Home > Reviews > THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS – Mychael Danna


November 28, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The words ‘Dickensian Christmas’ often conjure up specific imagery. Crisply snow-covered cobbled streets, gentlemen and ladies dressed in their finery, handsome houses bedecked with wreathes and candles, great feasts centered around a roasted game bird. It’s fascinating to realize that much of the festive iconography we take for granted was popularized, if not outright invented, by the author Charles Dickens in his 1843 story A Christmas Carol. Even the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, despite the words themselves obviously pre-dating Dickens, was only adopted as a common seasonal greeting following their liberal use by the story’s central character, Ebenezer Scrooge. In fact, the very concept of Christmas being a time for family gatherings, specific seasonal food and drink, and a festive generosity through present-giving, was not commonplace at that time, and it is only in the period since the novel’s publication that this aspect of the holiday has been given equal importance to the original religious meaning.

Director Bharat Nalluri’s film The Man Who Invented Christmas, based on the gently comedic book by Les Standiford, posits the circumstances which led to Dickens writing what is probably his most famous and enduring work, A Christmas Carol. In 1842 Dickens had already published a number of notable and popular works – The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby among them – and had been a regular contributor to London periodicals such as Master Humphrey’s Clock and Bentley’s Miscellany, but was finding inspiration for his next major work difficult to find. With his publishers demanding a new hit in order to maintain his contract, Dickens sets out to write the book he hopes will keep his family afloat and revive his career; the film then follows the author through six chaotic weeks as the timeless characters –Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and the rest – spring to life from Dickens’s imagination. The film stars Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, and Jonathan Pryce, and features an original score by Canadian composer Mychael Danna.

Just as the phrase ‘Dickensian Christmas’ inspires certain visual ideas, films set in Victorian England often inspire music of a certain nature too. It’s usually highly classical, making use of the most traditional core elements of the orchestral ensemble, with highlighted solos most often for violins and woodwinds. The form and meter is often dance-like, inspired by waltzes or traditional English pieces, but is also usually emotional and lyrical, drawing from the romantic traditions of composers such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, and many others popular in the country during the period. Danna mined these sources of inspiration for his score, and emerged with a beautiful work which is a little restrained, but still hits numerous high points of festive drama. Danna has written music for Christmas before, notably with The Nativity Story, but The Man Who Invented Christmas actually has more in common with scores like the 2004 pair Being Julia and Vanity Fair, as well as similar genre scores from composers like George Fenton, Patrick Doyle, or Stephen Warbeck.

There aren’t really many prominent themes in The Man Who Invented Christmas, but one or two recurring melodic ideas and instrumental textures do crop up from time to time to give the score an internal architecture. There’s a recurring main idea for Dickens himself which first appears in the opening cue “Curtain Up,” a fanciful and theatrical piece for lightly prancing strings and flighty woodwinds. It re-appears in the second cue, “Three Flops Later,” and begins vivaciously, but quickly becomes a little more whimsical, with light pizzicato textures speaking to Dickens’s frustration at his lack of commercial success. Further statements of the theme in several subsequent cues follow his creative process and his struggles with writer’s block – until the ghosts begin to appear.

After a brief bit of foreshadowing in “Charlie and the Necromancer,” which is full of dramatic tremolos, a recurring motif for the Christmas Carol ghosts is introduced in “Scrooge Appears,” a 6-note idea that has the vaguest similarity to the Godfather theme, and which pops into life half way through the cue as Scrooge emerges from Dickens’s imagination. The Ghost Motif appears in several subsequent cues, notably “Marley,” and “Ghost of Christmas Past,” and is often accompanied by more dark tremolo strings that enhance the light horror of it all, but is also often given a lighter edge through the use of a quirky harpsichord dance, which has a sense of elegance and a touch of absurd comedy.

Two further recurring ideas appear to speak to Dickens’s relationship with different members of his family. Firstly, a solo female vocal, operatic and endearing, initially appears in “Are There No Workhouses?” but then appears more prominently in “Ghost of Christmas Past,” and seems to be a reflection of his love for his long-suffering wife Catherine Hogarth. Further statements of the vocal motif appear in “Time You Went Back To Devon, Father,” and the conclusive “In The Season of Hope,” reminding the listener that, through everything, Dickens’s driving force was his need to provide for his family. There’s also a recurring idea for Dickens’s relationship with his disapproving father John, a set of sentimental but bittersweet textures for piano and strings which also appear in “Time You Went Back To Devon, Father,” as well as “A Gift From Your Father” among others.

Beyond this, however, Danna is content to simply present vignettes that reflect the time period and Dickens’s circumstances as the story progresses. Several cues are especially lovely; “Damned Expensive Being A Gentleman” is frothy and lithe, a classical musical depiction of an English gentleman about town. “Humbug” has a lovely second half featuring especially notable writing for a playful harpsichord, surging strings, and carillon. “Only 6 Weeks” characterizes Dickens’s shock and panic at his mandated publishing deadline with lurching, slithery woodwinds.

Later, “The Second Ghost” is happy and effervescent, with more dancing light strings, woodwinds, and even an accordion. This feeling is carried on into cues like “Well, It’s Forster,” but is counterbalanced by the film’s darkest and most serious segment about the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, which deals with mortality, death, and legacy, and comes to Dickens in an especially disturbing dream when he is most in need of an ending to his story. Cues like “Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come,” “Still Don’t Have An Ending,” “Than Your Own Flesh and Blood,” and “Whose Grave Is That?” are quite menacing, with brooding violas, rumbling percussion, despondent piano writing, and more than a hint of tragedy, moribundity, and dark horror.

Thankfully, the score’s conclusion lifts the spirits considerably, as Dickens finds the inspiration to finish his story, and mark the final flourish of what many consider to be his masterpiece. “The Final Chapter” has a sense of relief and optimism, accompanied by magical chimes; “The Germans Call It A Tannenbaum” works in a mischievous statement of the melody of the Christmas Carol “Deck the Halls” for woodwinds, strings, and light chimes; and the conclusive “In The Season of Hope” provides a lovely final statement of Dickens’s theme for a rich classical piano, cheerful accordions, tolling bells, and the female vocalist, bathing everything with a pretty glow of Christmas cheer.

All in all, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming little seasonal diversion which gives Danna a third opportunity to break out his richest and most romantic orchestrations, indulge in some English period dramatic classicism, and pepper it with a touch of horror and a soupçon of seasonal good cheer. It’s certainly not on a par with his best works, which for me still remain things like Life of Pi, Ride With the Devil, Ararat, and the aforementioned Nativity Story, but there is much to admire and celebrate here, and only a genuine humbug will find it without any merit whatsoever.

Buy the Man Who Invented Christmas soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Curtain Up (1:37)
  • Three Flops Later (1:22)
  • Do The Needful (1:22)
  • Damned Expensive Being A Gentleman (0:50)
  • Charlie And The Necromancer (1:17)
  • Are There No Workhouses? (1:15)
  • Humbug (1:40)
  • Only 6 Weeks (0:54)
  • You Wish To Borrow More? (1:06)
  • Scrooge Appears (1:52)
  • Marley (2:43)
  • Lighten The Burden Of Another (0:43)
  • Ghost Of Christmas Past (2:02)
  • The Second Ghost (1:40)
  • Well, It’s Forster (0:45)
  • Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come (2:54)
  • Time You Went Back To Devon, Father (1:13)
  • Still Don’t Have An Ending (2:07)
  • Than Your Own Flesh And Blood (4:47)
  • Whose Grave Is That? (2:13)
  • The Final Chapter (1:36)
  • A Gift From Your Father (1:12)
  • Who’s Going To Carve The Turkey? (2:08)
  • Exactly As I Had Imagined (1:03)
  • The Germans Call It A Tannenbaum (1:01)
  • In The Season Of Hope (3:02)

Running Time: 44 minutes 36 seconds

Decca (2017)

Music composed by Mychael Danna. Conducted by Nicholas Dodd. Orchestrations by Nicholas Dodd. Recorded and mixed by Jeff Gartenbaum. Edited by Mitch Bederman. Album produced by Mychael Danna.

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