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Themes from the General Electric Theater
  • Composed by Elmer Bernstein
  • Intrada / 2014 / 35m

An extremely popular tv anthology show in America for a decade from 1952, The General Electric Theater – despite misspelling “Theatre” – adapted popular plays and novels into little half-hour episodes each week.  It had an unexpected impact on not just America but the world several decades later, because its host – future President Reagan – is often considered to have honed his public speaking skills and his ability to communicate to people, one of his greatest political gifts, through this show and its related promotional duties for General Electric.

From 1958 onwards, the show featured original scores, including a season’s worth by the great Elmer Bernstein, fast becoming a superstar composer at the time and in 1959 Columbia Records released this album as an LP, featuring pieces from a handful of episodes.  (Later seasons featured a mix of composers, including Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, but none of their music has ever been released on album.)  Bernstein re-recorded his music for the album, with a much bigger orchestra (around 50 players) than he could utilise on the show itself.  Intrada’s 2014 CD release is of that album, including its liner notes, with of course remastered sound.

Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein

The album begins with “Emblem”, the brief opening titles piece, arresting and attention-grabbing as tv themes of the era generally were.  “Enchanté” is a lovely piece of sunny romance and joie de vivre, bouncy and  jaunty and full of joy.  More serious – but just as lovely – is the delicate “Passionelle”, a little like the dramatic pieces the composer wrote for movie melodramas of the time, grandly sweeping in its suggestion of longing and desire.  The next two cues – “Star of David” and “David’s Love Song” – both sound like they could be from a biblical epic, outstanding pieces of religious scoring that certainly wouldn’t have been out of place in The Ten Commandments – soaring and inspirational, “big Bernstein” at its best (I’ve always generally preferred his more intimate writing but of course he did do a number of exceptional big scores as well).

“Lavender Waltz” is drop-dead gorgeous, gentle and exquisitely haunting with its delicate piano line and various wind solos dancing around it and the anguished strings.  Far lighter is the following “Mannequin”, and while there’s certainly a slight edge to the fluffy exterior in its earlier moments it soon develops into something unstintingly jolly and pleasant.  “Sentimental” is touching, emotional music, again highlighting just how well Bernstein did those intimate feelings.  In some ways it’s quite straightforward music, but it’s so difficult to do it this well, managing to avoid crossing the line into schmaltz.

“The Highland Lovers” is a lovely, sweeping love theme, another absolutely exquisite melody.  It’s classic Bernstein Americana, warm and rich and very rewarding.  Then there’s “Silent Love” which is – well, you know by now.  It does get all bouncy and Magnificent Seven-like about half way through, which is unexpected but will bring a smile to most listeners’ faces.  “Mariachi” has, as you might expect, a south-of-the-border flavour, also a very sprightly, romantic feeling.  And speaking of romantic feelings, Bernstein saves arguably the most moving and most lovely of them all till near the end, in “L’Amour Triste”, a piece of heartbreaking beauty.  The album does then conclude in “Progress”, an expansion of the end titles theme, full of positive energy for the show’s sponsor.

We live in a time of plenty for film score album enthusiasts, with virtually everything anyone might want to be released being released.  But, to repeat a refrain I have said many times, the cost of that is that it’s inconceivable that we might get an album like this today (from a new film or tv show) – a small portion of the music, carefully selected, rearranged and re-recorded for maximum listening pleasure.  And indeed it is a pleasure, emotionally direct music based on memorable tunes.  It’s over half a century since the music was recorded and you’d never guess that by listening to it – sound quality is crisp, stereo, impressive.  A wonderful album for Bernstein fans, 35 minutes of one of the greatest film composers of all at his absolute best.

Rating: ***** | |

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