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BLACK ROBE – Georges Delerue

September 16, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Black Robe is a historical drama-adventure directed by Bruce Beresford, adapted from the novel of the same name by Brian Moore. The film is set in Canada in the mid-1600s and stars Lothaire Bluteau as Father Paul LaForgue, a Jesuit priest tasked with founding a mission in New France – the precursor to modern-day Quebec. Faced with traversing a harsh wilderness, dealing with warring local tribes, the weather, and the wildlife, LaForgue enlists the help of a group of Algonquin natives, and together they set off across the vast Canadian interior, where all manner of adventures await them. The film co-stars Sandrine Holt, August Schellenberg, and Tantoo Cardinal, and was one of the most popular and successful Canadian films of the early 1990s. It went in to win six Genie Awards, including one for its spectacular cinematography, and drew favorable comparisons with similarly-themed films like Dances With Wolves and The Mission.

The score for Black Robe was by the great Georges Delerue, and was one of the final half dozen or so scores he wrote prior to his untimely death in March 1992. It was the fourth of the five collaborations between Delerue and Beresford, following Crimes of the Heart in 1986, Her Alibi in 1989, and Mister Johnson in 1990, and before Rich in Love in 1992. Delerue spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s scoring some quite bad and silly films, often comedies that were beneath a man of his stature, but once in a while an opportunity came for him to write something a little more serious and profound, and Black Robe is one of those. However, unlike those aforementioned similar films, the score for Black Robe is not full of sweeping landscape themes or overwhelming religious reverence; it does have some of that, but for the most part Delerue paints a portrait of an individual and his personal, intimate journey, rather than wowing the listener with majestic orchestral glory. It was recorded in Australia with the Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir, with special recorder performances by soloist Jacob Van Eyck.

There are three recurring themes weaving in and out of the score, but they don’t appear to have any specific leitmotivic application, and instead Delerue uses them to convey whichever emotion was necessary at the time, regardless of character or setting. I suppose you could generalize by saying that they are a ‘Main Theme,’ a ‘Love Theme,’ and a ‘Journey Theme,’ based on which cues they appear in first, but they are not as strictly defined as that, and the trio of themes crop up in different guises throughout the score. The Main Theme appears in the “Black Robe Main Title,” a solemn and melancholic piece with a touch of the renaissance in the chord progressions, and which features some darkly elegant writing for the strings of the orchestra. The Love Theme first appears in “Daniel and Annuka” and is carried by a lovely melody which begins on recorders before switching to oboe; again, much like the opening cue, it has a very old-fashioned feeling in its tone and structure, and at times it reminds me of something Ennio Morricone might have written for one of his period dramas. Finally, the ‘Journey Theme” is a more fulsome and emotionally intense theme, performed by larger orchestral forces, although again it has that lilting medieval sound that carried through the first two cues.

Several subsequent cues offer excellent restatements of these themes. “First Kiss” is a tender restatement of the love theme, this time beginning with a solo oboe before switching to recorder, backed by warm strings and harp textures. “Flashback, “Flagellation,” “Traveling,” the elegant and haunting “Chomina Decides to Go Back,” and the beautiful “The Escape” are equally effective in similar ways, while cues like “Conspiracy” present the themes accompanied by tribal percussion rhythms, giving them a different sound and an exciting edge.

Unusually for a late-career Delerue score, there’s also quite a bit of action and suspense music, often accompanying the various encounters LaForgue has with less-than-friendly native tribes or his travails in the wilds of the Canadian north, with its rugged weather and inhospitable geography. “Daniel Rescues LaForgue” is a mass of violent and forceful percussion. “Lost in Forest” uses darkly-hued woodwind textures, moody string sustains, and an apprehensive woodwind statement of the Journey theme to paint a rich picture of the dangers these explorers faced in these unknown lands. The subsequent “Hostile Country” continues much in the same vein, as does the quite dour “Chomina Prepares to Die”.

Perhaps the best action cue is “The Iroquois Attack,” during which Delerue releases the full intensity of the brass section for the first time, again accompanying some vivid clattering percussion. This leads into “The Natives Abandon LaForgue,” which begins with a sense of tragic beauty but eventually sees Delerue adding a level of dissonance and anguish to the score through his use of tremolo strings and quite harsh-sounding brass chords. There’s nothing here that matches the intensity of, say, “The Storm” from Joe Versus the Volcano, but the contrast between these cues and the more lyrical, romantic, and religioso main themes makes them successful in context.

The main themes each receive final statements in the trio of cues comprising “The Final Canoe Trip,” “LaForgue’s Farewell to Daniel and Annuka,” and “Taretendi and LaForgue,” which then lead into the final cue, “Libera Me,” the outstanding climax and the score’s high point. It is a magnificent aria with Latin lyrics sung by boy soprano Christopher Taplin, and is based on the main theme melody. It has the same reverential tone as the main theme from Agnes of God, while also harkening back to some of the music he wrote in the 1960s for historical dramas like Thibaud the Crusader and Anne of the Thousand Days, both which had echoes of medieval church music. There is a deeply spiritual and greatly emotional feel to this music, and every time Delerue went down this road, the end results were truly beautiful. Black Robe is no exception.

While both the film, the soundtrack, and some might say the composer himself, are today obscure and on the verge of being forgotten by the mainstream, Black Robe is nevertheless a score that should not be missed. The solemn, reverential tone of the score overall might not be especially exciting to those more in tune with contemporary Hollywood action music, but anyone who developed a love for Georges Delerue’s effortlessly beautiful melodic writing and his deep emotions would do well to investigate this late-career standout. Thematic beauty was the Frenchman’s stock in trade, and Black Robe is awash in it throughout.

Buy the Black Robe soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Black Robe Main Title (1:52)
  • Daniel and Annuka (1:47)
  • The Journey Begins (1:11)
  • Daniel Rescues LaForgue (0:56)
  • First Kiss (1:35)
  • Flashback (1:21)
  • Conspiracy (1:25)
  • Lost in Forest (3:18)
  • Flagellation (1:41)
  • The Journey Continues (0:44)
  • Traveling (0:29)
  • Hostile Country (1:21)
  • The Iroquois Attack (1:45)
  • The Natives Abandon LaForgue (2:17)
  • Chomina Decides to Go Back (0:50)
  • The Escape (2:36)
  • Chomina Prepares to Die (3:59)
  • The Final Canoe Trip (1:21)
  • LaForgue’s Farewell to Daniel and Annuka (1:06)
  • Taretendi and LaForgue (0:38)
  • Libera Me (5:02)

Running Time: 37 minutes 14 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5349 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by Georges Delerue. Performed by The Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir. Orchestrations by Georges Delerue. Featured musical soloist Jacob Van Eyck. Special vocal performances by Christopher Taplin. Recorded and mixed by Michael Stavrou. Edited by Dan Carlin. Album produced by Georges Delerue.

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