Herrmann: Fahrenheit 451 (CD review)

Also "Walking Distance" from The Twilight Zone. William Stromberg, Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Tribute Film Classics TFC-1002.

For the most part, I find the term "instant classic" pure hyperbole, usually invented by press agents somewhere to promote their products. But in the case of several books by Ray Bradbury, the term seems to fit. Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451 in the mid twentieth century, some sixty years ago, yet from the very beginning it seemed clear they transcended the fantasy or sci-fi genres. They were strongly thematic stories, cautionary tales that proved remarkably prescient and that people today read as genuine classics. For instance, I daresay there has never been a novel more important on the subjects of censorship, government propaganda, the drugging effect of television and other mass media, and the significance of literacy and independent thought than Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

French New Wave director Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) brought Fahrenheit 451 to the screen in 1966 with an original musical score by renowned composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Jane Eyre, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, North by Northwest, Psycho, Taxi Driver, and many more). In Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut created a vision of an icy, distant, reserved society, the results as he and Bradbury saw them of the mind-numbing effects of government and media control of individuals through the aforementioned media. Today, I suppose we could add video games and the Internet to the equation, making a large segment of society appear to be a breed of plugged-in automatons. Certainly, Bradbury was prophetic in his warning about television, and whether you take to Truffaut's chilly, aloof version of the story or not, it's hard to argue that Herrmann's musical score didn't complement it perfectly.

The problem is that we haven't really had all of the film's music available on disc before. What we have gotten heretofore have been suites, Herrmann himself recording a selection of items with the National Philharmonic for the album "The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann" (London-Decca Phase-4). As good as that recorded suite was, thank heaven for John Morgan, Anna Bonn, and William Stromberg for their restoration and preparation of the complete score, and for showing us what more this music has to offer.

John Morgan, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is the composer responsible for reconstructing so many previous film scores for the Marco Polo and Naxos labels. Starting with the CD of Fahrenheit 451 and a companion disc of Herrmann's music for Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, Morgan struck out on his own with his own record label, Tribute Film Classics; but he utilized the same conductor and orchestra with whom he'd worked for years, William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony, and the same co-restorer and preparer, Anna Bonn. Why mess with a good thing?

Morgan has gone back to original sources to put Herrmann's score back into what it was like when it first appeared in 1966. We get well over an hour of music from the movie on forty-seven separate tracks, from the opening Prelude to the closing Finale and every melodic phrase, variation, and cue in between, including music cut from the film. Herrmann used a variety of percussion instruments in the music, including xylophone, marimbas, vibraphone, glockenspiel, etc., to produce some dreamy, spacey, eerie moods and effects, culminating in a hauntingly beautiful conclusion. It's music that comes across as modern, contemporary, and traditional at the same time, while expressing the tone of a future culture without much overt emotion. Yet Herrmann fills the music itself with plenty of emotion, simple and direct:  it's suspenseful, tense, mysterious, expectant, and occasionally poignant.

Maestro Stromberg and his Moscow players are, if anything, more energetic and enthusiastic in their approach to the music than Herrmann was in his recording or in the movie itself. Stromberg executes the most-delicate nuances as well as the more daring, outwardly thrilling moments of the score with equal aplomb and produces a most-rewarding listening experience.

Accompanying Fahrenheit 451 and filling out a well-stocked seventy-seven-minute CD is Herrmann's music for "Walking Distance," an episode from Rod Serling's Twilight Zone television series. Although Herrmann wrote the music in 1959, a full half dozen years before he began work on Fahrenheit 451, one can see certain similarities in the quiet tensions he establishes almost everywhere. And, in the segment titled "The Park," especially, we can see the influence of Herrmann's mentor, Charlies Ives, in its nostalgic allusions to past tunes. Serling always struck me as having been greatly influenced by Bradbury, so the coupling on the disc is doubly apt.

The sound, which Tribute recorded in Moscow in 2007, is delightfully open, with an extended high end evident from the opening notes, a wide stereo spread, good midrange transparency, and more than adequate bass. The sound intentionally appears to remind one of Herrmann's Phase-4 recordings in that it sounds multi-miked somewhat closely. It not only reaches for the past, it provides a dramatic sense of being in the studio, and it seems entirely appropriate to film music in general.

I should also mention the package contains some of the most-extensive booklet notes I've ever seen with a CD. These notes cover everything from the personal reminiscences of John Morgan, Ray Bradbury, and others connected with the project to comments on each of the movements of the score, along with copious color stills and posters from the movie. It's maybe more than you ever wanted to know about the film and its music, but you can always pick and choose what you want to read or ignore the text completely and enjoy the photographs.

In any case, the sound makes an impressive adjunct to Herrmann's impressive score and this complete recording of it. Music lovers and film buffs, take notice.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa