Home > Reviews > GORMENGHAST – Richard Rodney Bennett and John Tavener

GORMENGHAST – Richard Rodney Bennett and John Tavener

gormenghastOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Gormenghast is one of the largest and most ambitious television productions ever mounted in the United Kingdom, the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s celebrated fantasy novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Directed by Andy Wilson and featuring an all-star cast including Ian Richardson, Stephen Fry, Celia Imrie, Fiona Shaw, Christopher Lee, Zoe Wanamaker and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gormenghast is the tale of madness, treachery and double-crossing in a corrupt and decaying monarchy. Set in an ancient mythical kingdom in a far away land, it charts the rise to power of a young scullery boy named Steerpike, who lies and cheats his way into the confidence of the royal court, but soon begins political machinations to overthrow the monarch and his heir, the new-born Titus, 77th Earl of Groan.

Somewhat surprisingly, the task of providing the music for this fantastical tale fell to 64-year old Richard Rodney Bennett, who is still considered to be one of the foremost classical composers working in Britain. Having contributed memorable music to films such as Far From The Madding Crowd, Equus, Murder on the Orient Express, Nicholas and Alexandra and more recently Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bennett has virtually disappeared from the film music scene – until now. As a lecturer at the Royal College of Music in London and a respected member of the classical fraternity, Bennett’s musical credentials have never been in question, but I have to admit that the dramatic excellence of his work on Gormenghast exceeded all my expectations.

Fully orchestral and overtly classical throughout, the score opens with the spellbinding main title, ‘Song of Titus’, a wonderful arrangement of author Peake’s own poem “Hold fast to the law”, extolling the virtues and the traditions of Gormenghast’s edicts. Bennett’s sumptuous orchestrations are powerful and regal and, as the sublime boy soprano Andrew Johnson finishes his rendition of the hymn, the orchestra rises and performs a magnificent rendition of the main theme, which is replete with spine-tingling harp waves, powerful brass phrases and a searching string melody. Emerging from this main theme is the recurring five note motif for Steerpike, which plays around and within many of the subsequent cues, constantly alluding to his ever-present nature, and the way in which he seeks to manipulate everything and everybody.

Of the other notable cues, ‘Celebration’ is a loud and uplifting piece with a huge, distinctly Elgaresque brass section intoning merrily over lush strings. ‘Cat Room’ is described in the liner notes as a “delightful serenade for several hundred white cats”, and ‘The Sisters’ is a playfully naïve, almost comical pizzicato motif for the dim-witted pawns in Steerpike’s games. The mysterioso, articulate ‘In The Forest’ introduces a definitely oppressive atmosphere to the score through the use of high, John Williams style violin progressions, harp solos and the constant rumble of percussion. Alfred Newman’s Hollywood golden age sound is authentically re-created in the sublime ‘Irma’s Romance’, a superb waltz performed by full-vibrato strings, while a trio of action cues in ‘Burning The Library’, ‘The Death of Swelter’ and ‘The Death of Barquentine’ pulsate and reverberate to a marvelous piano ostinato overlaid by the massive sounds of BBC Philharmonic and conductor John Harle.

Contributing further to the pervading atmosphere of tradition and excellence are four new choral works by the celebrated classical composer John Tavener, who is writing for film for the first time here. His efforts – ‘The Christening’, ‘The Earling’, ‘The Carver’s Ceremony’ and ‘Fuschia’s Funeral’ – bear the hallmarks of many of his earlier works, and are heavily steeped in the traditions of early ecclesiastical plainsong. Performed by The Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Temple Church, Tavener’s compositions are of an extremely high quality, and add an extra dimension of importance and validity to the score. It says something for the increasing allure of writing for film when a staunchly classical composer of John Tavener’s standards begins to succumb to the temptation.

In short, Gormenghast is a triumph, of concept, of art direction, of camera work, of costume design, of special effects, and especially of music. If the actual content of the stories may be a little hard to swallow, in every technical aspect the series breaks new boundaries for television, in the UK at least. Over recent years, British television has become one of the richest sources of the world’s film music, with composers such as Debbie Wiseman, Julian Nott, Mark Thomas and the Parkers all contributing memorable works to Auntie’s productions. Although both Richard Rodney Bennett and John Tavener are quite rightly regarded as two of the most talented classical composers Britain has produced during the twentieth century, to the majority of those involved in the film music arena, they are largely untapped sources. I for one hope they continue to work in this field. As the first major score of the new millennium, Gormenghast sets the standards for the others to follow.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Song of Titus (3:41)
  • Celebration (1:02)
  • Cat Room (1:13)
  • Burning the Library (2:38)
  • The Christening (2:45)
  • Fuchsia & Steerpike (4:41)
  • The Sisters (1:31)
  • Fuchsia & Lord Groan (4:17)
  • The Madness of Lord Groan (2:35)
  • The Death of Swelter (3:55)
  • The Earling (1:58)
  • Keda (1:10)
  • The Sisters in Prison (2:18)
  • Freedom (1:19)
  • In The Forest (2:45)
  • Irma’s Romance (2:20)
  • The Carver’s Ceremony (2:50)
  • The Death of Barquentine (4:23)
  • The Red Room (5:00)
  • Sarabande for the Sisters (2:30)
  • Ceremony in the Rain (1:22)
  • The Death of Steerpike (5:06)
  • Fuchsia’s Funeral (3:43)
  • Farewell to Gormenghast (2:01)

Running Time: 67 minutes 20 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89135 (2000)

Music composed by Richard Rodney Bennett. Conducted by John Harle. Performed by The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Richard Rodney Bennett and John Wilson. Special vocal performance by Andrew Johnson. Recorded and mixed by Austin Ince. Choral music composed by John Tavener. Conducted and arranged by Paul Goodwin. Performed by The Academy of Ancient Music and The Choir of Temple Church. Choir conducted by Stephen Layton. Recorded and mixed by Tony Faulkner. Album produced by Richard Rodney Bennett and John Harle.

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