Ooo! More music!
CD: Chistmas Carol, A (1954) / A Child is Born (1955)
Review Rating:   Very Good  
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Catalog #:

KR 20011-9 

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November, 2008

Tracks / Album Length:

12 / (54:09)


Composer: Bernard Herrmann

Special Notes:

Limited to 1000 copies

Comments :    

Previously available as a bootleg LP (cheekily branded “Unicorn RHS 850”) derived from a CBS multi-disc set,  apparently Bernard Herrmann’s score (with libretto by playwright Maxwell Anderson) only survives as a mixed audiotrack used in the original live TV broadcast of Chrysler Corporation’s Shower of Stars, one of many live dramatic shows where networks and single-show sponsors presented traditional, contemporary and classic dramas to audiences that arguably had more cultured interests than the homogenous reality musicals aimed at a younger (and perhaps dumber) contemporary demographic.

Anderson’s lyrics are at times facile, if not gratingly elliptical with little desire to go beyond feigning seasonal verve and merriment, but they’re given more levity with Herrmann’s striking melodies and beautifully crafted harmonics that recall his folkloric score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

Whereas “A Very Merry Christmas (O, Days May Come)” is basically two sentences traded between singers of differing octaves, the opening carol “Holly Pine and Mistletoe” offers some lovely evocations of Americana – striking choral harmonics that coalesce over the main title sequence, and a wooden flute that bridges each verse with a short, delicate phrase.

The emphasis is on intimate, if not personal rustic cheer, and it makes for a marked contrast against Scrooge’s anti- Christmas bluster, something Anderson and Herrmann use when three of the depicted ghosts (the Ghost of Marley, Christmas Past, and Christmas Present) vie for his attention.

Where the score transcends Anderson’s compressed tempo and adaptation of Dickens’ story is when Scrooge sees his younger self wooing old love Belle at a southern-styled holiday dance with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Herrmann’s festive waltz is a genuine toe-tapper, with violins paired with low woodwinds that colour the scene with rich warm tones.

Equally memorable is a short, jaunty theme heard as Scrooge visits his nephew and the Cratchits on Christmas Day (and in clearer detail, over the teleplay’s end credits). Played on strings and harp, Hermann mimics a joyful saunter that echoes Herrmann’s gorgeous theme when little Arnie (Jerry Mathers) walks through the fall leaves before finding a dead body in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955).

More striking is the operatic duet “What Shall I Give My Lad / Girl for Christmas?” Andersons’ lyrics are less monotonous and somewhat more poetic, but the song is memorable for hearing a libretto performed to Herrmann’s instantly harmonies. It’s a bit aggressive, for sure, when the male rushes in with rhapsodic, raw emotion, and in the closing bars when both singers recycle the lyrics once too often, but it’s Herrmann’s sharp sense of melancholy that’s hard to resist in what’s the score’s dramatic peak.

Because the album tracks contain music as well as sound effects and some dialogue, sometimes the instrumental cues are harder to appreciate, but like his scores for Orson Welles’ radio productions, some cues are very innovative. “Marley (The Spirit Lament)” again recalls Devil and Daniel Webster in the way Herrmann creates an eerie undercurrent using simple tonal elements – namely the ghostly vocal harmonies of high female voices and low, southern-styled male voices.

When Basil Rathbone utters “Oh God! Oh God! There is so little help for me!” at the beginning of the cue, he also functions as a solo instrument, making a dour, doom-laden statement over cloudy vocal tones.

“Marley,” though, is indicative of how the CD, much like the LP, is an edited-down version of the teleplay’s lengthy score, because Herrmann’s haunting music is much longer, and runs under Marley’s appearance and attempts to convince Scrooge the two committed far too many sins during their partnership years.

The album cue is actually the last section of score for the scene prior to the first of two Chrysler ads that break up the period drama, so while the CD does present the operetta’s highlights, there’s a lot of material that couldn’t be separated from the dialogue, making the teleplay the only complete way to experience the score.

Kritzerland’s CD is an improvement over the bootleg LP, as that release featured all kinds of lousy artefacts from the bullshit stereo processing used by the LP’s ‘producers.’ (A common problem among seventies and early eighties bootlegs is the sometimes bad, fake stereo re-channelling that was done to goose up crap source materials. A classic example includes the 2-LP release of Welles’ War of the Worlds radio show, with high and low frequencies bouncing and blipping all over the place.)

To fill out the CD is another selection of cues from A Child is Born, an episode of the half-hour General Electric Theatre, broadcast in 1955, and rebroadcast the following year.

A spin on the nativity, Herrmann’s mini-operetta was based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s play, and marked Herrmann’s return to Benet’s material after (surprise) Devil and Daniel Webster, although Child had apparently been performed thrice on TV as part of Lux Video Theatre, between 1950-1952.

Kritzerland’s Child source materials are far superior to Carol, and it apparently coms from one of those old 10” Decca storybook (or mono-drama) LPs the label produced during the fifties. Among the mono-dramas produced at the time were Lost Horizon (featuring narration by Ronald Coleman, and music by Victor Young), and Island in the Sky, where John Wayne provided new narration overlaid onto some sound effects, dialogue, and edited music cues from the film score.

(Varese, years later reissued the album on LP with the original Decca mix as well as the isolated mono music stems. Given the source materials came from a live teleplay, it seems doubtful Herrmann’s Child cues exist beyond the final broadcast mix.)

In any event, unlike Carol, which feels like a crudely edited highlights album, Child is more sophisticated in that Ronald Reagan’s narration was recorded in a studio, and given some reverb – processing identical to the Island mix.

The basic drama focuses on an innkeeper and his barren wife who allow a stray couple (guess who) to spend the night in the stable while a Roman Prefect and his men are billeted in their comfy inn. The wife spouts all kinds of portentous dialogue about ‘something strange’ destined to happen real soon, and occasionally breaks into blank verse, with Herrmann’s musical accompaniment, or background chorals during dialogue exchanges (as when the wife speaks of her dream about ‘a child being born.’ Get it?).

Herrmann’s adaptation of Benet’s play is fascinating for the flawless transitions between verse, instrumental score, and chorals (including the traditional closing piece, “O Come, O Ye Faithful”), and the way score is reeled back so our attention is focused on the dialogue whenever the characters speak.

Like his film scores, Herrmann had to balance dramatic sonic and visual elements, and one is never lost in the drama’s momentum, nor feel the music upstages the drama – this in spite of Herrmann giving Child a far richer orchestral sound than the TV prior score, with bigger string and brass sections, and chorals by the Roger Wagner Chorale.

The original teleplay is tougher to track down than Carol, but certainly from the nearly half-hour mono-drama, one gets a decent sampling of how the nativity was dramatized in a semi-operatic format.

Kritzerland’s CD is a holiday treat, particularly for Herrmann fans, and while the latter’s religious setting might be a bit thick for those accustomed to more mythical, abstract moral lessons of non-denominational spiritualism (in other words, holiday revellers whose beliefs aren’t tied to the formal Christian nativity story), the seasonal dramas offer glimpses into the kind of productions that networks once broadcast over the holidays before pop culture and kitsch kind of took over.


© 2008 Mark R. Hasan

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