Royal grandeur from the movies
2004 Newsday feature
>John Barry’s soundtrack for a king and Prokofiev’s score for a czar make for a lush night at Carnegie Hall
In 1968, when The Lion in Winter was released, John Barry must have seemed an unlikely choice to compose the soundtrack. The film, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, tells of backbiting and power plays at the twelfth-century court of England’s Henry II. Barry was best known for such sassy James Bond scores as Goldfinger, whose slinky guitars and wailing brass represented a striking departure from the symphonic sound of classic Hollywood soundtracks.
Not even the mellow, expansive tunes Barry crafted for Born Free (1966), which won him the first two of his five Oscars, foretold the intensity and grandeur of his music for The Lion in Winter. On Tuesday, Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s will give the New York concert premiere of Barry’s Oscar-winning score at Carnegie Hall. The program also includes Sergei Prokofiev’s music for Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944 and 1946), and screenings of scenes from both films.
“The score was so surprising to people because the body of work I’d done prior was very pop-oriented,” Barry said by phone from his home on Long Island’s North Shore. “What people didn’t know is that I’d studied with Francis Jackson, organist and music master at York Minster,” one of England’s great cathedrals. “So when Lion in Winter came along, I leapt at it because it was the first opportunity I’d had to apply any of that knowledge.”
The Lion in Winter opens with stabbing fanfares and a grim piano pattern that quickly give way to the furious recitation of a choir spitting out Latin verses about “a day of wrath and darkness on the land.” Barry’s score amplifies the jaded elegance and moral rot of Henry’s court, encompassing the regal melody that accompanies Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn) as her skiff glides up to Chinon Castle; eerie, wordless choruses, and a finale as lush and soaring as anything in Howard Shore’s celebrated Lord of the Rings soundtracks.
A “mood thing”
Choral scores were relatively rare in commercial films, “because the feeling was that words were distracting,” Barry said. “What made them less so for our audience was the fact that they didn’t understand what was being said,” since most of the texts were in Latin or French. “It was a ’mood’ thing,” he explained, drawing out the word “mood” voluptuously.
Barry’s silken baritone hints at his lady-killer past. An admired bandleader in the early rock era, he was a fixture at London’s hip Pickwick Club in the 1960s; his famous loves included Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. He has been married to Laurie Barry for 25 years, and they have a son, 10.
Over six decades, Barry’s ever-evolving work has graced films ranging from Midnight Cowboy to Chaplin, along with 11 of the 007 flicks. His scores for Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves also won Oscars. At 70, he shows no signs of slowing down. He recently finished scoring The Incredibles, a forthcoming Disney-Pixar release, and is wrapping up work on Brighton Rock, a Graham Greene-inspired musical that will open in London later this year.
A natural pairing
For Robert Bass, Collegiate Chorale’s music director, Barry’s Lion in Winter score and Prokofiev’s music for Ivan the Terrible (portraying Russia’s ruthless sixteenth-century czar) made a natural pair. “Barry’s music has more of an internal contour,” Bass said. “It tells the story of what happens within a family on a single day. So it’s a great contrast to have Prokofiev’s epic score with more intimate music, and these depictions of different royal families and periods of history.”
Barry cited Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky as an inspiration for his own work. “The life that his choral music gave to those pictures was extraordinary,” he said with the discernment of an expert musician and the enthusiasm of a film buff.
Bass hopes to do Nevsky with Collegiate Chorale, along with an evening of music for stage and screen versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V. He underscored his choir’s range of offerings: opera, theater and film music, along with the masses and oratorios that are the staples of choral repertoire. Exploring relationships among music, images and text “enlivens things for the musicians and for audiences as well,” he said.
The Barry-Prokofiev program stands on its musical merits, in his view. “The genre of film music is important if the music is wonderful,” he said, “and this is music that belongs at Carnegie Hall.”
WHEN & WHERE Robert Bass leads the Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Barry’s score for The Lion in Winter and Prokofiev’s score for Ivan the Terrible, with scenes from the films at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Carnegie Hall. Talk with Barry at 7 p.m.; call 212-247-7800 or visit www.carnegiehall.org.