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THE RED SHOES – Brian Easdale

January 12, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Following their success with Black Narcissus in 1947 the directorial team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger decided to adapt the fairy tale “The Red Shoes” by Hans Christian Anderson for the big screen. The story tells of the girl who dons beautiful red shoes, which danced away with her, through the streets, into a dark nether land and eventually, to her death. They created the screenplay and brought in renowned choreographer Jack Cardiff to choreograph the ballet. Powell and Pressburger sought authentic artistry for their film and so decided early on that they would use professional dancers who could act, rather than actors who could dance. They also wanted to create a realistic feeling of a ballet troupe and so included a fifteen-minute ballet as the high point of the film. Worth noting was the brilliance of the film’s cinematography, particularly its use of color. Ballerina Moira Shearer was brought in for the lead role of Vicky Page, with Marius Goring (Julian Craster) playing her love interest and Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov) as her ruthless authoritarian impresario. The story is a classic tragedy of a woman torn between love of her art and her heart. After a stellar rise to fame as prima ballerina she falls in love and marries Julian Craster, a dashing young composer. This enrages her jealous mentor Lermontov who has long coveted her for his own. He fires Julian and Vicky leaves with him. Yet Lermotov holds her contract and refuses to allow her to dance her defining ballet role for “The Red Shoes” unless she leaves Julian and returns to him. She decides to pursue her career and dance the coveted role on the night of Julian’s opera premier thereby losing him. On the night of her greatest performance, unable to reconcile her love for Julian and her love of dance, she leaps to her death in front of a train. The film was both a commercial and critical success earning five Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Art Decoration and Best Score.

Composer Allan Gray was initially hired to compose the score, but Powell and Pressburger quickly realized he was not best suited for composing for classical ballet. As such they turned to Brian Easdale, with whom they had enjoyed previous success with on Black Narcissus. Easdale will likely be almost entirely unfamiliar to contemporary film music fans – he was an English composer, born in 1909, who wrote music for film, theater, for the opera and for the concert hall, from the 1930s through the late 1960s, but whose career was somewhat hamstrung due to his battle with alcoholism. He died in 1995, aged 86, having written just 21 scores in his entire career.

In terms of The Red Shoes, one of the most interesting aspects of the score was that Easdale was instructed to write a set piece for the ballet performances without first seeing the film. The directors desired a “composed” film and so adapted their filming to fit the playback of Easdale’s score. Without the usual encumbrance, an unshackled Easdale went on to compose one of the most astounding film scores of all time, which included the now famous 17-minute Fantasy for Ballet. Of note, Easdale was the first composer to employ a Ondes Martenot in a British film.

“Signature Tune” offers a gong strike and heraldic fan fare, which supports the film’s production credits. “Red Shoes Main Title” plays as the opening credits run and offers a stunning suite of highlights from the Red Shoes ballet. “Heart of Fire” Overture” offers a score highlight. It plays as the ballet opens and we see Vicky with her aunt watching in a private gallery. In another part of the theatre Julian becomes outraged and storms out when he realizes that his mentor, Professor Palmer has co-opted his music as his own or the ballet. Opening timpani establish the piece’s cadence, which erupts with a dark and dramatic modernist power. The music flows with an almost savage intensity, which perfectly aligns with the on stage balletic movements of the dancers. I must say that Easdale achieves a perfect synergy of music and dance. In “Julian Conducts A Rehearsing” Lermontov has hired Julian to conduct his orchestra and he brings them in early for a morning session, only to be rebuked by Lermontov for his brashness. We are offered a reprise of the opening passage of the “Heart of Fire Overture”.

“On The Mercury Theatre” reveals Vicky dancing for Lermontov Company for the first time. Easdale supports the moment with the “Odette solo, Premier danse de la reine des cygnes” and “Coda” from Act II of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. In “Practice, Practice” Irina and Vicky perform a dress rehearsal for their Paris debut. We are treated to a simple and gentile flowing solo piano line, which supports their dancing. For “Irina Is Finished” Lermontov resolves to fire Irina after the performance for betraying her art, and him by announcing her engagement to the troupe. Easdale provides a splendid passage of spirited piano, which gloriously highlights Irina’s beauty. Sadly, unbeknownst to her, this will be her final dance. In “Monte Carlo’s Invitation” a prelude of celebratory strings inform us of Vicky’s joy of being selected by Lermontov to replace Irina as prima ballerina. Trumpets and full orchestra join to support the joy of her ascendancy and her reveling in her new status.

“Vicky and Julian at the Party” reveals the first sparks of attraction as the two enjoy each other’s company at a party. 1940’s source music, soft swing, is provided to support the ambiance. In “Transformation” we see Vicki practicing for her role in the new ballet, “The Red Shoes”. Easdale offers the Red Shoes Theme to support her practice. For “Vicky and Julian Discuss on Rehearsing” Easdale offers orchestral discord, which supports Vicky’s argument with Julian over the music’s tempo. In “On The Monte Carlo Opera’s Backstage” we see Julian conducting the opening overture as Vicky and the troupe struggle to prepare for Act 1. Lermontov meets with Vicky and reassures her that he believes in her gift. A sharp dramatic and fiercely modernist orchestral torrent supports the run-up to the opening curtain. This is nicely done.

“Red Shoes Ballet Premiere” is not only a score highlight, but a highlight for film score art. It represents the score’s supreme moment and offers us the greatest suite for ballet in film. Easdale opens with a light and carefree innocence alight with chirping woodwinds. We see Vicky dancing happily with her boyfriend with a glorious joie de vivre. At 1:14 a resplendent orchestral ascent informs us of her discovering the dazzling red shoes. Sensuous strings swirl in ecstasy as she succumbs to the shoe’s bewitching allure. At 2:13 she dons the shoes and frenetic strings and woodwinds join to carry her with ecstatic energy as she dances with her boyfriend. Vicky soon looses herself in the moment and begins to dance with countless other man at the carnival. Swirling impassioned strings sound as her boyfriend disappears with all the carnival goers and she dances over his lifeless cellophane image. A diminuendo of woodwinds informs us of her desperate return to her mother, with subsequent orchestral discordance announcing to us of her realization that she cannot stop dancing. A flowing descent by strings carries her descent into the netherworld. In this dark surreal realm plaintive strings play as she dances with the paper image rendering of her boyfriend. A strike of fierce piano and strings announce the return of the demon shoemaker and the foul creatures of the netherworld. We hear the melodic line darken, become more strident and gain a grim heaviness. Yet Vicky’s spirit shines through as we bear witness to joyous romantic strings as she regains her boyfriend in the flesh for one last supreme moment. Yet the moment is fleeting as dark horns intrude to end the rapture. Tolling bells and solemn strings inform us of her coming fate as the demon Shoemaker compels the shoes into a frightful and frenzied danza macabre. Just as she can bear no more, twinkling piano and chirping woodwinds inform us of the Priest removing the shoes and her passing, as the demon shoemaker reclaims his shoes. Bravo!

“Paris” offers a brief frenetic piece as we see Vicky dancing on stage in Paris. In “Night Ride” Easdale offers Chopin’s “Les Sylphides Waltz” as we see a contented Lermontov savoring the success brought by his new prima ballerina. “Birthday Party” features traditional French source music carried by accordion as the ballet troupe celebrates Ljubov’s birthday. “Lermontov Remembers The Vicky’s Great Roles” again references Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by featuring Act II: Scène: Moderato as a jealous Lermontov watches Julian and Vicky flirting during a dress rehearsal. “Dance Music” offers source jazz music by Ted Heath’s Kenny Baker Swing group as we see a dispirited Julian and Vicky having cocktails

“Irina’s Returns” opens with a spirited and bubbling melodic line as Lermontov meets Irina in a park. We conclude with Act II; Pas d´Action: Andante from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as Lermontov rehires Irina and she resumes her role as prima ballerina for his company. In “Composer Sleepless Nights” we see a restless Julian unable to sleep struggling to compose at his piano, while a now awakened consoles him. Soprano Margherita Grandi opens the cue singing an uncredited aria. We flow into a formless piano line that struggles yet finally coalesces into a forceful melody from which blossoms a wonderful pastoral statement. “Lermontov’s Reflection” reveals Lermontov relenting as he entreats Vicky to again dance her Red Shoes role. The Red Shoes Theme plays as we see in her face her acceptance.

“Struggle for Vicky” reveals Julian who has abandoned conducting the debut of his opera “Cupid and Psyche” to confront Vicky who has chosen to reprise her role rather than attend his opera. The Red Shoes Theme plays darkly. Lermontov enters and both men offer impassioned arguments for love and career, which causes her great pain. The theme becomes impassioned as she struggles. Margherita Grandi reprises her sad but impassioned aria when Vicky decides to dance and Julian abandons her. We see that she is crushed and as she departs for the stage, hopelessness wells up in her eyes. Inconsolable, she flees the theatre to frantic flight music and throws herself into the path of an oncoming train. As she lay dying she asks Julian to remove the red shoes and as he does, she passes unto death just as in the ballet – a poetic ending. Back at the theatre a devastated Lermontov orders the ballet to go on with no replacement dancer, as no one could possibly assume her role. “Vicky’s Last Dance / End Title” reveals the ballet continuing with her role replaced by a stage light as the Red Shoes Theme reprises one last time. We conclude with a graphic “Finis” displayed over the candle lit red shoes. We conclude the album with “Red Shoes Ballet”, a score highlight and its apogee. It offers a pre-recorded rendering of the famous fantasy suite without any of the extraneous dialogue.

“The Red Shoes” stands as Brian Easdale’s magnum opus, a seminal score in the history of film score art. It marked the first time a British composer earned an Academy award, one that it justly earned. Scene after scene Easdale demonstrates mastery of his craft with each cue perfectly attenuated to the film’s narrative and imagery. The infusion of classic ballet music and French source music served to instill both authenticity and life to the ballet and café scenes. But the score’s crowning achievement lies in one of the greatest pieces of music ever written for film, “The Red Shoes Ballet”. Because he wrote this as a set concert piece, he was not encumbered by arbitrary scene time index constraints. He was free to create, and he created a masterpiece. This is an essential score for your collection that I recommend with one important caveat; the score was taken directly from the film and so the sound quality is not pristine and each cue, except for the last contains dialogue, which purists will no doubt find objectionable. I for one can look past this imperfection, thankful that I have the score.

Buy the Red Shoes soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Signature Tune (0:31)
  • Main Title (2:05)
  • Heart of Fire Overture (5:10)
  • Julian Conducts a Rehearsing (2:44)
  • On the Mercury Theatre (2:04)
  • Practice, Practice (1:15)
  • Irina is Finished (1:34)
  • Monte Carlo’s Invitation (1:48)
  • Vicky and Julian at the Party (1:06)
  • Transformation (1:32)
  • Vicky and Julian Discusses on Rehearsing (1:01)
  • On the Monte Carlo Opera’s Backstage (4:19)
  • The Red Shoes Ballet Premiere (16:03)
  • Paris (0:39)
  • Night Ride (2:17)
  • Birthday Party (1:22)
  • Lermontov Remembers Vicky’s Great Roles (1:28)
  • Dance Music (performed by Ted Heath’s Kenny Baker Swing Group) (1:28)
  • Irina Returns (1:11)
  • Composer Sleepless Nights (3:00)
  • Lermontov’s Reflection (0:30)
  • The Struggle for Vicky (performed by Margherita Grandi) (4:44)
  • Vicky’s Last Dance/End Title (1:24)
  • The Red Shoes Ballet (Pre-Recording Version) (15:13)

Running Time: 74 minutes 16 seconds

Soundtrack Factory SFCD-33540 (1948/2000)

Music composed by Brian Easdale. Conducted by Brian Easdale and Sir Thomas Beecham. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Brian Easdale. Recorded and mixed by Ted Drake. Album produced by J. G. Calvados.

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