Film music simply doesn’t get much better than this. Indeed one could easily construct a robust argument that this is in fact the greatest film score of all time. Rather than venturing down that road here, let’s just celebrate this first complete digital recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Oscar-winning 1938 film score, which is unquestionably the CD release of the year.
It seems extraordinary that this is the first ever, complete presentation of the score. Brief excerpts were first available on LP in 1961, with further recordings made in 1972 as part of Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Score Series. In 1983 Varèse Sarabande produced a forty-odd minute re-recording with Varujan Kojian conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra. Whilst a welcome step forward, I found the performance severely lacking, particularly the tempo of the action sequences, which was painfully slow and made for an agonising listen at times. Some twenty years later, Marco Polo and the indomitable team of score restorer John Morgan and conductor William Stromberg bring us the complete score digitally recorded with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. In many ways the recording is as ironic as the score itself. Here we have the quintessential American swashbuckling score for a classic English tale, penned by an Austrian immigrant, and now conducted by an American with a Russian orchestra!
I first saw The Adventures Of Robin Hood on television when I was seven years old and during the intervening twenty-five years, Korngold’s score has continued to hold a special place in my heart as the one that introduced me to this wonderful world of music. Generally considered to be the definitive telling of the Robin Hood fable, the sheer entertainment value of this film has seldom ever been matched in cinematic history. The ensemble cast of Flynn, de Havilland, Rathbone and Rains is truly stellar. The characters are well-defined, the dialogue is serious but tinged with rye humour, the period setting is palpable without being overly ostentatious and the action is breathtakingly breakneck. And the music is to die for.
Those unfamiliar with this, the ‘original’ symphonic film score, should be under no illusion that this is old fashioned, pompous, quaint music. The Adventures Of Robin Hood is a rich, dynamic, full-blooded orchestral tour-de-force. Korngold invented it. Without him there may never have been a Star Wars or a Lord Of The Rings, and as brilliant as those scores are, this is better than all of them.
Many composers today scoff at the idea of an operatic film score, where characters and situations are assigned distinctive themes, yet with The Adventures Of Robin Hood Korngold did just that and produced one of the most brilliant marriages of visual image and music. As Brendon Carroll so vividly describes in his deliciously lucid booklet notes, Korngold wrote some fifteen primary themes in this score, together with at least half-a-dozen secondary motifs. The construction of the film also enabled him to write a seemingly endless series of musical set pieces that are emblazoned throughout the near-eighty minute running time of the complete score.
This is a musical feast that every film music fan, both young and old, should devour with relish. In the ‘Main Title’ Korngold presents ‘The March of the Merry Men’ a bold, masculine and uncompromisingly heroic theme, which is soaked in pure adrenaline. Robin has a theme, Lady Marian has a theme, Richard the Lionheart has a theme, as do Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne.
And those set pieces! ‘Robin Hood Attacks Sir Guy’s Party/The Attack’ is one of the most spectacular. As Sir Guy and his party make their way through Sherwood Forest, Korngold builds the tension slowly with both suspense and humour leading to the inevitable assault. The music for the attack is so perfect that you could believe the direction was choreographed around it. As the merry men leap from the trees, each movement and gesture is effortlessly carried in the score. Robin’s theme comes to the fore in euphoric fashion on trumpets as the Norman troops are swiftly captured.
‘Flirt/Feast/Poor People’s Feast/Gold’ is a delightful sequence where Robin and his merry men tease and embarrass the captured Sir Guy and his Norman henchmen during a banquet in the forest. It opens with the simply gorgeous ‘flirt’ theme for Robin and Lady Marion, which rivals North’s love theme for Spartacus for its sheer beauty. Korngold moves to a raucous and slightly giddy statement of the ‘Merry Men’ theme, returning to the ‘flirt’ theme before a noble statement of the ‘Lionheart’ theme as Robin toasts the lost King. So many themes, so much variation and colour; it’s priceless.
‘The Tournament’ is a series of cues carefully connected by John Morgan into a lengthy piece. The archery contest is a devious ruse by Sir Guy to snare Robin. Korngold is fairly cunning too, introducing a whole new theme for the tournament based around splendid heraldic fanfares. The ‘Merry Men’ theme is woven around this together with darker material foreshadowing Robin’s eventual capture. Once again, the marriage of music and visuals is flawless.
An example of Korngold’s effective development of themes can be found in the closing cues such as ‘The Procession’, where the ‘Merry Men’ theme is transformed into a more serious almost apocalyptic mode as prelude to the coronation of evil Prince John. It’s truly operatic weighty music that fits the film like a glove. The following statement of the theme for ‘Prince John’ is by contrast, quiet, restrained and spine tingly, sending the on-screen tension through the roof.
I do not wish to hark on about the influence Korngold has had on John Williams in an attempt to somehow undermine the obvious achievements of that other legendary composer, but it is simply fascinating to hear the origins of his Star Wars scores in this work. ‘Robin Hood Outside/Robin Hood’s Entrance/The Fight/The Chase of Robin Hood/The Victims’ is perhaps the best example of a clear correlation. Compare the sweeping brass flourishes, the energy of the strings, the busy percussion writing, the mind-boggling energy and complexity of the general orchestration, and above all, the utterly shameless and astounding European nineteenth century romantic verve. I guarantee you that if this cue were used in Episode III you would be leaping out of your seat with pure euphoria! This single cue is perhaps musically the most thrilling of the whole score and I guarantee for many it will be a surprisingly revelation. Golden age film music is still relevant in the twenty-first century.
And there is more. ‘The Battle/The Duel/The Victory’ is the concluding action cue of the score, detailing the struggle of Robin, The King and the Merry Men against Sir Guy and his nasty Normans. The action is fast and furious, the brilliant direction cutting rapidly between different scenes in thrilling fashion. Korngold really does the swash the buckle here with lightening music that captures every screen action with panache. Modern composers should note that even during a score of this length and intensity, it is possible to up the ante without necessarily cranking up the volume.
Marco Polo’s release is superb. The notes by the aforementioned Brendon Carroll together with Rudy Behlmer provide an essential insight into the film, composer and score. The recording is crystal clear with a nicely measured punch. The performance is not without its faults, but to dwell on very minor and purely subjective quibbles is merely churlish. I cannot think of a single reason why any film music fan of any generation would not purchase this CD and find so much to enjoy. This is the perfect companion to the newly released DVD of the film, which features Korngold’s score on an isolated track.
This release certainly does give an added perspective to the film music of 2003. Pirates Of The Caribbean? Korngold will be turning in his grave. Is The Adventures Of Robin Hood the greatest film score of all time? Probably...