Home > Reviews > THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN – Bear McCreary

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN – Bear McCreary

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

On the surface, a film about the man who wrote the first Oxford English Dictionary might not seem like an especially compelling narrative, but somehow director Farhad Safinia’s film The Professor and the Madman appears to have done just that. It is adapted from Simon Winchester’s acclaimed book The Surgeon of Crowthorne, and stars Mel Gibson as Professor James Murray, the Scottish linguist tasked with the creation of the tome. More specifically, it examines the friendship that developed between Murray and Dr William Chester Minor, an American amateur lexicographer who contributed tens of thousands of quotations to the book – despite the fact that he was an inmate at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where he had been sent after he had murdered a complete stranger in a fit of paranoia. The film has a superb supporting cast of great British character actors and Game of Thrones alumni – Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle, Ioan Gruffudd, Stephen Dillane, Steve Coogan, Anthony Andrews – and has an absolutely ravishing original score by Bear McCreary.

I honestly don’t know how Bear McCreary does what he does. In 2019 alone he has scored, or is scheduled to score, six feature films (this one, Happy Death Day 2U, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Rim of the World, Child’s Play, and Eli) and four episodic TV shows (The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Outlander, and Proven Innocent), and may well sign up for something else before the year is out. It’s been a quite astonishing decade or so for the former protégé of Elmer Bernstein, who first came to prominence on the Battlestar Galactica TV reboot, and has since grown to become one of the most popular, acclaimed, and busy composers working in media music. A large part of McCreary’s popularity has stemmed from his work on a number of projects in the fantasy, sci-fi , and action genres, which has resulted in him being given very few opportunities to write straight dramatic music in the classical idiom. This is something that needs to change because, if The Professor and the Madman is an example of the type of music he’s capable of producing for that style, then we are clearly missing out on something special.

The score is McCreary’s personal interpretation of the music from late 19th century England, with all the precision and classicism that suggests, and with special emphasis on composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Hubert Parry, and Gustav Holst. The music is built around four recurring themes, each with specific orchestral timbres associated with it. The overarching main theme is a wonderful, sweeping piece for the full orchestra, elegant and passionate and full of period grace. The first of the three character themes is for Professor Murray, and is an undulating ostinato carried by Eric Byers’s rich, expressive cello. Dr Minor’s theme is more frantic, a little frenzied, the product of a chaotic mind, and is built around a number of sizzling violin solos by Sandy Cameron. The final theme is for Eliza Merrett, the widow of the man Dr Minor murdered, and is a more understated, fragile theme for harps and woodwinds, with an especially notable part for bassoons. As the score develops, the music rises to embrace these recurring themes on a regular basis: sometimes they are heard individually, and sometimes they play contrapuntally, as characters meet and interact and impact on each other’s lives.

The opening cue, “The Professor and the Madman,” is a simply glorious setting of the Main Theme and Murray’s Theme heard in tandem, performed with all the vitality and sumptuousness one would expect from a film like this. As it develops the Main Theme almost comes across like a dance, perhaps a waltz, mirroring the privileged period sensibility that the English intelligentsia enjoyed at the time, and I especially like the way McCreary allows the melody of the theme to move between strings and woodwinds as it unfolds, keeping the sound varied and interesting. The dramatic string counterpoint that emerges from underneath the main theme at 3:22 is especially luscious.

The Main theme and Murray’s theme often play simultaneously, and are heard frequently, in cues such as “The Murray Family,” “Aardvark to Zymurgy,” “Finding the Pamphlet,” “A Collaboration and Friendship,” and the unexpectedly tragic and emotional “Diploma”. The addition of light, dainty woodwinds give “The Murray Family” a pastoral edge, while the performance of Murray’s theme independently in the gently romantic and whimsical “Snowball Fight” is a highlight.

Minor’s theme, anchored by Sandy Cameron’s schizophrenic and impressionistic violin textures, emerges during “The Murder of George Merrett,” a dark and ominous piece of action and suspense that underscores the pivotal moment of Minor’s life – when he, in a moment of paranoid delusion, murders a man he mistakenly believes is trying to break into his home. The string writing is frantic and agonizing, and is underpinned by a relentless, chugging rhythm that carries Minor to his fate. The final moments of the cue also introduce the hints of Eliza’s harp and woodwind textures for the first time, as the wife mourns her slain husband. Later cues such as “Broadmoor Asylum” and “Minor Begins” build further on Minor’s theme; the former is a dour, ominous piece that depicts the less-than-pleasant conditions inside a Victorian mental asylum, and is especially striking.

Eliza’s theme gets a few moments in the sun in “Eliza Merrett” and “Wider Than the Sky.” The former is a quite dark and tragic-sounding piece which surrounds her specific instrumental textures with serpentine string figures and distant, haunted-sounding orchestral effects that speak to her sense of loss and loneliness. The latter is similarly reflective and solemn, but is clever in the way that it combines with Murray’s theme, and seemingly allows her orchestrations to carry his melody from time to time. “Minor Meets Murray” is also interesting as it pits Murray’s cello ostinato against Minor’s prickly violins for the first time, while a beautiful woodwind variation on the Main Theme plays over the top of both and binds them together.

The final element heard in the score is “When I Am Dead,” two versions of which are heard in the final work. “When I Am Dead” was actually written by McCreary in 2015, and is a concert piece inspired by McCreary’s love of Christina Rossetti’s contemporary poem of the same name. McCreary was so taken with the words that he immediately set about setting them to music, for no other reason than his own personal creative gratification. Eventually, McCreary emerged with a lovely tone poem for piano, string ensemble, and mezzo-soprano, which was subsequently recorded with vocals performed by Melanie Henley Heyn. The piece is quite wonderful, ancient-sounding, with perhaps some hints of the Gaelic or Celtic music that McCreary often writes for Outlander, coupled with touches of medieval plainsong in the way each vocal passage concludes with a slight flourish in the back of the throat. In the film McCreary notes that the piece underscores a ‘sequence of scenes played almost like a montage, touching upon the emotional devastation felt by all three lead characters,’ which is just perfect. The soundtrack includes both the film version as well as a newly-produced recording of McCreary’s complete concert work.

The three cues that make up the score’s finale, “Autopeotomy,” “One Last Measure,” and “Turndown,” offer a series of extended explorations of the main themes, all of which are quite superb. The emotional statement of Eliza’s theme at the beginning of “Autopeotomy” is heartfelt. The cracked, anguished, distant-sounding version of Minor’s theme three minutes or so into the same cue feels like a tragic reflection of the broken mind of a genius; the more agitated and forthright statement that follows is breathless. The repeated woodwind versions of the Main Theme at the beginning of “One Last Measure,” each of which are coupled with mournful cello accents, set a mood of sorrowful self-reflection that continues throughout the subsequent 7½ minutes. The lush and evocative final versions of the Main Theme and Murray’s Theme are performed with gusto in “Turndown,” and end the score with a satisfyingly rich sweep.

Although he has written music for some pretty successful and popular movies over the past few years – titles like 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Happy Death Day spring to mind – and although he has written music for numerous popular TV shows, 2019 looks like being Bear McCreary’s breakout year, with everyone expecting his Godzilla score to knock people’s socks off. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that The Professor and the Madman will end up featuring prominently on many people’s end-of-year lists too. With perhaps one or two exceptions, we haven’t really heard McCreary write in the formal classical idiom before, where traditional orchestral beauty is one of the paramount concerns, in addition to the usual dramatic application of thematic architecture. For this reason, this score has immediately vaulted towards the top of my all-time favorite scores by the composer and, if you’re open to hearing his customary compositional and instrumental intelligence filtered through the lens of traditional English classical music, it may do the same for you.

Buy the Professor and the Madman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Professor and the Madman (4:50)
  • The Murder of George Merrett (3:22)
  • The Murray Family (1:38)
  • Broadmoor Asylum (2:26)
  • Aardvark to Zymurgy (3:57)
  • Eliza Merrett (4:45)
  • Finding the Pamphlet (2:47)
  • Snowball Fight (1:19)
  • Minor Begins (2:04)
  • A Collaboration and Friendship (4:12)
  • Minor Meets Murray (4:25)
  • Wider Than the Sky (2:45)
  • Diploma (2:16)
  • Autopeotomy (8:21)
  • When I Am Dead – Film Version (written by Bear McCreary and Christina Rossetti) (6:44)
  • One Last Measure (7:48)
  • Turndown (5:25)
  • When I Am Dead (written by Bear McCreary and Christina Rossetti, performed by Melanie Henlie Heyn) (5:22)

Running Time: 74 minutes 26 seconds

Sparks and Shadows (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Bear McCreary. Orchestrations by Sean Barrett and Benjamin Hoff. Featured musical soloists Eric Byers and Sandy Cameron. Additional music by Jason Akers. Recorded and mixed by Nick Spezia. Album produced by Bear McCreary.

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