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Vintage tv music from two master film composers

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Album cover copyright (c) 2003 The National Geographic Society; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall

The National Geographic specials in America seem to have been popular for over forty years now, though internationally they must not have traveled well since I've never seen one.  Early on in the series, one of the episodes was scored by Elmer Bernstein, and his main theme proved so popular that it is still being used today; and the series has benefitted from various top composers, including not just Bernstein, but also Leonard Rosenman, Lalo Schifrin and Jerome Moross.  In 2003, Intrada released two of the series' 1960s scores, Yankee Sails Across Europe by Bernstein, and Grizzly! by Jerome Moross.

The album begins with the half-hour Bernstein score.  Yankee Sails Across Europe is a rather odd-sounding documentary about going around western continental Europe on a boat, giving histories of the people and places visited.  Despite sounding relatively genteel and sedate, Bernstein's music manages to be very busy and for the most part, rather dramatic.  (I can't imagine how "Barge Families" could be quite so exciting as the music suggests.  I've been on a barge, speeding along as fast as the thing will go, only to be overtaken by a one-legged eighty-year-old pedestrian with a bad case of gout.)  There are two main themes, both very bouncy and happy - a brassy piece which generally accompanies the traveling sections, and a flowery waltz.

Some of the underscore sounds a bit like the composer's classic music for Hawaii, but there's a decidedly twee edge running through much of it which does tamper the appeal to an extent.  It could easily come from a 1940s Hollywood melodrama.  Standout tracks include the exciting "The Open Seas / On to Denmark", the mysteriously dramatic "Leaving Copenhagen" (it sounds like the merry travelers were hounded out of Copenhagen in no uncertain terms) and the famous main theme for the series, which bookends the score.

Jerome Moross is a well-respected and much-admired composer, but ask most film music fans how far their Moross collections extend, and if they say anything beyond The Big Country and Silva Screen's compilation, give them a large government handout because they're certainly in a minority.  Any new release of his music is, therefore, more than welcome.  Grizzly! was about a pair of ecologists studying grizzly bears.  Again, his music is all rather happy and buouyant, but there's a bit of an edge to it which probably gives it a bit of an edge over Bernstein's score.

It's anchored around a really good main theme, a rousing piece of Americana which is unmistakably from the composer of The Big Country.  There are a couple of lengthy pieces in the middle of the score which allow the composer to really develop his ideas and it's a joy to hear him do so with such verve.  The liner notes mention that projects like these allow composers to write longer pieces than most films, but one of the problems with the Bernstein score is that in fact, of 15 tracks, only four go beyond two-and-a-half minutes, and most are actually far shorter even than that.  By writing in a much broader way, Moross is able to do rather more with his music, making it by far the more satisfying listen.

Sound quality is a bit of an issue - the mono sound is sometimes pinched - and expansive music like this really deserves to be heard in rousing digital sound.  However, this is the only way we were ever going to get this music, and Intrada must be congratulated for taking a chance on it; the Bernstein score is never going to go down as one of his finer achievements (though it's perfectly enjoyable enough), but Grizzly! more than makes up for it.  Copies are still available at the time of writing.

Yankee Sails Across Europe tracks

  1. Opening Montage and Main Title (2:26)
  2. Open Seas / Challenges of the Rhone (3:06)
  3. The River Saone / Locks and Tunnels (3:41)
  4. Canals and Barges (2:22)
  5. Barge Families (1:16)
  6. Into Germany (:55)
  7. Floating Store (:24)
  8. Holland (1:18)
  9. Fogbound / Amsterdam (2:00)
  10. The Open Seas / On to Denmark (3:10)
  11. Hamburg (1:10)
  12. Leaving Copenhagen (:42)
  13. Rough Seas (1:04)
  14. The North Sea / Tourists / Paris and Notre Dame (6:13)
  15. End Credits (:54)

Grizzly! tracks

  1. Introduction and Main Title (1:48)
  2. Nature's Way (2:45)
  3. Into the Trap (1:54)
  4. Careful Observation / Radio Tracking / Building Families (7:37)
  5. Bear Cubs / Tracking #40 / The Summer of 66 (9:52)
  6. Photographing Bears / Fly Fishing (2:53)
  7. All Things Great and Small (:47)
  8. Wrap Up (1:57)
  9. End Credits (:54)