Thursday, 7 July 2016

Malcolm Arnold: The Roots of Heaven - film music

After nearly fifty years of enjoying classical music, I have yet to work out an ideal strategy for listening to film (and ballet) music which is divorced from the media it was originally intended for.  Take the present score for  The Roots of Heaven. There are twenty tracks or ‘cues’ derived from a film lasting in excess of two hours. The longest element (apart from the ‘Overture’ which was written as a separate piece in the manner of an operatic overture) is the violent ‘Elephant Hunt.’ Most of the other cues are between one and two minutes in length. Sometimes they seem to finish in mid-sentence.  
Often there is a huge disparity in mood and emotion which in the film would be obscured by the progress of the dialogue and the screenplay. Fundamentally, this score does not seem to have an internal logic. Taken as individual elements, there is much here that is attractive to the ear. On the other hand, some of this music is clearly make-weight and was written ‘against the stop-watch.’ All the above can be predicated on the score for David Copperfield as well.

Another issue that exercises me are the plots themselves. For example, the story of The Roots of Heaven does not appeal to me (the underling morality is as vitally important today as it was then). But it is not a film I would choose to watch. Again, I personally do not go for Dickens’ adaptations for the big screen. So, in both of these examples, the present recording of the musical score is not acting as an aide-memoire to my enjoyment (or otherwise) of the films. 

So how can I engage with this CD? I try to think of a single ‘plot’ word or ‘dramatic situation that can be applied to the film, for example David Copperfield can be defined as ‘overcoming adversity’, concluding with a ‘positive outcome’. With The Roots of Heaven it would be ‘obsession’ and ‘battling the monster.’ I would try to hold these ‘abstractions’ in my mind and largely forget any details of the film I know or have surmised. Only in this way can I genuinely appreciate the music.

All this said, it is imperative to emphasise that Arnold’s skill as a writer of melody and of orchestration is never more apparent to listener as these short tracks slip by. For example, The Roots of Heaven makes considerable (and effective) use of exotic instruments such as the marimba and maracas.  David Copperfield has one of the most beautiful themes ever written for the cinema. Arnold is able to compose music that matches all moods and emotions from the most violent to the deepest tragedy by way of romance, comedy, wit and the overcoming of insuperable odds.

I do not need to rehearse the plot of either film save to say that The Roots of Heaven is about one man’s crusade to save the African elephant from destruction and that David Copperfield is the story of a boy who succeeds in his struggle against considerable adversities after being sent way to London following his mother’s death by his stepfather.
For the record, David Copperfield was Arnold’s last film score and was completed in 1969. The Roots of Heaven was composed in 1958.
This disc, in its Marco Polo incarnation was extensively reviewed on MusicWeb International by Ian Lace, Gary S. Dalkin and Adrian Smith.

In spite of my reservations about having a correct or satisfying listening strategy for these scores, I did enjoy this disc. The sound quality has been criticised by reviewers in the past, however I found the playing of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under William Stromberg perfectly satisfying. The liner notes are seriously impressive.  There is a short ‘foreword’ by the composer written in 2001. John Cox has provided a near-dissertation length analysis of both films scores preceded by an introduction to Malcolm Arnold as film composer in general.  John Morgan, who has realised the score of David Copperfield, has contributed some ‘arranger notes.’  This whole package is a model of how analytical notes could and should be written for film (and ballet) music which is divorced from its original context. 

I guess that I would rather have ‘suites’ of music made up from these two film scores. This has been admirably done by Chandos with composers such as William Alwyn, Miklos Rozsa, Clifton Parker as well as Arnold himself.  Or perhaps some of the documentary films could be used to create a ‘tone poem’ – for example the British Transport Film on the Channel Islands. Yet the other side to this coin, is, that by using only ‘the best bits’ of Arnold’s scores, there is so much attractive and atmospheric music that would be lost to the listener. It is a circle that cannot easily be squared. 

Track Listings:
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
The Roots of Heaven (1958)]
David Copperfield (1969)
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg
NAXOS 8.573366 (previously released on Marco Polo 8.225167)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.  


Paul Brownsey said...

And one of the Chandos discs of Arnold film music does include the Overture to Roots of Heaven and a suite from David Copperfield. I much enjoy listening to that disc.

John France said...

Thanks Paul