about a new recording of this tremendous film score.

Since we had only recorded American film scores up to this time in Marco Polo’s classic film music series, I conferred with conductor William Stromberg on his feelings and he shared our excitement regarding the project. With the blessing of Klaus Heymann and Anthony Anderson, our bosses at Marco Polo, we started the restoration process.

Barbara Clark photocopied all the music-related materials she had on Moby Dick and Bill Stromberg and I started sifting through all the pages, matching them to both the film’s soundtrack and the original soundtrack recording. It quickly became apparent that the written score contained a great deal more music than ended up in the final film as released. Wanting this to be a definitive recording of the score, we elected to record the music as Philip Sainton conceived it, without the arbitrary cuts made because of last-minute editing of the film itself.

Making this restoration difficult was the fact that several score pages were missing. For these, we listened closely to the film’s aging soundtrack and carefully reconstructed these vital bars. Furthermore, since the original orchestral parts did not survive, we had to have all new parts for the orchestra prepared from the score. Normally this would not be a problem, but the music had so many changes (deletions, additions) hastily written in, we had to proof-read meticulously and annotate a great deal of the score. On top of this, the score was obviously used as reference for the music-dubbing after the music was recorded. Notations, timings, etc., obliterated portions of the score. (Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of phoning the composer to ask him what he meant by his cryptic shorthand symbols!) After a few months of detailed work on the score, we were able to send it off to Moscow to have the instrumental parts copied.

The orchestra is a modest one, especially by Hollywood standards, and includes three flutes (one doubling piccolo and alto flute), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets in A and B flat (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (one doubling contra-bassoon), four horns in F, three trumpets in C, three trombones and a tuba. The percussion includes two sets of chromatic timpani, bass drum, various cymbals, snare drums, triangle, gong, tambourine and vibraphone. Also included is one keyboard-player (piano, celeste and organ), small choir and strings.

I want to thank the good people at Marco Polo, Bill Whitaker, Bill Stromberg and Barbara and Terry Clark for their enthusiasm and inestimable contributions in making this recording possible.

John Morgan 1998

Afterword from Barbara Clark August 1997

A magical story began in January 1995. Bill Whitaker, on behalf of the recording label Marco Polo, telephoned me from Texas. He told me that the company wanted to rerecord the film music my father had written for Moby Dick. Between then and now I have met, via telephone conversations and faxes, three delightful, talented people who have all worked incredibly hard and with great faith on an enormous project. It has been magical because my father’s talent, which had not been fully recognized during his lifetime, has now finally, forty years on, been acknowledged.

Terry, my husband, spent three days photocopying my father’s original score, which amounted to three hundred and fifty pages in all. We then sent this huge MSS to John Morgan in California. There he began the mammoth task of re-presenting it to include all the music that had never reached the soundtrack.

Then came the first-edit tape. It was wonderful. I knew that my father would have been delighted and proud and, because he had a very poor opinion of his abilities, amazed by the whole situation.

The Moscow Symphony Orchestra, under the sensitive and polished direction of Bill Stromberg, has brought back to life music that I had heard my father creating all those years ago. It was quite an experience.

I would therefore like to thank once again Bill Whitaker, John Morgan and Bill Stromberg for bringing Philip Sainton back into the fold.


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