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TRIUMPH OF THE SPIRIT – Cliff Eidelman

November 14, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Triumph of the Spirit is a 1989 Holocaust-themed drama, directed by Robert M. Young, based on a screenplay by Shimon Arama, Zion Haen, Andrzej Krakowski, and Laurence Heath. It stars Willem Dafoe and is based on the true life story of Salamo Arouch, a Jewish former Olympic boxer who is taken as a prisoner during World War II and sent to he Auschwitz concentration camp. While there, Salamo is literally forced to fight for his life, taking part in brutal boxing matches for the amusement of the guards, who threaten to murder his family if he refuses to fight. With only the love of his girlfriend Allegra (Wendy Gazelle) to sustain him, Salamo fights over 200 matches while in captivity – knowing that every person he defeats will be killed – all the while dreaming of the day that he and his loved ones would again be free. The film co-stars Edward James Olmos and Robert Loggia, and was heralded at the time for the fact that it was the first major film to actually be shot on location at the real Auschwitz. The other aspect of the film – and the most pertinent one to me – is the fact that its score was written by the then 24-year-old Cliff Eidelman.

Triumph of the Spirit was the fifth score of Eidelman’s career, following his debut work Magdalene in 1988, and the independent films Dead Man Out, To Die For, and Animal Behavior, all of which had been released earlier in 1989. Looking back on the beginnings of his career, it’s absolutely astonishing to see what he achieved at such a young age: he was only a few years out of high school, and had just graduated from studies at both Santa Monica City College and USC, and yet here he was conducting enormous orchestral and choral forces for major motion pictures. Within a few months he would have secured his first assignment for a big studio (1990’s Crazy People for Paramount), and by the summer of 1991 he was scoring Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. With that context in mind, having Triumph of the Spirit be even half way decent would be a bonus; for it to be this brilliant is nothing less than miraculous.

At the time, Eidelman’s score was criticized in the mainstream film review press, with both the New York Times and Rolling Stone calling it ‘intrusive’. This, of course, stands in complete opposition to my personal view, which is that the score is simply outstanding. It’s a large-scale multi-themed epic which gives weight and emotional impact to Salamo’s story. It uses traditional Jewish Sephardic and Greek instruments including guitars and mandolins, plus more unique sounds like the kanun or the santur (a plucked or hammered Middle Eastern zither) to speak to his cultural heritage, and combines them with a large orchestra and a large choir. Interestingly, the choir mostly sings Jewish liturgical texts translated into Ladino, a somewhat obscure linguistic cross between Hebrew and Spanish that Greek Jews in Spain and Eastern Europe spoke at the time. For most of the score the strings lead the standard orchestral ensemble, emoting with deep expression and heartfelt sentiment whenever Salamo’s story needs it.

There are a couple of recurring main themes that run throughout the score, the first of which is presented in the opening “Main Title”. This is a vibrant, exotic melody full of string and brass flurries, which becomes more sweeping and epic during its second half when the choir enters the proceedings. This main theme is absent for much of the score, but comes roaring back in the astonishingly beautiful “There Was a Memory,” in which Eidelman augments the melody with a rich and powerful chorus, makes more prominent use of brass, allows the mandolin to play a larger part, and builds through some melodramatic crescendos to a sweeping conclusion that Miklós Rózsa would have been proud of.

The second theme appears to be a love theme for Salamo and Allegra, although it also pulls double duty by acting as a way for Salamo to remember his home, something that nourishes him in his darkest moments. “Love in Wedlock” offers a tender, intimate statement of the love theme for strings, mandolins, and ethnic woodwinds, and also presents the first statement of a recurring 3-note motif that can be heard numerous times throughout the score. A subsequent statement in “Longing for Home” offers a rendition that is darker and a little more bittersweet, while in “Elena’s False Dreams” Eidelman gives us one of the score’s rare moments of contrapuntal thematic interplay, combining both the main theme and the love theme in a manner which is deeply heartfelt.

Much of the rest of the score, where these themes are not strongly present, is essentially an extended rumination on darkness, in which lamenting strings, mandolins, and mixed and varied choral ideas convey the tragedy and apparent hopelessness of Salamo’s life in Auschwitz. The writing makes excellent use of traditional-sounding Middle Eastern chord progressions that again speak to Salamo’s cultural heritage, while the choral writing makes use of a full range of voices, female and male, children and adults, lonely soloists and rousing choirs, as the need dictates. Cues like “Dark Tunnel to Auschwitz,” “Answer Us,” “Begging for Bread,” “The Mourning,” and “Mercy On Us” revel in this misery, while other cues such as “There Was a Time” and “It Was a Month Before We Left” offer slightly more thoughtful reflections, often making use of a recorder to convey a different emotional tone. Meanwhile, cues like “Avram Refuses to Work” and “The Slaughter” wallow in the darkest moments of horror and despair, often featuring more abstract textures for strings and brass, and the most anguished choral and vocal techniques.

“Salamo Desperately Finds Allegra” is a combination of the Tragic theme and the Love theme, a soul-searching lament which becomes massive as it develops and Eidelman allows the love theme to take over, clearly indicating that the love between these two characters is the heart of the story. “Allegra’s Punishment” is a soulful version of the main theme, which segues into “A New Assignment” where the main theme is presented with a little more positivity and optimism. The penultimate cue, “Death March,” pulls no punches with its musical depiction of the utter desperation of life in Auschwitz, as the orchestra and the Middle Eastern solo instruments and the choir combine with deeply tragic results. Thankfully, Eidelman allows the main themes to return with a more hopeful note in the epic 7-minute finale “Epilogue/End Credits,” which provides a fitting emotional coda to the story.

Triumph of the Spirit is a score which is unashamedly manipulative, and is expressly designed to wring every last drop of tragedy-laden sentiment from its audience. It’s also at times deeply beautiful, albeit in a depressing way, with themes that never shy away from depicting the horror of Auschwitz and the terrible events that dominated Salamo’s life, but which also offer a glimmer of hope by reminding us all that love conquers hate even in these most nightmarish circumstances. Perhaps the score’s only drawback is something that might have even been beyond Eidelman’s control, and that is the quality of the orchestral performance and the recording itself – budget restrictions led to him recording the score in Italy with the Unione Musicisti di Roma Orchestra and Choir, and the sonic and technical limitations of that are sometimes apparent.

This one issue aside, Triumph of the Spirit is nevertheless an astonishingly accomplished score, rendered all the more impressive when you remember just how young Cliff Eidelman was when he wrote it. To have mastered this sort of musical depth so early in his career is nothing short of amazing, and it’s all the more frustrating to look back thirty years with the knowledge that his position in the upper echelons of Hollywood film scoring would have gone away within a decade. This is an essential title for anyone who needs to be reminded just what a masterful film composer Eidelman was – and could be again, if only someone would give him the opportunity to show it.

Buy the Triumph of the Spirit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:25)
  • Love in Wedlock (0:49)
  • Dark Tunnel to Auschwitz (1:53)
  • There Was a Time (1:45)
  • Answer Us (3:53)
  • Mi Dyo Mi (0:49)
  • Avram Refuses to Work (2:22)
  • Longing for Home (1:48)
  • A Hard Felt Rest (1:28)
  • Hell Realization (0:32)
  • Elena’s False Dreams (2:00)
  • There Was a Memory (4:26)
  • Begging For Bread (1:04)
  • The Mourning (2:13)
  • The Slaughter (2:15)
  • It Was a Month Before We Left (1:29)
  • Hunger (1:20)
  • Mercy on to Us (1:27)
  • Salamo Desperately Finds Allegra (3:27)
  • Allegra’s Punishment (1:36)
  • A New Assignment (1:44)
  • Death March (5:37)
  • Epilogue/End Credits (6:54)

Running Time: 53 minutes 27 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5245 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Cliff Eidelman. Performed by Unione Musicisti di Roma Orchestra and Choir. Orchestrations by Mark McKenzie. Edited by Kenneth Hall. Album produced by Cliff Eidelman.

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