Home > Reviews > ON GOLDEN POND – Dave Grusin

ON GOLDEN POND – Dave Grusin


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Jane Fonda was an avid reader, and happened to come across the novel On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson. She was captivated by the story and bought the film rights, intending for her father Henry Fonda to play the lead role of Norman Thayer. She secured financial backing for the film from Lord Grade, of the British studio ITC Entertainment. Bruce Gilbert was assigned to produce the film, and Mark Rydell was tasked with directing. Jane Fonda had always intended that this film would be a father-daughter endeavor, and so her father Henry Fonda was hired to play Norman Thayer, while she would play the estranged daughter Chelsea. The story’s father-daughter estrangement mirrored the real-life relationship of Jane and her father and ultimately proved to be cathartic, in that it restored their relationship. Joining them would be Katherine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer, Doug McKeon and Billy Ray, Dabney Coleman as Bill Ray, and William Lanteau as Charlie Martin.

The story’s rustic setting is a northern Maine lake called Golden Pond. For decades Norman and his wife Ethel had spent the summer at their beloved cottage on the lake shore, always welcomed back by the haunting tremolo wailing of the loons. Norman, who will soon turn 80, is suffering from heart palpitations and the onset of dementia with growing memory problems. He is a curmudgeon and yet Ethel loves him dearly. Chelsea is his estranged daughter who visits from Los Angeles with her fiancé Bill and his 13-year-old son, Billy. Their father-daughter issues remain unresolved and Chelsea seeks reconciliation. Yet her efforts are not warmly received, but an opportunity presents itself when she asks Norman and Ethel to watch Billy while they go on a vacation. Norman agrees, and after a rocky beginning, he forges a friendship with Billy with their shared love of fishing. A boating accident serves to establish an unbreakable bond, which paves the way for a rapprochement with Chelsea, who returns now married to Bill. A spectacular backflip dive brings a father’s admiration and an embrace for Chelsea, too long absent. All ends well as Chelsea and her family depart, as Norman and Ethel count their blessings in their long life together as a couple. The film was a stunning commercial success, earning over ten times its production cost of $15 million. It received critical acclaim, securing an astounding 10 Academy Award nominations including; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Score, winning three for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Although Dave Grusin and Mark Rydell moved in the same social circle, they had never collaborated on a film. With fellow director Sydney Pollack’s blessings, Grusin landed the assignment, stating: “I wanted to do the picture mostly because of Jane and her father. It had a nice story, but there was nothing earth shattering about it. I said yes before I saw any footage. I figured how bad could it be?” Regarding the score, he relates: “It wasn’t planned to be an important part of the film. It’s just that the nature of the story dictated the areas where music could help, and it was the breathing room in the picture that allowed the score to have some kind of life.”

The lake served as Grusin’s muse and little did he realize that he would join a small group of elite composers who managed to become part of cinematic history by creating an iconic melody of such supreme beauty as to become indelibly ingrained within the public’s collective consciousness. First heard during the film’s Main Titles, the Golden Pond Theme achieves a breath-taking confluence with the sparkling pristine beauty of the lake, and its wildlife. The melody embraces the time-honored truth, that there is beauty in simplicity. Grusin described his conception of the theme as an “impressionistic comment on the visual geography of the story,” he further added that the melody’s gentility and harmonies derive from the “indigenous Protestant hymns historically associated with New England.” The melody is for me, a wordless song, which permeates the film, as it speaks to the beauty of the lake, on which the story centers and unfolds. Its A Phrase is carried by piano gentile and harp is pastoral, and contemplative in its sensibilities, while its B Phrase is wistful, and so full of longing.

There are three secondary themes, including; The Family Theme, which is kindred to the Main Theme, and emotes as repeating seven-note phrase, wistful and sad. It speaks to the regrets Norman has in his life, and his fears as he at 80 years of age confronts his mortality. The Hornpipe Theme serves as accompaniment to the New Hampshire Hornpipe speedboat as it soars over the lake. It abounds with the unbridled spirit, youthful exuberance and enthusiasm of a 1980’s pop melody. Lastly, we have the Lake Song Theme, which abounds with Joie de vivre. It offers a free-flowing melody; again with 1980’s pop sensibility. A bubbling piano animato, woodwinds gentile and lyrical strings carry us effortlessly with its wondrous carefree spirit. Because of the small amount of score composed for the film, a dubious creative decision was made to incorporate dialogue so as to expand the playtime to meet the minimum requirements for a soundtrack LP. Regretfully this detracted from the listening experience.

“On Golden Pond (Main Theme)” offers the score’s best cue, the finest in Grusin’s canon, and one, which takes its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great film score melodies. After a prelude by piano delicato, it is rendered in classical ABA form. It supports the roll of the opening credits against a black background before continuing into the film proper, where we bear witness to one of the most beautiful confluences of music and cinematography in cinematic history. As the film Title displays over the refulgent golden shimmering lights of the lake, Grusin’s immortal theme graces us with sublime lyricism. Emoted by piano delicato, we are awed by the natural beauty as we are carried over the pristine lakeshore, replete with shots of the loons dotting the waters. A coda closes our journey as we see Norman and Ethel arrive at the cottage for another summer. So precious and so rare is it when a composer so perfectly captures a film’s emotional core with the Main Title. “First Call (Norman)” opens magically with an embellished variant of the A Phrase of the Main Theme as they enter the cabin, so full of memories, which they love. Norman’s dialogue with the operator intrudes. We conclude at 1:46 as with the Main Theme coda as we see Norman and Ethel paddling their canoe graced by the haunting calls of the loons.

In “Career Opportunities” we open to dialogue between Ethel and Norman. She sends him out to pick strawberries as he is under foot. The B Phrase of the Main Theme emoted by woodwinds pastorale carries him into the forest. At 1:56 a crescendo of unease rises, which gives way to panic as Norman becomes disoriented and terrified in terrain he no longer recognizes. Strings affanato cry out, supported by wailing woodwinds and a grim piano ostinato as we see terror on Norman’s face. At 3:04 dialogue re turns as Norman returns to Ethel empty handed. At 3:24 we segue into “Back Porch Confessional (Norman & Ethel)” where Norman confides that the reason he came back without strawberries is that he got lost and could not remember his way back. A grim bass sustain sounds with the return of the twinkling frightful piano ostinato playing atop to support the revelation. Ethel, soothes, and comforts him supported by rendering of the B Phrase of the Main Theme by flute delicato, adorned with harp. We conclude warmly and full of love atop the A Phrase of the Main Theme. Grusin demonstrates mastery of his craft in speaking to the powerful emotions of these scenes.

In “Illicit Sex Question (Norman & Bill Ray)” we open magically before flowing into the Family Theme, which joins with the concluding phrase of the Main Theme as Chelsea and Bill arrive by car. At 0:55 we segue into extended dialogue between Norman and Bill to conclude the cue. “Lake-Song” reveals Billy and Norman bonding as they set-off on the lake in the hornpipe to go fishing. The Lake Song Theme, which abounds with sparkling Joie de vivre, supports the scene. Its free-flowing melody is emoted by a bubbling piano animato, woodwinds gentile and lyrical strings, which carry us effortlessly with its wondrous carefree spirit. “Early Bird (Ethel & Chelsea)” reveals a mother-daughter moment, where Ethel tries to console Chelsea. A prelude by a plaintive English horn and sparkling strings establishes the mood, giving way to dialogue at 0:23. Music re-enters at 2:12 as a forlorn solo oboe joins with piano emoting a wistful rendering of the A Phrase of the Main Theme. In “New Hampshire Hornpipe” Grusin introduces his Hornpipe Theme, which serves as accompaniment to the New Hampshire Hornpipe speedboat. When Billy takes it out solo and soars over the lake it abounds with his unbridled spirit, youthful exuberance, and enthusiasm for one of the score’s most joyous moments!

“Purgatory Cove (Norman & Billy)” reveals Norman and Billy taking the hornpipe to Purgatory Cove in search of the great trout Walter. The Family Theme shifts among the woodwinds and foreboding atmospheric writing, replete with loon calls sound as a storm looms and the skies blacken. Dialogue between Norman and Billy enters at 0:59. Fleeting piano phrases of the A Phrase of the Main Theme, shift to and fro, beset by foreboding strings as they prepare to depart. As they depart with Billy at the helm and Norman on the bow spotting for rocks, Grusin raises tension with a string sustain and darting piano figures. At 2:56 low register ominous strings portend danger and launch a timpani roll, which unleashes a frantic string ostinato as Billy panics with Norma’s frantic orders as the hornpipe crashes and throws Norman overboard. Strings affanato join oblique darting piano figures and wailing woodwinds as the hornpipe sinks, and Billy swims to save Norman. We end darkly on a diminuendo as they cling for life to a rock.

“Father-Daughter Relationship (Chelsea & Norman)” reveals Ethel exhorting Chelsea to talk to Norman and end the acrimony. Piano figures and a string sustain speak of her trepidation, but give way to the B Phrase of the Main Theme as she goes to her father. At 0:43 dialogue between the two enters. At 2:57, she resolves to do a back flip to earn his love. The Lake Song Theme carries her with confidence to the floating dock, joined by lush strings to crown her as she completes the back flip! We flow seamless atop the theme into “Season’s End (Ethel & Norman)”, joined by dialogue between Norman and Ethel. Norman lifts a heavy box of china, suffers an attack of angina and falls to the ground. They both fear the end has come, but the nitroglycerin medicine ends the attack and he recovers. At 3:26 the haunting cooing of the loons bid them farewell as they take one last gaze at their beloved lake. We segue seamlessly into “On Golden Pond (Epilogue)” and as we behold the magnificence of autumnal colors we are graced with a sumptuous and tender reprise of the On Golden Pond Theme, which brings a quiver, and a tear to conclude the film as the end credits run.

Having only been previously available on LP and cassette, Varèse Sarabande finally issues the On Golden Pond soundtrack on CD in 2017. The re-mastering provides an exceptional listening experience, although the inclusion of dialogue remains a qualitative problem, which demands a future recording that liberates the score from these intrusive distractions. Grusin joins a small group of elite composers who managed to become part of cinematic history by creating an iconic melody of such supreme beauty as to become indelibly ingrained within the public’s collective consciousness. This immortal melody rightfully takes its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great film score melodies. Rare and precious is the composer who can capture melodically the emotional core of a film. Throughout the film he deconstructs the theme, using its pastoral and contemplative A Phrase and wistful B Phrase to flesh out the story’s emotions. The secondary themes for the hornpipe and lake just sparkle and exhilarate, exuding an irrepressible Joie de vivre. This intimate, small ensemble score achieves a perfect confluence with the film’s narrative and cinematography. The main theme is I believe, the finest in Grusin’s canon, and the score a gem of the Bronze Age, which I recommend you add to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link for the immortal Main Title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dc2BewSmV5E

Buy the On Golden Pond soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • On Golden Pond (Main Theme) (3:52)
  • First Call (Norman) (2:08)
  • Career Opportunities/Back Porch Confessional (Norman & Ethel) (6:08)
  • Illicit Sex Question (Norman & Bill Ray) (5:07)
  • New Hampshire Hornpipe (2:28)
  • Lake-Song (3:40)
  • Early Bird (Ethel & Chelsea) (2:47)
  • Purgatory Cove (Norman & Billy) (4:46)
  • Father-Daughter Relationship (Chelsea & Norman) (3:58)
  • Season’s End (Ethel & Norman) (3:38)
  • On Golden Pond (Epilogue) (2:48)

Running Time: 41 minutes 10 seconds

Varese Sarabande 302-067-486-8 (1981/2017)

Music composed and conducted by Dave Grusin. Orchestrations by Dave Grusin. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Else Blangsted. Score produced by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen. 2017 album produced by Robert Townson.

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