Friday, December 30, 2011

Music For Lovers

One of the very first LPs I ever bought was the soundtrack album to “Murder On the Orient Express” in 1973. Turns out I had good taste; Richard Rodney Bennett’s music was nominated for an Oscar that year. I’ve been listening to movie music ever since, becoming something of a connoisseur as well as a devotee. I’ve even had occasion to compose a few film scores myself, an activity I find most enjoyable.

Obviously the names I became familiar with at first were those composers working at the time; the Jerry Goldsmiths, the Elmer Bernsteins. John Williams. Nino Rota (but only his American movies at that point.) In my later teens, when I began venturing into Manhattan on day trips I found my way to the Sam Goody record store a block up from Radio City and became acquainted with new (old) names such as Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold via new recordings of their classic scores of the 30s and 40s. Soon foreign movies appeared on my radar and, along with them, the titans Ennio Moriconne and Georges Delerue entered my musical vocabulary. 

By my early 20s I became adept at naming the composer of a film (new or old) before his (always his) credit flashed onscreen at the top of the movie. 

Not surprisingly most of the composers I learned about initially remained my favorites. There are a few oddball one-offs along the way (Dave Grusin’s “My Bodyguard”), as well as a few composers who split their time between Hollywood and Broadway (David Shire, Marvin Hamlisch), but the above-mentioned names, along with John Barry and Maurice Jarre, remain the standard bearers. 

Of the new crop of film composers, I’d guess Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, Mark Isham and (occasionally) James Horner will last. Lately, Alexandre Desplat has intrigued me.

But this essay is about none of the above. This piece concerns one Philippe Sarde, a Frenchman with more than two hundred titles under his name on, yet--by my count--fewer than ten that had any kind of wide release in America. M. Sarde first came to my attention through his score to Roman Polanski’s “Tess.” I bought the album (the import--remember when we bought imports and thought ourselves very cool?) at the Doubleday on 53rd and 5th Avenue. I brought it home, put it on my turntable and within fifteen seconds of the opening bars of the main theme, became a Philippe Sarde fan. His music for that movie is almost unendurably rapturous.

I know nothing about him or why he did so few American films, but of those few, they’re all superb. Many, many of his French films are also wonderful, but of course in 200 there are bound to be a few duds. Plus, they’re devilishly hard to hunt down.

But from out of this list of 200 scores there is one that is so beautiful that I call it my favorite movie score. More than “Kings Row.” More than “Gone With the Wind.” More than “Vertigo”, “E.T.”, “Days of Heaven.” 

Even more than “Chinatown.” (We pause to genuflect.) This is my appreciation.

In 1983 a small movie called “Lovesick” opened. It starred Dudley Moore and Elizabeth McGovern. It was written and directed by Marshall Brickman who co-wrote “Annie Hall” with Woody Allen and who--ahem--borrowed a plot contrivance from another Woody Allen movie for this picture: Moore plays a Freudian psychoanalyst visited by the ghost of Herr Freud himself who proceeds to offer sardonic advice on life and love. Honestly, from what I can recall the movie was totally charming and featured lovely performances from all concerned.

But oh, that score! Mister Sarde separated the music into two styles: taking a cue from Freud’s Austrian roots, one part of the score is a Viennese waltz arranged in a classic kaffeehaus configuration: piano, accordion, 2 violins, cello and clarinet. Brittle and charming all at once.

The bulk of the score, though, is interpreted in a full symphonic treatment.

The two styles converge only once, and the aural cross-fade is genius. (Sarde’s orchestrator on this project was Peter Knight, one of the great old guard English arrangers).
The main romantic theme is a sweeping melody that simply soars. It floats. It effervesces! The tune progresses at a leisurely tempo, yet there’s constant movement in the accompaniment. I’d wager it’s in 12/8 time. Its initial statement is in B-flat major--such a humble, warm key--and the opening bars offer a furtive, shy introductory motive before the flute enters clear and bright with the tune.

The cue I offer below is the End Title from the movie. The accompanying visuals are nothing more than Dudley Moore and Elizabeth McGovern strolling away from the camera from just this vantage point near The Plaza... the camera ever so slowly rises on a crane high above the tree tops as the credits roll. 

Being the end title sequence, this cue contains most of the orchestral themes Sarde used throughout picture. It opens with the flute initiating a straightforward restatement of the main tune. It flutters and flits happily around the melody before it's taken over by the full complement of strings which then move it (at 1:55) into a joyous arms-wide-open rendition of the theme. Then (at 2:46) a snippet of a more somber, questioning theme is introduced. But (at 3:27) it sticks a tentative musical toe back into the main melody, testing the emotional waters only to decide (at 4:06) that no, this overt happiness is too dangerous! and starts to retreat from the main theme. From us! Into G-minor (the relative minor of B-flat. Insult to injury!) But this section has no discernible beat, no forward tempo. It is a retreat without conviction, until (at 4:47) the principal melody looks back over its shoulder and (at 4:56) with a sigh of happy resignation gives up any pretense of resistance, turns around and comes back to us. Shyly at first but urged on by a breathless countermelody that can barely keep from floating completely off the staff. Back to a soft, contented embrace before the final fade out. Back to us. 

Back to love.

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