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OUT OF AFRICA – John Barry

September 3, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Notable directors such as Orson Welles, David Lean and Nicolas Roeg had long sought to bring to the big screen the 1937 novel Out of Africa by Isak Dinesan (Karen Blixen). None were successful in adapting the story into a cogent screenplay. Sydney Pollack however was determined to succeed, and after two years of struggle managed with the assistance of screenwriter Kurt Luedtke to fashion a screenplay drawing from Blixen’s “Out of Africa”, but also her novel “Shadows on the Grass” and Elsbeth Huxley’s novel, “The Flame Trees of Thika”. Mirage Enterprises agreed to fund the project, which would be produced by Kim Jurgensen and Sydney Pollack, who would also direct. A fine cast was assembled, which included the dashing Robert Redford as Denys Hatton, Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Baron Bror von Blixen. The story offers a sad testament to the life of a wealthy Danish woman Karen Blixen, and the love of her life, Denys Hatton. After she is spurned by her Swedish lover, Karen relocates to British East Africa and enters into a loveless marriage of convenience with his brother, Baron Bror Blixen. They plan to start a dairy cattle farm, but on the wedding day Bror informs her that he plans to instead start a coffee plantation. His infidelity leads to her contracting syphilis, which requires that she return to Denmark for treatment. She returns to find Bror more interested in Safaris than her and they separate.

Big game hunter Denys comes into her life and sweeps her off her feet. He is dashing, and when he takes her up in his plane she is awestruck by the wondrous African vistas. They fall in love, she divorces Bror, and Denys moves in with her. Although he loves her, he makes it very clear that he values his freedom and that homesteading is not for him. He sees that Karen cannot abide this, and so moves out. She carries on, the coffee plantation flourishes, only to suffer ruin when a fire burns everything down. Now financially devastated, she is forced to sell off her remaining possessions and return to Denmark. Denys reenters her life, and it is clear that feelings between them still exist. He agrees to fly her in his plane to Mombasa, her embarkation airport to Denmark. Sadly, Bror brings word that Denys has died in a plane crash and she is devastated. She departs Africa, full of regrets and having lost everything. The film was a massive commercial success earning ten times its production cost of $28 million. It also secured critical acclaim, earning a stratospheric eleven Academy Award nominations, earning seven for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Film Score.

Most interesting is the revelation by Pollack that temp tracking landed John Barry the assignment. Pollack relates that he had used many of Barry’s selections as he was editing the film, and came to the conclusion that he would be the natural choice to score the film. There were creative differences from the start as Pollack wanted to utilize nativist African music, while Barry believed a traditional western orchestra was required. Barry relates the reasoning he used to persuade Pollack: “Sydney, it’s not about Africa. It takes place in Africa, but it is seen through two people who are madly in love with each other. It’s really their story.”

Pollack was persuaded, gave Barry the green light, and he went on to compose what is now regarded as one of his finest scores of his canon. All the classic Barry elements are on display, sweeping romanticism born by long lined, string laden melodies, with repeating phrases, which are song like in their sensibilities. A multiplicity of themes support the film; the Africa Theme is the most notable and offers a testament to Barry’s mastery of his craft by once again demonstrating his supreme gift of capturing a film’s emotional core. It is languorous in its articulation, and perfectly speaks to the grandeur of the beautiful African vistas. Rendered in classical ABA form, the A Phrase offers a sumptuous romantic violin carried melody countered by a lower register contrapuntal string line with warm horns. Both the main line and contrapuntal line ascend in their register for the repeated phrase, and then yield to the B Phrase that begins tentatively on solo flute delicato, before intensifying on violins passionato joined by contrapuntal French horns nobile. We conclude warmly upon the A Phrase, again enriched by counterpoint.

Barry understood that the film was a story of Karen’s life, and so he provided her with three themes, which serve as her identity. The first is emoted by solo flute delicato atop a violin sustain, with harp adornment. Within its bittersweet lyricism is revealed her unrealized hope for a home and family. The second theme is born by a solo flute dolorosa, shifting strings and harp adornment, It is achingly beautiful yet filled with an unabiding sadness, and regret, speaking of the heartache of her life and inability to find fulfillment in love. The third theme is for me, the most beautiful of all, one that has shed the sadness of the first two themes for a more hopeful expression. It is long lines and rendered in classic ABA form. The A Phrase emotes to a tender harp rhythm that supports a florid exposition by sumptuous strings, which is joined by warm horns in the repeated phrase. The subtler B Phrase is emoted gently by solo flute delicato and string grazioso.

For Denys, Barry offers two themes, the first interpolates Mozart’s 1791 adagio “Clarinet Concerto in A Major”. Its melody is gentile, yet also tinged with sadness, revealing a man set apart. The second Denys Theme bathes us in melancholia, and is rendered just once in the film. Emoted by piano, it speaks to his fascination with Karen’s storytelling, which exposes the loneliness of his existence. The Love Theme is bright, happy, forthright, and speaks to the enjoyment felt by Denys and Karen when they spend time together. Using his trademark repeating phrasing, Barry offers a languorous melody by sumptuous strings, with counters by warm French horns or woodwinds. The sadness of their individual themes is shed, informing us that love blossoms, achieving feelings of fulfillment when they are together. Lastly, Barry did partially concede to Pollack’s initial vision for the score, and infused some cues/scenes with African nativist auras.

The film opens to the words of Karen, who is lying in her bed reminiscing, with flash backs, about her romance with Denys. Barry supports her narrative with the adagio of “Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major”. The entire adagio is presented on the album, but it is truncated in the film. We return to Denmark, where our story begins. She is spurned by her Swedish lover Baron Hans von Blixen, and proposes to his brother and dear friend Baron Bror von Blixen that they strike a marriage of convenience. She argues practicality – he is broke and would have her money, and she would have the coveted title of Baroness. He is tentative, but agrees and they move to British East Africa in 1913 to start a new life. We flow upon her narrative into “I Had a Farm” the score’s iconic highlight. We see their train rolling through the beautiful and vast African savannah. As the opening credits roll, we are graced by a long lined prelude born by warm French nobile with sumptuous violins and kindred strings, which sweep us away. At 1:14 the A Phrase of the Africa Theme unfolds with both majesty and sumptuous romanticism. At 2:04 solo flute delicato ushers in the B Phrase of the theme, before intensifying on violins passionato joined by contrapuntal French horns nobile. We conclude upon the A Phrase of the theme and must conclude that the marriage of Barry’s romantic music and David Watkin’s breath-taking cinematography created one of the most sublime moments in cinematic history.

The train stops and Karen meets Denys who loads elephant tusks on the train. We see fascination in her eyes, none in his as he departs. On her wedding day Bror informs her that instead of a dairy farm, they will be establishing a coffee plantation. Bror sets off the next day on safari, leaving a distraught Karen alone to manage the coffee planting and setting up the house. In “Alone on the Farm” Karen settles into her new life and Barry introduces her primary theme emoted by solo flute delicato atop a violin sustain, with harp adornment. We feel the sadness and isolation in the notes as she rides out into the countryside. While on foot her horse bolts due to a lioness approaching, and Denys saves her life by telling her to stand firm and not run. She in gratitude invites him to the ranch. As they stroll together in “Karen and Denys” Barry introduces a melody kindred to the Love Theme, born by lyrical violins with warm contrapuntal French horns. Its melody never resolves, and we transition without music to dinner later that night. After dinner in “Have You Got a Story For Me?” we are offered another score highlight. Karen tells him a story, which captivates him, and we at last see in his eyes a growing attraction. Barry graces us with Denys’ Theme, which sadly is used but once in the film. It emotes as a wordless song, full of melancholia, and carried by solo piano, ambient strings with harp adornment. The music informs us that Denys, who values freedom, has a life of adventure, yet not fulfillment.

Martial horns and strings agitato inform us that England and Germany are at war as people assemble in town. This music is not provided on the album. “I’m Better At Hello” supports another parting as Bror decides to join the British defense force and much to Karen’s dismay, abandons her once more. As she gives him a passionless kiss, her primary theme unfolds with an unabiding sadness, fully rendered, by a solo flute doloroso floating over shifting mid register strings. “Karen’s Journey Starts” offers a complex multi-scenic cue over many days. Karen has been ordered by a British Captain to have her workers deliver vitally needed supplies to the front lines, and then take up residence in town for protection. She is defiant, will not suffer “internment”, and so leads the supply train herself. Barry sows tension with nativist drums, trilling woodwinds and dissonance as they cross the vast savannah. At 0:27 woodwinds pastorale create a relaxing ambiance as the men say their evening prayers and Karen prepares to turn in. Next day the African vistas are supported at 0:54 by a traveling theme once again carried by sumptuous strings a French horns nobile. Textural tension dissonance returns at 1:21 as the caravan struggles on unsteady ground near a cliff edge. At 2:07 dire woodwinds are joined by nativist drums as a pride of lions attack, with Karen and her men desperately trying to drive them off. “Karen’s Journey Ends” was excised from the film and was meant to support her arrival at the British camp. Barry offered a simple melody, suggesting her nascent second theme. It is born by a solo oboe gentile, then flute, joined by plucked harp and muted horns, which inform us of her fatigue.

In “Karen’s Return from Border” she and Bror are reconciled that their marriage will never work as she desires him at home to start a family, and he has no interest in either, preferring big game hunting. As they part and she walks through the sleeping camp at dawn and Barry carries her progress with her second theme, one full of sadness, and regret. The theme emotes as a wordless song, and opens with a prelude of refulgent violins and solo flute. At 0:22 her theme, so full of heartache is born by solo flute doloroso with shifting strings and harp adornment. Karen utters not a single word, but Barry’s music speaks volumes. Back at the farm, she falls ill and receives the crushing diagnosis that she has syphilis, which will require her to return home for treatment. Bror returns home, apologizes and agrees to manage the farm in her absence. Back in Denmark Karen’s narration of her struggles is paired with beautiful imagery of her farm, and a boy’s chorus singing the traditional Zulu wedding song “Siyawe”, which was omitted from the album. The marriage of narration, cinematography and music is exquisite.

Karen returns home cured, but relates to Bror that she cannot have children. In a scene change Barry provides a tradition British celebratory march as the entire town has come out to celebrate victory over Germany. The march is also omitted from the album. She reconnects with Denys and their nascent attraction has become more palpable. They agree to get together soon, perhaps for Christmas. In “Karen Builds a School” Karen seeks to find meaning in her life now that she cannot bear children, and so resolves to build a school. Sumptuous strings and solo flute carry her primary theme with both beauty and grace, expressed lyrically without its usual sadness. The chief agrees to her proposal, but limits the instruction only to the very young. Karen and Denys reconnect at a New Year’s party, in which Bror has left her alone. During the midnight celebration Denys kisses her, she returns the kiss, and all pretenses are dropped. On the drive home she asks Bror to move out because of his continued infidelity. In “Harvest” we are treated to a gorgeous score highlight. Karen has gained hope and meaning for her life with the success of the first harvest, and her school. This is reflected with a full rendering of her third theme, which supports a montage of strolling and working on the plantation. Its classic long lined ABA form graces us for a full rendering. Its A Phrase emotes to a tender harp rhythm that supports a florid exposition by sumptuous strings, which is joined by warm horns in the repeated phrase. The subtler B Phrase is emoted softly, gently by solo flute delicato and strings grazioso, with the A Phrase completing the exposition with satisfaction.

“Safari” offers another score highlight where Barry introduces Denys and Karen’s Love Theme. Denys convinces her to join him on a jeep trip through the countryside where we bear witness to the abundant wildlife and beauty of African vistas. Barry creates a sublime synergy with the cinematography, gracing us with his deeply moving lyricism. We open warmly atop first French horns, and then cello, which usher in the free flowing dance like Love Theme born by strings romantic and contrapuntal French horns. Karen is outwardly aloof and resistance to Denys’ charms, but the music reveals her true feelings. The next day all has changed and Karen reveals her love for Denys with her smile and beaming eyes. At 1:23 a violin ostinato romantico and French horns carry the journey under the gorgeous cloudscapes and verdant prairie, closing warmly on the Love Theme, as she has fallen for him. That night she finally surrenders to him and they make love.

Their romance blossoms and Karen accepts Denys’ request to move in with her. Barry uses “Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major” (Denys’ Theme) to support her narrative of life with Denys through a montage of scenes of their time together at the ranch. “Flight Over Africa” reveals that Denys has purchased a biplane. He lands it and asks Karen to climb aboard. They take off and we bear witness to one of the most magnificent joining of music and cinematography in cinematic history. Warm horns join sumptuous strings and ethereal woman’s choir in an extended prelude as the stunning African vistas, wildlife and waterfalls unfold before our eyes. At 1:40 we flow full of wonderment into the African Theme expressed gloriously as they soar through the clouds, her hand clasped by his in love. It comes to pass that Bror has found a wealthy woman he wishes to marry, and asks Karen for a divorce. She agrees, they kiss, and part as friends. In “Beach at Night” Denys returns from safari, and flies Karen to the Indian Ocean and they spend a romantic interlude together. To support their embrace against the sunset cloudscape, Barry uses the A Phrase of the African Theme, which ends with a diminuendo.

Disaster strikes when the factory and sacks of coffee are lost in a conflagration. She is unable to repay the bank loan, and will lose the farm. “You’ll Keep Me Then” reveals Karen informing Denys that she is leaving Africa and needs to borrow money from her parents to get home. Denys offers to help her but does not reply to her query “You would keep me then?” This informs her that he will not surrender his freedom to live with her on her terms. Barry supports the dialogue unobtrusively with repeating four note phrases by strings delicato. He returns to her in the evening, for one last moment together. They dance and he promises to fly her Friday to Mombasa. Sadly, the next day Bror brings her the tragic news that Denys had died in a plane crash. She is devastated, but finds the strength to give his eulogy. “If I Knew a Song of Africa” supports Karen’s narration as she departs the funeral and walks back to her farm. Flute doloroso and harp tenero carry her bittersweet primary theme. The film concludes with “You Are Karen M’Sabu” where Karen offers a heartfelt farewell to her devoted servant, Farah. The A Phrase of the Africa Theme supports her bittersweet closing narration, which offers a final testament to Denys, the man she loved and lost. We flow into the End Credits with “Out of Africa”, where Barry graces us with a romantic, full rendering of his Africa Theme, which closes softly, fading like an evening African breeze.

I commend Robert Towson and Varese Sarabande for this magnificent rerecording of John Barry’s masterpiece, “Out Of Africa”. The sound quality of the OST was poor, and for years fans were hopeful of a rerecording. All was made good under Joel McNeely’s gifted baton and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. McNeely’s fidelity to Barry’s music is exceptional, and the 20 bit digital sound quality of the recording, offer pristine sound, is a wonderful listening experience. Barry correctly persuaded Sydney Pollack that the music needed to speak to the romance of Denys and Karen, as this was their story. What he accomplished is one of the finest scores in his canon. His iconic Africa Theme, which captured the film’s emotional core, has earned a place in the hallowed halls of the pantheon of great score themes. His themes for Karen and Denys acquainted us with them as much as their dialogue – we felt them. Also to be commended was Barry’s capacity to express the magnificence, grandeur and wonder of the African vistas, achieving in scene after scene a breath-taking confluence with David Watkins brilliant cinematography. This is a score for the ages, a score of exceptional melodic beauty, romanticism and grandeur. It is in my judgment one of the finest scores of the Bronze Age, a gem in Barry’s canon, and essential for collectors of film score art.

Buy the Out of Africa soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • I Had a Farm (3:12)
  • Alone on the Farm (1:00)
  • Karen & Denys (0:48)
  • Have You Got a Story for Me (1:21)
  • I’m Better at Hello (1:24)
  • Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A, K.622 (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) (7:39)
  • Karen’s Journey Starts (3:41)
  • Karen’s Journey Ends (1:00)
  • Karen’s Return from Border (1:33)
  • Karen Builds a School (1:19)
  • Harvest (2:02)
  • Safari (2:35)
  • Flight Over Africa (2:41)
  • Beach at Night (0:58)
  • You’ll Keep Me Then (0:58)
  • If I Knew a Song of Africa (2:23)
  • You are Karen M’Sabu (1:17)
  • Out of Africa (2:49)

Running Time: 38 minutes 40 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5816 (1985/1997)

Music composed by John Barry. Conducted by Joel McNeely. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Original orchestrations by John Barry. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Score produced by John Barry. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. July 4, 2022 at 11:22 pm

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