Newman Gets His Due
Alfred Newman: The
Hunchback of Notre Dame; Beau Geste; All About Eve
Was it not but a few months ago that we lamented the dearth of available recordings of the dean of film composers, Alfred Newman? The release of the (virtually) complete original soundtracks of The Robe and How Green Was My Valley seems to have generated a revival of interest in a composer too long taken for granted.
First, Marco Polo included Gunga Din in its Historical Romances collection - seated honorably between two Korngold suites. There quickly followed what would have been, a few years ago, but an idle dream for the Newman fan, the complete How the West Was Won. And almost at the same time the Koch project Wuthering Heights: A Tribute to Alfred Newman, its highlight a splendid suite from the previously unrecorded Prince of Foxes.
Well, this month we have not one new Newman, but two! By coincidence, we assume, these recordings bookend Newman's creative peak, the years of his musical maturity, 1939-65. For in '39, that Hollywood year of years, Newman received an unprecedented four Academy Award nominations; two for original score (Wuthering Heights, The Rains Came), and two for adaptation (Hunchback and They Shall Have Music, where Newman conducted for Heifetz - both off screen and on). Beau Geste was one of five other Newman scores released in 1939 (The Real Glory, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln and Gunga Din were the others). This single year would amount to a career's achievement for some composers. Until the last two years Wuthering Heights was the only one of these scores to boast a recording - and even that film music landmark had no representation (other than the Cathy theme) until Elmer Bernstein's lovely album of the late '70s. Now we have suites from Gunga Din (also on Marco Polo) and this pioneering CD with both Beau and Hunchback.
The music of Beau Geste, I confess, had made little impression on me in two or three listenings since my childhood. It is not really first rate Newman, but has a jaunty main theme and an absolutely transfixing sequence that accompanies Beau's "Viking funeral". Newman's use of the female chorus, eerily suspended over a sustained chord in the orchestra, is an inspired accompaniment to the mysterious opening sequence, and recurs at the concluding unraveling of that mystery.
The sunny Boys Own spirit of Beau is an effective counterpoint to the predominantly sombre score Newman composed for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The forty-minute suite constructed by John Morgan for this recording represents something of a patchwork, with brilliant moments sitting uncomfortably beside some less than inspired cues. Among the impressive moments: the brief but nobly understated main title which rises quietly through the fading choral statement of Tomas Luis de Victoria's Ave Maria, which opens the film; the intoxicating Esmeralda theme, introduced teasingly in the Gypsies cue right after the main title, but receiving its most eloquent statement in the great scene of Quasimodo's flogging and Esmeralda's mercy mission (John Mauceri observed that no modern composer could, or would even try to, get away with Newman's string rubato and glissando for this sequence); the theme for Quasimodo himself, grotesque like the cathedral's gargoyles, yet somehow pathetic at the same time, never receiving a full treatment, but snaking throughout many of the cues; the Hallelujah which accompanies Esmeralda's rescue by Quasimodo (rumored to have been actually composed by Ernst Toch); the earnest and idealistic Gringoire theme; the evocations of Notre Dame cathedral itself, the Victoria Ave Maria intoned with grave sobriety by low strings. On the other hand, the Whipping cue (excised from the soundtrack) and the assault on Notre Dame are merely routine, both thematically and in their developments. I suspect that Newman's very hectic schedule did not allow him to fully integrate his ideas with the contributions of the many musical hands that worked on Hunchback, which at the time was the most mammoth project ever undertaken by RKO (the Paris set alone covered sixty acres). The music is a seedplot for such later Newman scores as The Song of Bernadette, Prince of Foxes and The Robe, but in contrast with these mature masterworks, lacks the authoritative stamp of its composer's unique style. Nevertheless, with the supplementary inclusion of a brief suite from All About Eve, this is one of the most important film music recordings of recent years.
At the other end of Newman's career is The Greatest Story Ever Told. The producer/director of Story, the redoubtable George Stevens, was also in the twilight of his Hollywood career, and this project was to be his magnum opus. It didn't work out that way. Stevens' take on the gospel was top-heavy with portent, and done in completely by his ill-advised decision to stick (mostly inappropriate) big stars in bit parts. Within the limitations placed upon him by the director's solemn vision, Newman's score is masterful. Stevens had used Newman on two prior occasions, both times with memorable results: Gunga Din and The Diary of Anne Frank are great film music, though eliciting wholly disparate scores from their composer. For the former, Newman gave us an action/adventure classic, all rollicking high spirits, tongue-in-cheek drollery and, at the end, some honest sentiment. For Anne Frank, Newman delivered some of the most heartbreakingly bittersweet music ever to grace a soundtrack - somehow transcending the innate tragedy with its evocation of the optimism and naiveté of youth. The score penetrated much deeper than the drama, which, as with Greatest Story, but to a much lesser degree, casting had somewhat compromised. If there was anything lacking in the music of Anne Frank it was the sheer joyousness of youth, that quality so much in evidence in Gunga Din - which, after all, brought together Kipling, that poet of childhood, and a director and composer just approaching the full flush of maturity.
Well, with The Greatest Story Ever Told we find Stevens and Newman wiser but fatigued by many battles. The spirit was willing, but ... The last of said battles was that between director and composer, as Stevens insisted on imposing fragments of the Verdi Requiem and Handel's Hallelujah Chorus into an already portentous production. Newman resisted, at much cost to his declining health, but the producer had his way. So the original United Artists soundtrack severely shortchanged Newman's contribution, but included both Verdi and Handel. A dispirited Newman, who, as head of Fox's music department, had fought countless battles on behalf of Raksin, Herrmann, Friedhofer and Waxman, did not in the end have the stomach for one on his own behalf.
The complete score for Greatest Story, revealed for the first time on this extravagant new three CD set, is a landmark alright, especially in view of the travail of its birth. It is difficult to decide whether the prevailing solemnity is entirely Stevens, or part Newman's response to the pain off screen as well as on. Certainly as a tonal painting of the prophet Isaiah's "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief", the score is matchless. But where, in the gospel according to George, is the Jesus beloved of children, the man accused of partying with harlots and Roman collaborators? There is none of Kipling's joie de vivre here, none of the vernal ecstasy of Anne Frank. We have, instead, what feels like two hours of Barber's Adagio. Didn't Barber say it in nine minutes? This is not to begrudge the artistry of Newman, or certainly the enterprise of the producers of this project. We have, finally, the last major score of one of the greatest composers ever to write for the screen. Gratitude, however, must not preclude a lamentation on behalf of all things mortal. Had circumstances been otherwise, Newman might have given us the greatest film score ever written.
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