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Dramatic early Bernstein score is another gem from the archives

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VOL 79

Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Universal Music Enterprises; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.

Elmer Bernstein was still in the formative years of his remarkable career in 1958 when he scored Desire Under the Elms, but had already notched up The Ten Commandments and The Man With the Golden Arm, so was hardly unknown to filmgoers.  This adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play, with its dark psychological violence, would probably have seemed to be natural territory for Alex North at the time, but Bernstein would go on to show that he was North's only real peer when it came to scoring wordy drama; and Desire Under the Elms is a fine score.

The album opens with a dramatic "Prologue", which has an explosive opening before settling down into the kind of small-scale scoring one might expect from Bernstein; even back then, he knew when to hold back and when to go for it.  The string writing is simply gorgeous, and even though the palette is very dark, the beauty is undeniable.  "California Gold" is much more upbeat, and features the kind of Coplandesque Americana which would become such a beloved feature of Bernstein's music for westerns in the years which followed.  "Around the House" combines both styles, with some playful music alternating with the more downbeat main theme heard in the opening cue.

"Desire Under the Elms" is much more romantic, with that typical Bernstein sparkle producing one of the album's standout cues.  "In the Hayloft" reprises the same theme (along with the playful music from "Around the House"), before "Ephraim's Dance" brings the tempo right back up again.  "The Cradle" sees a return to more dramatic material, with Bernstein's music perfectly evocative of violent verbal sparring.  It's not as subtle as Alex North's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which would come several years later), but aims for and achieves a similar effect.  The composer does finally allow the music to explode in "Father Against Son", and the fact that he has held off doing so for so long adds greatly to the impact; brass and strings erupt in a flurry of energy.

"Confession" is a textbook example of how to score anguished human drama (and I have to say it wouldn't take much modification for it to be used in a 2008 film, which shows what a pioneer Elmer Bernstein really was).  The tension builds and builds, and the relief as it finally bursts is marvelous.  In "Remorse", Bernstein brings back some of the dramatic chords he had earlier used to open the score (which hadn't been heard since), but the cue quickly settles down and sees a return to the very subtle textures featured earlier on; it's music full of anguish, loneliness and sorrow.  For the "Finale", Bernstein keeps things relatively calm (until the very final bars), which is a bold way of ending the score.  Intrada's album is a reprise of the 30-minute LP and features no new liner notes, but it's such good Bernstein music it would be churlish to complain about that; the soundtrack market has become so saturated, it can be difficult to decide which releases to get and which to leave - this is one to get.


  1. Prologue (4:34)
  2. California Gold (2:25)
  3. Around the H ouse (2:28)
  4. Desire Under the Elms (3:26)
  5. In the Hayloft (2:22)
  6. Ephraim's Dance (1:40)
  7. The Cradle (1:55)
  8. Father Against Son (1:42)
  9. Confession (4:24)
  10. Remorse (3:15)
  11. Finale (1:25)