Rare and OOP soundtracks from the Golden Age.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The cities that mocked the very name of God...The vengeance that tore the Earth asunder!

SODOM AND GOMORRAH - Miklos Rozsa (1962)

Here’s one that’s sure to please everyone! Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the last Rozsa epic scores and I think it’s great, very much in the vein of his earlier efforts in the genre: modal writing giving it an exotic touch (even more so than his other epics), great catchy themes and a big sound. The film was an Italian production and wasn’t as prestigious as the ones Rozsa had been used to work on at MGM, maybe that’s why he was so harsh with it in his autobiography:

Sodom and Gomorrah was a super production costing seven million dollars, with the biblical story decked out with all sorts of absurd and gaudy extras. The director had left already [I believe the film was finished by Sergio Leone], so we never met. The film was like a parody of the genre: a wretched script, bad acting, some passable battle scenes, some interesting photography; but I was stuck with it, and with close to two hours of music. However, the producer was a friend, the studio was paying me well, and I hoped I might be able to help a bit; but the cards were stacked[…] The film was a sad flop, and the studio closed down. However, the record album of my music is again available.

This is the expanded two disc release from the Italian label Legend. It was issued as a 2-LP set and someone (not me) made a 2-cd boot from it. It sounds rather good in stereo (although not as good as the more recent reissue of the original album on Collectables records). One thing that we still miss is the complete Main Title: one of the best cue of the score: on this release, it just fades out before it’s finished!


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What if you had no right to read?

FAHRENHEIT 451 – Bernard Herrmann (1966)

Bernard Herrmann was one of the few golden age composers (Miklos Rozsa is another name that comes to mind) who enjoyed a second career in their later years when younger filmmakers who were fans of their previous work hired them to score their movies. But before Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese there was François Truffaut.
Truffaut is best known as an important figure of the French ‘Nouvelle Vague’ but was also an influential film critic who wrote several important books among them his legendary book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock that should be required reading for any lover of the cinema – for any human being, actually! As a great admirer of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Truffaut was well aware of the importance of Herrmann’s music in some of the master of suspense’s best films. He was making his first English language film with his bleakly realistic adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel and probably jumped at the occasion of working with the great composer. Apparently the two enjoyed collaborating on the picture although communication could be difficult at times since Truffaut couldn’t speak English very well and Herrmann wasn’t so good in French either.
However, Herrmann shows his perfect understanding of the material in his music that alternates sections of great coldness and brutality with heartbreakingly beautiful themes and ‘valses tristes’ that sound like a dirge for a lost humanity. The use of harps is a highlight throughout the score either representing the destructive power of fire (with ferocious glissandos) or the bleakness of this dystopian future (with obsessive unresolving arpeggios – a Herrmann trademark).
Truffaut and Herrmann would go on to work together on one more film, the director’s adaptation of William Irish’s The Bride Wore Black, but this time the experience proved to be disappointing for both men: Truffaut wasn’t getting what he wanted, so he replaced portions of the score with classical pieces by Vivaldi (a Truffaut favourite). Herrmann was understandably upset and bitter and the film marked their final collaboration.
This is ripped from Tsunami’s cd. I know that another boot label (Soundstage Records) released a more complete version but I don’t have it. This one comes with a bonus track from The Snows of Kilimanjaro soundtrack.


Thunderous! Tender! Touching!

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS - Victor Young (1943)

Orchestrations by Leo Shuken and George Parrish
Ray Heindorf conducting the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra (1958)

Victor Young suffered the fate of most film composers who are better known for their themes (and the songs based on them) than for their scores as a whole. The reason might be that melodic music seems for some reason to sound dated to a modern audience. It has a lot to do also with the fact that, contrarily to Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner, for example, Young’s scores aren’t very well represented on disc, except for the countless cover versions recorded by Young himself or others that often sound much more sappy than the film soundtracks’ originals. But since he composed most of his best work for Paramount, a studio that has shown very little interest in releasing classic soundtracks from their vaults, we’ve had few occasions to hear his music away from the films.
All the more reason to appreciate this brilliant recording conducted by Ray Heindorf in 1958. Heindorf had been the head of the Warner music department for years when the studio launched their new record label: Warner Bros. Records and the very first album they released was this one. Why they would choose to re-record a score for a 15 year old film made at another studio, we’ll never know, so we’ll have to believe the original album notes when they say that “for Ray Heindorf, the conducting of this score was a delightful and privileged experience. It was the chance to record one of his favorite scores, a score written by a dear friend. […] This recording takes on an additional tenor as one composer conducts another man’s work. It’s not only a sign of respect for the work, but for one of film music’s leaders, Victor Young.”
Whatever you may think of this blurb, the quality of this recording shows the great care that went into it, at a time when it was possible to produce a film music re-recording performed by first class L.A. musicians. Though the film is quite long (by the standards of the time, anyway), this is a rather complete and very faithful presentation of the score’s thematic material and developments. In fact the complete score as it is heard in the film sounds rather repetitive, so the 40 minute running time is just right for this one.
This was ripped in 320 kbps from the beautiful stereo version released in 1991 by Stanyan Records remastered from the original 3-track masters (fortunately they kept these ones! – see my previous post for more info about the fate of many early stereo recordings at Warners). Stanyan added 3 unrelated bonus tracks that I chose not to include here.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Its towering wonders span the age of titans!

HELEN OF TROY - Max Steiner (1956)

I always tended to prefer Steiner’s scores from the thirties or the early forties to his later works. I guess they sound more imaginative and less formulaic. But I make an exception for his mammoth score for Robert Wise’s not so great 1956 epic. Flawed as it is, the movie is still better than Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy thanks in no small part to Steiner’s inspired score. It contains so many themes and motives that it would take pages to analyse it properly so I’ll leave this to your appreciation and only point out a few highlights. The action music is exceptional in its brutality showing Steiner at his most ferocious. But my favourite section of the score deals with Paris’s first encounter with Helen up to their elopement and subsequent arrival in Troy. These scenes contain some of Steiner’s best writing for harps. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to write many scores for swords and sandals epics such as this one. His approach is more traditional than Rozsa’s (who used modal writing to convey a sense of antiquity) or Waxman’s and North’s (who relied on modern composing techniques such as polytonality to create an approximation of primitive sounding music).

A note about this recording: I read somewhere that in the early days of stereo recording, Warners were so stingy that they stored their music masters in the following fashion: after they had used the original masters for the film’s stereo mix, they re-recorded them on 3-track tapes but instead of using the tracks for stereo effect they used each individual track to store a portion of the recording as a mono mixdown! That way, a one hour 3-track tape could store 3 hours of music! That’s why even legit issues of this material (such as the beautiful BYU discs of Battle Cry or Marjorie Morningstar) are mono only. I guess they had no idea then that this material could be used for anything but the occasional use as stock music for lesser productions or TV shows that would not get a stereo mix anyway. Well, that’s too bad because if their early stereo LPs are any indication, I’m sure these recordings sounded fantastic.
Anyway, this rip was made from the Mythus 2 cd boot. It’s almost complete but always frustrated me because it presents the score in the form of long suites rather than individual tracks. Well I’m all for presenting this kind of scores as a continuing music narrative but when I hear a 20mn+ suite I kind of loose track and when I’m listening to a music score that’s as screen specific as Steiner’s tend to be, I like to figure out whether what I’m hearing is Hector’s death or Achilles’. So, using the film and Bill Wrobel‘s excellent rundown of the score (available here) I indexed each track.
In the process of doing this (listening to the Mythus discs against the region 1 dvd of the movie) I noticed that the pitch was wrong (almost by a whole semitone) so I fixed this as well. I guess the tape Mythus used was either recorded or played at the wrong speed, so this version is a few minutes shorter than the cd. Even so, the sound quality is far from flawless, some portions containing a lot of distracting mag wow. I also cut the ‘overture’ from the program since it’s a fake that was put together by Warner Home Video for the Laserdisc release (it also appears on the dvd). It’s mono even on the 5.1 dvd release, indicating that they probably used the same master as the Mythus boot (they also made a ‘fake’ overture for East of Eden).

So here is Max Steiner's Helen of Troy in all its restored glory :

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

His sword carved his name across the continents - and his glory across the seas!

CAPTAIN BLOOD - Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1935)

I’m back with more Korngold today. Captain Blood is the composer’s first original film score. The year before, he had been brought to Hollywood by Max Reinhardt to work on the great director’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. For that film, Korngold was asked to adapt music by Felix Mendelssohn that would be used as underscore. Though Korngold’s work went beyond the simple editing of existing pieces, he was only an arranger. On Captain Blood he composed what would become the blueprint for his classics to come such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk.
In fact, when you come to think of it, it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment for a composer that was rather new to the film medium. Original scoring had been pioneered by the likes of Max Steiner and Carl Stalling only a few years before. Yet, when you listen to Captain Blood or other scores from 1935 (like The Bride of Frankenstein by Waxman or She by Steiner), all the conventions and tricks of modern film scoring are already in place.
Korngold was working under such a tight schedule on this film that he was forced to use extracts from Listz’s symphonic poem Mazeppa for some of the action sequences. These borrowed sections were only a few minutes long and although most of the score was original, Korngold asked to receive the following credit: “music adapted and conducted by” rather than “music composed by”. There’s a lesson for James Horner!
Before Tsunami released over an hour of music from the film, only suites existed most notably under the baton of Charles Gerhardt. This is the original soundtrack conducted by the composer and recorded in 1935.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

A movie about those who appreciate the finest things in life... for free!

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION – Johnny Williams (1966)

I know some soundtrack fans who don’t even want to hear about Johnny Williams’s comedy scores. Well, they don’t know what they’re missing. Once you get over the fact that they may not be on par with The Empire Strikes Back, they can be in many ways fascinating. Thanks mainly to FSM, we now have access to many of the composer’s early scores and it’s quite interesting to see the evolution of the man who would go on to compose so many soundtrack favourites.
Williams then followed in the footsteps of Henry Mancini, composing songs that would lend themselves to a variety of lounge arrangements. His neo-classical writing (the one you still hear in later scores such as Jaws and The Eiger Sanction) also shows up (most notably in Fitzwilly) as well as his more lyrical style in love scenes. In short, you hear a composer experimenting rather freely in different idioms within the limits of the era’s aesthetics. These soundtracks may not be the most cohesive and dramatic listening experiences but they’re certainly fun!
One other reason why these scores are not as appreciated as they should be is their often dreadful original album presentations (try and compare the original Penelope LP with the complete score presentation on FSM and you’ll see what I mean). How to Steal a Million may not have been expanded, but it’s a good presentation of the score although it’s quite short. This was ripped from Tsunami’s CD edition.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Thief... Liar... Cheat... she was all of these and he knew it!

MARNIE - Bernard Herrmann (1964)

Marnie was Alfred Hitchcock’s last film to be released with a Bernard Herrmann score. Their collaboration remains one of the most successful in cinema history, yet it lasted only ten years (between 1956 and 1966) and comprises the scores for only seven films (Herrmann was also credited as a sound consultant on The Birds, but that doesn’t really count as a musical score). Two years later, Hitchcock would reject Herrmann’s score for his ill-fated Torn Curtain and the two would never speak to each other again.
This professional and personal break-up was a tragedy for the history of film music: Hitchcock had found a perfect match in Herrmann: a composer that would understand the underlying anguishes and phantasms within his films better than any other he worked with before or after. For film historians, it also coincides with the beginning of the last period of his career. The rejection of Herrmann’s score also showed the insecurities of a director whose greatest pride was in successfully manipulating an audience’s emotions through the powers of cinema. His greatest success in this regard was certainly Psycho in which he had shocked audiences like never before–with a little help from Bernard Herrmann’s score!
But Marnie proved to be a box office disappointment and it apparently shook the director’s confidence. Although it’s far from being as good as Hitchcock previous masterpieces, it would be hard to blame the director’s collaborators for it. The often unsubtle script is actually salvaged by Robert Burk’s exquisite cinematography and Herrmann’s unabashedly romantic score. This may not be Herrmann’s most innovative work, but it shows how in tune he was with Hitchcock’s tormented heroine.
This is the original soundtrack recording which is far superior to any re-recording I’ve heard. It was first released as a boot on LP, then by Tsunami. I’ve worked a little on it and put the cues back in chronological film order using the film and the Varèse re-recording track titles as a reference.


If you want to learn more about this and other Bernard Herrmann scores, check Bill Wrobel's Film Scores Rundown site.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

She gave men a taste of life that made them hunger for more!

THE SANDPIPER - Johnny Mandel (1965)

Today’s score is quite a departure from my previous postings. The composer, Johnny Mandel belongs to a generation of composers that emerged in the early sixties. They were influenced by a variety of musical styles ranging from the most modernist forms of writing to jazz and the pop idiom of the era. They used all these techniques in an attempt to set a unique mood to a film rather than simply carry the story along. Mandel certainly succeeds in that by creating a score that seems to be floating above the ground, inviting the listener to an introspective journey within himself.
Mandel was a well established arranger with a very distinctive sound. It’s hard for me to describe it but I would say that his choice of orchestral colors favours the woodwinds and the brass, while the strings are used as a mellow accompaniment. His use of flutes is particularly inspired and recognisable. But what I like the most about his sound is the way he treats harmony. His progressions are not about sudden shifts but one chord sort of dissolves into the next one, each line carrying the melody with infinite grace. Well, If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a great admirer of Mandel’s work and I wish he’d made more film scores. The few that have been released are all outstanding (I love his modernist approach to John Boorman’s Point Blank), but The Sandpiper may be considered his masterpiece.
This score consists basically in a series of variations on a single musical theme, the classic “Shadow of Your Smile”, one of the best film songs ever written. But apart from the quality of the melody itself, with its shifts from minor to major mode, I think the arrangement and the quality of the playing really set this one apart from the other song-based scores of the era.
Unexplainably, this album has been out of print for years. I ripped it from the 1996 cd reissue on Verve in 320 kbps so you can appreciate the qualities I mentioned above. I hope you’ll like it!