Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE BIRTH OF A NATION – Joseph Carl Breil

THE BIRTH OF A NATION – Joseph Carl Breil

January 10, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1913 Director D. W. Griffith took interest in the 1905 novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. and believed it provided an opportunity to bring an epic tale to the big screen. He secured the film rights offering 25% interest in the film and would use his own production company to produce the film, with an initial budget of $10,000, which later ballooned to $100,000. Griffith would not only produce the film, but also direct, and collaborate with Frank E. Woods to write the screenplay. Casting caused controversy as Griffith used white actors in black face to play black and mulatto people, and only used real black people in expansive scenes where extras were required. For his cast Lilian Gish would star as Elsie Stoneman, and joining her would be Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron, Henry B. Walthal as Colonel Benjamin Cameron, Miriam Cooper as Margaret Cameron, Ralph Lewis as Austin Stoneman, George Siegmann as Silas Lynch, and Walter Long as Gus.

The film, which is divided into two acts, follows the fortunes of two families, which entwine through the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Period that followed it. The Stonemans have a daughter and two sons, and are an abolitionist family from the north, while the Camerons have two daughters and three sons, and are a wealthy family from the South, which support the Confederacy. The eldest Stoneman son falls in love with Margaret Cameron during a visit. Act One supports the lead up to the Civil War, the commencing of hostilities, the North’s victory, and the assassination of President Lincoln. One Stoneman son and two Cameron sons die in the war. In Act Two the family fortunes are followed during the Reconstruction period when radical Republicans exact harsh vengeance against the south, policies which spawn a backlash with the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. Great social tumult follows, with the southern whites reasserting dominance and control of their state governments, empowered by a KKK reign of terror. The film concludes with the dual marriages of Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron, and Elise Stoneman and Ben Cameron. The film’s controversy ignited social curiosity and resulted in a massive profit of about $60 million.

Director D. W. Griffith had hired Pennsylvania-born composer Joseph Carl Briel to write an original full score for the three-hour film, which at the time was unprecedented in America. Complications arose when Griffith, who was strapped for cash, made a later deal with Carli Elinor – a violinist and composer who was the concert conductor at the Miller, Loews State, Egyptian, and Carthay theatres in Los Angeles – to provide music for the film. While the LA premiere used the Elinor score, in the end it was Briel’s score that prevailed throughout the rest of the country and is now associated with the film. What attracted Griffith to Briel was that he had long been an advocate of films having original music, instead of the common practice of patching the musical soundscape with an assortment of pre-existing classical music pieces. In accepting the assignment Briel related;

“Just like opera – or a musical comedy – the feature film should have its own music. The story, the staging, the photography and the music should all be made to fit the other, and should not divert the minds of the audience for one moment by recollections of scenes, actions, pictures or tunes seen or heard elsewhere under other conditions. And the way to accomplish this is to have the author, director and composer all to get together and let the author and director tell the composer plainly, just exactly what they mean and seek to bring out in their production”.

In conceiving his score, Briel understood that he would have to interpolate a number of classical works to provide familiarity to the audience. As such he used passages from Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, Leichte Kavallerie by Franz von Suppé, Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven, and “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner, with the latter being used as a leitmotif during the ride of the KKK. He also used a number of traditional American folk songs and military anthems, including Dixie by Daniel Decatur Emmett, Maryland My Maryland by James Ryder, Bonnie Blue Flag by Harry McCarthy, Old Folks Home, the Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe, America The Beautiful by Katherine Lee Bates, The Star Spangled Banner, Hail To The Chief by Albert Gamse and James Sanderson, Where Did You Get That Hat by Joseph J. Sullivan, Camptown Races and Swanee River by Stephen Foster, In the Gloaming by Annie Fortescue Harrison and Meta Orred, and Auld Lang Syne, a Scottish traditional.

In terms of original themes, Briel provided seven primary themes which I could discern. Ben and Elise’s Love Theme offers a classic romance for strings carried by violins d’amore. It is not fervent or passionate in its articulation, but instead more formal and gentile. The African Theme is carried by woodwinds emoting a nativist sound, which flows over a soft and steady drumbeat. A ten-note declarative phrase is followed by two-note answering phrases. Austin Stoneman’s Theme offers a classic minuet-like dance, which is note rich and flows with a refined elegance and gentility. The Mulatto Theme offers a sad, yet aspirational expression, which speaks to the feelings of mixed-race people caught between two worlds, in which they are rejected by both. Plaintive woodwinds join with aspirational strings, which speak to feelings aching for acceptance. The Outrage Theme offers a grim and repeating fourteen-note construct rendered as an agitato, which speaks to the resentment and simmering anger of the South’s overthrown white antebellum culture. Flora Cameron’s Theme serves as her identity and emotes with a quintessential geminine beauty by joining of a youthful scherzando and valzer gentile. Lastly, the Abolitionist Theme emotes with nobility as a processione solenne. Briel clearly wished to impart a formal, stately and noble expression for the movement.

The only version of the film I could obtain did not have Briel’s score, but instead the non-original Carli Elinor score. As such I made a good faith effort to do my best to link the album cue to the actual film scene, whose sound I had muted. It is quite possible that the linkage may be imprecise. “Bringing the African to America” offers an intertitle “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” We open with the drums and ethnic woodwinds of the African Theme, which ends with a patrician flourish as we see black slaves dancing with delight for their aristocratic white owners. At 0:21 we segue into The Abolitionists” atop the Abolitionist Theme, which emotes as a noble processione soleenne as we see a local chapter meeting where they demand the freeing of the slaves. At 1:17 we segue into “Austin Stoneman” where we see this rising star of the U.S. House of Representatives attended to by his daughter Elsie. Briel supports with note-rich Austin’s Theme that offers noblese oblige with a refined minuet-like dance, which is note rich and flows with a refined elegance and gentility. We flow seamlessly into “Elsie Stoneman” in a new scene at her Pennsylvania home with her brothers, with Austin’s Theme sustained for an eloquent presentation. “The Old South” offers an arrangement of Stephen Foster’s spirited and energetic folk song “Camptown Races”. I was unable to discern the film scene to which this piece was attached.

“In the Southland” we move to Piedmont South Carolina, home of the Cameron family. Briel offers a beautiful set-piece for one of the score’s finest moments. The film offers an idyllic view of the white land owner class who present as refined and cultured gentlemen and ladies, while the slaves are seen happy and deferential in their servitude. Briel speaks to this antebellum culture with a beautiful free-flowing promenade adagio, which finds a perfect confluence with Griffith’s imagery. We open with an orchestral interpolation of the folk song Swanne River by Stephen Foster, which then develops with an original Briel composition. The piece graces us with a truly beautiful and elegant exposition worthy of anyone’s playlist. This is why I love film music. I believe this cue is attached to the film scene beginning 11:23 where we see the Cameron sons playfully running to and fro. “Boys at Play” offers a wonderful energetic score highlight. We open with playful woodwinds animato, which usher in a delightful scherzo. We then shift to a danza energico and conclude with a return to the scherzo.

“Cotton Fields” reveals slaves picking cotton in the fields and Breil creates an idyllic ambiance with solo oboe tranquillo with harp adornment, which ushers in an interpolation of the sad, yet tender British folk song “In the Gloaming”. At 2:16 we segue into the beautiful romance for strings in “Love Strain” atop sumptuous violins d’amore as we see Phil and Margaret strolling affectionately. “Stoneman Library/Lydia Brown” offers another score highlight with wonderful thematic interplay. It reveals Charles Sumner, the leader of the Radical Republicans in the Senate paying a visit to confer with Austin Stoneman in his library about the threat of the southern states to secede from the union should Republicans win the 1860 presidential race. Briel offers an impassioned and dramatic exposition of the Abolitionist Theme, which dominates the conversation. At 0:38 in a scene change to the adjoining room, the sad, yet aspirational Mulatto Theme enters as we see the mulatto house maid Lydia Brown cleaning and asserting her status in the hierarchy over a black maid. At 1:00 a beautiful danza triste with five-note phrasing joins for interplay. The two themes entwine as Charles Sumner upon departing shows his absolute disdain for Lydia, who is devastated given his fervent abolitionist rhetoric.

“Flag of the Confederacy” reveals the south has seceded and war is declared. We see Confederate officers and ladies at a gala ball celebrating what they believe will be a quick and easy victory over the north. Briel offers a confident rendering of the Confederate anthem “Bonnie Blue Flag”, whose dance-like rhythm speak of southern pride and determination. “Daybreak” opens with the military “Reveille” bugle call as we begin the Battle of Bull Run, a Confederate victory. At 0:24 we segue into the Confederate patriotic song Maryland My Maryland, which uses the same melody as the traditional Christmas hymn “Oh Christmas Tree”. We conclude with familial warmth and tenderness at 1:17 with “The Cameron Family” where we see the Cameron sons in their Confederate uniforms as they say their goodbyes to their father and sister. “2½ Years Later/Flora Cameron” offers a wonderful score highlight, which features an extended exposition of Flora’s Theme. It reveals Ben Cameron, who is at the front, has received a letter from his sister Flora, while she intern is at the same time reading a letter from him. Briel opens with a plaintive cello, which ushers in Flora’s Theme, a youthful scherzando with joie de vie from which is born at 0:39 a delightful valzer gentile that just sweeps you away with its grace and flowing rhythms.

“The Battle Between the States” offers the nine-minute score highlight, which features its finest battle cue. Briel whips his orchestra into a patriotic militaristic fury, unleashing Hell to support a montage of scenes, which reveal the horror and brutality of war. We again open with the “Reveille” bugle call that launches the onslaught of war propelled by a relentless assault by snare drums, trumpets militare, interspersed with anthems of both the Union and Confederacy, which interplay as they battle for supremacy. Ultimately the Union prevails and at 7:47 a sad sequence for the fallen enters atop a series of “Taps” solitary bugle calls as we bear witness to the horrific carnage brought by the war. “Lincoln’s Assassination” reveals him at the Ford Theater and we open with a statement of “Hail To The Chief”, which offers a dance-like and less formal rendering of the presidential anthem. At 0:40 we have a diminuendo of suspense as John Wilkes Booth moves in to assassinate President Lincoln. The harsh stinger at 1:15 supports the lethal shot, and as Wilkes leaps to the stage to try and escape Briel unleashes desperate flight music. At 1:45 strings affanato emote a molto tragico lament for the aftermath, and we close with a grim statement of the Abolitionist Theme.

“Starting the Ferment” reveals carpetbagger Silas Lynch stoking black anger to further his ambition to rule in a black run state. There are many minutes in the film which portray this, but the cue is only six and a half minutes long and offers a parade of several different themes, which I am not able to precisely and confidently link with film context. So, I will provide a generalized overview of the music. We open with confident trumpets, which usher in a festive dance. At 0:47 we flow into a delightful scherzando, which culminates with the return of the trumpet line. The fourteen-note Outrage Theme emerges at 1:31 and joins with the dance. At 2:03 we down shift to a slow more formal dance, which just takes off at 2:43 with an upbeat and vigorous energy. At 3:34 muted horns and celli usher in the Outrage Theme for an extended formal presentation. At 4:51 a retributive Abolitionist Theme reprises to I believe support a counter to the KKK by the northern carpetbaggers and free black citizens. At 5:25 we close with happiness and merriment as we see white KKK slowly regaining the upper hand.

“Rhapsodies of Love” offers a wonder romantic score highlight. It supports the resumption of post war romances between Ben and Elise, and Phil and Margaret. Briel provides a tender romance for strings, which offers some of the score’s finest writing. The adornment with harp and woodwinds pastorale offers a sumptuous and rewarding exposition. At 1:54 strings felice erupt with merriment for a delightful passage, before we close with a reprise of strings d’amore. “Election Day” would seem to support the formation of the Ku Klux Klan and subsequent rebellion by the aggrieved southern white culture against the intimidation by carpetbagger Silas Lynch and black mob rule. White women sow white hooded robes adorned with the red cross of St. George as an emblem of the rebellion that will empower the return of white sovereignty. We open with a festive danza festive, which yields ay 0:51 to the energetic agitato of the Outrage Theme, before concluding with the opening dance. At 1:47 we segue into “Aftermath” atop tension strings as the black soldier Gus proposes marriage to Flora as she fetches water in the forest. She is taken aback and at 2:31 makes a desperate flee carried by strings of flight. She is corned on a cliff and at 3:08 repeating crescendos of panic speak to her terror. At 3:46 a final crescendo of desperation commences, yet never culminates as she falls off a cliff and dies in Ben’s arms supported by molto tragico strings. We close with an angry pursuit as Gus is hunted down, lynched, and then his corpse left at Silas Lynch’s door.

“Riot in Master’s Hall” reveals a final battle between the black militia and the KKK with the KKK triumphing and liberating Elise and the other white hostages. We open with a bright and confident danza energico that yields at 1:22 to aggrieved strings, which usher in the Outrage Theme. At 2:13 we segue into “The Grim Reaping Begins” atop a crescendo militare for a spirited exposition. A woodwind and string bridge ushers in a drum empowered Outrage Theme at 3:05, which unfolds for an extended dramatic exposition to complete the cue. In “Ride of the Klansmen” Briel employed Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valkyries” from the opera “Die Walküre” as an anthem for the KKK. Anytime you saw the mounted KKK army this anthem was used to empower their rides and attack. Briel arranged the piece and added drum militare to empower its emotive power. At 2:11 we segue into “Triumph”, which offers the definitive Confederate anthem “Dixie”, which is given a celebratory exposition.

I commend Clyde Allen and Label X for re-recording Joseph Carl Briel’s masterpiece, “The Birth of a Nation”. This monumental effort constitutes the first time an original American score was composed to support an entire film, a seminal event in the history of the art form. The recording, performed in 1985, offers quality sound, but does not achieve 21st century qualitative standards. I found the listening experience, enjoyable. Briel, a staunch advocate for using original music for films, was tasked with supporting a three-hour film. While much of the music was indeed his handiwork, he nevertheless did utilize and interpolate pre-existing music from classical sources, as well as traditional American folk songs, and patriotic anthems. The album offers only 56 minutes of score, or a third of what was actual composed, so I am inclined to view this album as only a compilation of score highlights. One can discern immediately Briel’s mastery of his craft, of how fully he understands how to use music to empower and enhance the film’s narrative. Cues such as “Love Strain” with its sumptuous violins d’amore, “Stoneman Library/Lydia Brown” with its thematic interplay, “2½ Later/Flora Cameron” with its delightful scherzando and valzer gentile, and “The Battle Between the States” with its torrent of militarism, were all well-conceived, well executed, and in my judgment ensured Griffiths fully realized his vision. Folks, Briel’s composition constitutes a seminal event in the history of film score art in America, and although the film itself is rightly reviled today for its unashamed racism, his technical accomplishment cannot be overstated. I believe this score is essential for collectors and lovers of the art form and highly recommend the album for purchase.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a five-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s9GNwTcmrA

Buy the Birth of a Nation soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Bringing the African to America/The Abolitionists/Austin Stoneman/Elsie Stoneman (4:00)
  • The Old South (Camptown Races) (0:54)
  • In the Southland (3:30)
  • Boys at Plat (1:21)
  • Cotton Fields (In the Gloaming)/Love Strain (3:05)
  • Stoneman Library/Lydia Brown (3:30)
  • Flag of the Confederacy (Bonnie Blue Flag) (0:57)
  • Daybreak/The Cameron Family (1:55)
  • 2 1/2 Years Later/Flora Cameron (2:12)
  • The Battle Between the States (9:08)
  • Lincoln’s Assassination (3:05)
  • Starting the Ferment (6:20)
  • Rhapsodies of Love (2:57)
  • Election Day/Aftermath (4:32)
  • Riot in Master’s Hall/The Grim Reaping Begins (5:40)
  • Ride of the Klansmen & Triumph (2:55)

Running Time: 56 minutes 01 seconds

Label X LXCD-701 (1915/1995)

Music composed by Joseph Carl Briel. Conducted by Clyde Allen. Performed by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Joseph Carl Briel. Recorded and mixed by Wes Dooley. Score produced by Joseph Carl Briel. Album produced by Clyde Allen.

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