Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS – Bernard Herrmann



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Orson Welles had for some time desired to bring Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons to the big screen, a story that offered a wistful view of a dying American aristocracy. In order to gain RKO studio backing, he renegotiated his contract and granted the studio final cut rights. With their blessings, he oversaw production with a $854,000, which ballooned to over $1.18 million. He would also write the screenplay, and personally direct the film. A fine cast was assembled, which included Joseph Cotton as Eugene Morgan, Dolores Costello as Isabel Amberson Minafer, Anne Baxter as Lucy Morgan, Tim Holt as George Amberson Minafer, Agnes Moorhead as Fanny Minafer, and Orson Welles as the narrator.

The story is set in the wanning years of the 19th century in the American Midwest. A dashing and charismatic Eugene Morgan seeks the hand of wealthy socialite Isabel Amberson, but she rejects him and instead marries Wilbur Minafer who is dull, unloving, but who provides her luxury and security. The only child George grows up to be insufferably spoiled. After Wilbur dies, Eugene returns to town a wealthy businessman and widower, and he again proposes to Isabel. She accepts only to have George and his crazy aunt Fanny sabotage the union. Yet George in the end is himself undone when a series of misfortunes strike the family. Orson Welles was in South America for the initial screening of the 131 minute film, which was poorly received by the test audience. In a desperate attempt to save the film, a significant fifty minutes was cut and an alternative happy ending substituted as it was felt the movie was too long, too dense and too somber. Despite this, the film was a massive commercial failure losing RKO $620,000. Critical reception was mixed, however it did earn four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress. Today the film is universally highly regarded and in 1991 the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation.

Director Orson Wells had long admired Bernard Herrmann from his radio work at CBS. He selected him for his first film, “Citizen Kane” (1941), offering effusive praise for the finished score. There was never any doubt the he would again select Herrmann for the film. Upon viewing the film Herrmann understood that this was a film that speaks to the passing of one age to another, the slow death of privileged American aristocracy as it witnesses the transformative industrial revolution. The elitist Amberson family cannot forestall the resultant societal shift from horse carriage culture to the modern age of automobiles.

In terms of his soundscape, foremost is Herrmann’s interpolation of “Toujours ou Jamais, Opus 156” (1880) by Emile Waldteufel, a waltz which would be used for his main theme. The theme is the embodiment of the aristocratic Amberson family and the cultural sensibilities and privilege they represent. The theme is pervasive, nostalgic, and gradually loses coherence as the movie progresses, thus speaking to the end of an era as their way of life passes. Herrmann poured his soul into his third career score, yet it in the end it would be for naught, bringing him much distress. Regretfully a test audience reaction viewing of the film was unfavorable and so studio executives panicked, and trimmed its running time from 133 minutes to 88 minutes. This not only disrupted the film’s narrative flow, but also resulted in almost 50% of Herrmann’s score being mutilated. Adding salt to the wound, would be some new scenes that were filmed, which were scored by resident composer Roy Webb, who did not provide musical continuity. Herrmann was so incensed at how his score was handled, that he threatened legal action unless his name was removed from the film credits, which it was. Lastly, cues coded (*) contain music not found on the album.

We open with the RKO Radio Pictures studio logo followed by the film title, which are unaccompanied by music. Narration follows establishing the quaint setting of 1873 in the city of Indianapolis, and we flow into “Theme & Variations; George’s Homecoming”, a wondrous score highlight and woodwind lover’s dream come true. We open atop the Main Theme emoted by a wistful solo violin draped with harp glissandi. At 0:55 narration supports a montage of scenes revealing the steady evolution of fashion as a dancing flute joined by bubbling kindred woodwinds weave a tapestry of delight. At 1:33 narration pines for the old days carried by a wistful flute full of longing with twinkling accompaniment as we see the Amberson house draped with winter snow. Beginning at 1:45 the cue was dialed out of the film. The music becomes animated with a playful, almost comic dissonant energy, intended I believe to support a montage of scenes revealing Eugene’s repeated failed attempts to court Isabel. At 4:32 a new variation of the Main Theme joins a solo oboe with strings animato as we see Wilbur successfully courting Isabel, much to Eugene’s disappointment. At 5:12 a new variation of the Main Theme flows with dance-like energy as we see Wilbur and Isabel engaged as the women in town gossip at the frightful children they will have. In the end, they have only one child, George – a spoiled kid from Hell who eventually goes off to college. At 6:24 frenetic strings energico surging with energy as George returns to town from college. We close with a tender music box rendering of the Main Theme. The album cue offers Herrmann’s original conception with regretfully most of it dialed out during editing.

“The Last Ball” (*) reveals George returning home during the Christmas break of his sophomore year in college. Strings gentile weave a warm ambiance, joined by Luigi Boccherini’s Minuet from his String Quintet in E, Opus 13 No. 5. as George is introduced to the beautiful Lucy Morgan. They engage in pleasant conversation, but George is taken aback by the number of men Lucy seems to know. As she accepts an offer to dance, Herrmann supports with the Main Theme offered as a valzer gentile. We then shift to the festive dance rhythms of “At a Georgia Camp Meeting – A Characteristic March” by Kerry Mills as Eugene asks Isabel to dance. In “After The Ball” (*) we see Eugene and Isabel alone dancing, supported by the Main Theme rendered as a valzer romantico, while George and Lucy continue their pleasantries. The next day in “Snow Ride” George takes Lucy out on a sleigh ride in the country. Herrmann supports with a resplendent and glistening winter musical narrative alight with chimes, bells and glockenspiel. At 1:42 a descent motif supports the sleigh overturning and George and Lucy rolling down a hill. A solo oboe d’amore supports his embrace of her and kiss, interrupted by Eugene’s arrival. As they all walk to Eugene’s car for the ride home, the glistening winter motif returns for a second resplendent iteration. As they depart, they sing a Capella, the happy go lucky song “The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo” by Fred Gilbert.

“The Door; Death & Youth” opens with declarations by horns della morte as we see the Amberson house door with a black ribboned flower attached. Inside friends and family pay the respects at the open casket viewing, which Herrmann supports with a grim musical ambiance. The cue after 0:27 was attached to a scene edited out of the film and features a tin horned Main Theme brimming with confidence, which ends darkly. “Toccata” was conceived to support a scene where Eugene hosts George, Isabel, Fanny and Lucy at his factory, however, it was dialed out of the film. Herrmann created a modernist percussive toccata as we are dazzled by a free-form array of drums and metallic percussion. “Pleasure Trip” offers a delightful fluttering flute borne passage alight with dancing violins as Eugene drives Isabel and Fanny home. At 0:15 an oboe tenero led Main Theme, emoted as a woodwind pastorale, supports George taking Lucy home in a horse drawn carriage. He continues to press her for an engagement, but she deflects his urgency. We segue into “Prelude” as they quarrel, over George’s refusal to join a profession, preferring instead a life of leisure as a wealthy gentleman. Herrmann sow unease and drapes us with dark auras of disappointment as we see that Lucy’s vision of the future seems incompatible with George’s.

“First Nocturne” offers a wondrous score highlight, which features an exquisite violin solo by Neville Taweel. It reveals George, Isabel and Fanny sitting on the veranda. Isabel departs as it is cold, and Fanny and George get into an argument regarding Isabel’s feelings towards Wilbur. Herrmann throughout his career wrote beautiful nocturnes and this one is no exception, offering one of the score’s finest moments. Taweel offers a rapturous violin solo supported by a chorale of alto flutes and four violas. Interspersed are solos for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. The concluding passage of the Main Theme of violin with harp adornment is sublime. This is film music at its finest. “Garden Scene” reveals Eugene sitting with Isabel in the garden, and urging her to disclose their relationship to George. An aching oboe triste and tremolo strings bathe us in sadness as we see that Isabel is hesitant, if not afraid to speak to George.

“Fantasia” Reveals George encountering Fanny on the stairs where she discloses the rumors about his mother and Eugene, which elicits his fury. We open darkly atop a foreboding bassoon and a retinue of woodwinds that offer a grim musical narrative, which fills us with disquiet. We conclude with a surge of anger as George storms out the house, intent on confronting his neighbor Mrs. Johnson. “Scene Pathetique” offers a dire musical narrative, with a surge of latent anger. It reveals George learning of rumors that his mother was once engaged to Eugene, still has feelings for him, and may soon marry him. When Eugene arrives for a date driving in the country, George angrily refuses to announce his arrival, says he is not welcome in their house, and then slams the door in his face. “Waiting 1 and 2” reveals the aftermath of George’s anger as he lies to his mother as to who was at the door. He departs as she patiently waits for Eugene to arrive. Herrmann offers a forlorn musical narrative with foreboding undercurrents borne by woodwinds tristi and strings melancholia.

In “Ostinato” George sees his uncle take Isabel into the study to inform her of George’s interference. George is furious and descends to confront them, only to be blocked by an equally determined Fanny. Herrmann supports with a foreboding musical narrative with repeating and answering triplet figures full of anger. At 0:55 violins of woe join the triplets and we conclude darkly as George relents and returns upstairs. The next two related cues offer supremely beautiful romantic score highlights. “First Letter Scene” reveals Eugene writing a heartfelt letter to Isabel regarding the challenge to their future together posed by George. We open with sadness by low register strings, which usher in a stunningly beautiful romance for strings. At 2:29 the music darkens as George comes to Isabel’s room having also read Eugene’s letter. He remains opposed and we see her clearly sad and conflicted. “Second Letter Scene” reveals that Isabel has chosen to defer to George’s wishes. She writes a letter to Eugene explaining this, advises him of her intent to travel abroad with George, and slips the letter under his bedroom door to read before she mails it. Woodwinds tristi usher in an aching pathetique for strings revealing her heartbreak of knowing that for the second time in her life she will lose Eugene. The Romanza part of the cue after 1:43 is attached to a later scene.

George and Isabel have been away on a world tour for five years. In “Second Nocturne” we have yet another sublime score highlight. The Major and Fanny converse about the changing times and how Isabel’s letters relate her weariness and desire to return home. Herrmann once again graces us with an achingly beautiful nocturne, which features an exquisite solo cello performance by Henry Wenig. In my judgement, the tear evoking romanticism of this cue stands as one of the finest compositions in Herrmann’s canon. “Romanza” reveals Jack returning home from Paris with news of his visit with George and Isabel. He relates to them Isabel’s declining health, her homesickness and subjugation by George. Herrmann supports with a molto tragico iteration of the Main Theme, which speaks of Isabel’s profound melancholia. Isabel and George return, but she is too weak to walk and so George carries her and places her in the carriage. As they travel, she gazes out and remarks how much everything has changed. Eugene visits but is again refused permission by George to see Isabel, which he brushes off, proceeding to walk upstairs. Yet he is dissuaded by Fanny and Jack and so agrees to return later.

In “Departure” Eugene departs with a heavy heart, and George visits Isabel in her bedroom. Herrmann supports with a molto tragico statement of the Main Theme, which is almost unrecognizable, having lost all its vibrancy and joy. She pines for Eugene and is saddened when George admits that he was here but left. She states that she would have like to see him once more. We flow into “Isabel’s Death” with an eerie, otherworldly musical narrative of death as George finds the Major, Jack and Fanny in his bedroom. She hugs George and says “She (Isabel) loved him.” In “First Reverie” narration by the Major’s thoughts speak of the end of things, his disillusionment with his life as he is filled with regrets. Herrmann offers a musical narrative filled with a profound sadness and pathos of regret from which a wistful Main Theme joins. At 1:15 we segue into “Second Reverie” a molto tragico rendering of the Main Theme as the Major speaks of a mystical family reunion. The Major follows Isabel unto death, their deaths taking the last of the Amberson fortune with them, leaving Jack, Fanny and George, destitute.

Jack says goodbye to George at the train station, promising to send money as soon as he earns it. They part on good terms as George ponders his future. “Garden Music” reveals Lucy and Eugene walking in the mansion’s garden as she tells him tales of her trip to India. Herrmann supports with a solo organ performance by Janet Perkins, who plays a wistful rendering of the Main Theme, which plays unobtrusively below the dialogue. “The Walk Home” reveals George walking home for the last time, through a town he no longer recognizes. Herrmann creates an eerie surreal soundscape, which speaks to George’s alienation from modernity, his inability to acclimate to life’s progress, and the loss of the life he once knew. A profoundly sad musical narrative voices his despair and desolation. At home Fanny discloses that she lost all her money in investments and has only $28 to her name. He ascends the stairs to his mother’s bedroom, kneels and performs penitence, asking her and God to forgive him – securing at long last, his comeuppance.

“Elegy” opens ominously with dire horns as we read a newspaper article disclosing that George had broken both his legs in a work accident. At 0:14 we see Lucy at home with Eugene where she asks if he was going to help him. After no response, she advises that she is going to visit him. The music emotes from Eugene’s perspective, and Herrmann sow a dark musical narrative with latent anger, and elegiac Main Theme by bass, which speaks to his visceral dislike of George. Yet, he overcomes this and he joins Lucy to visit George in hospital. “End Title” offers a wondrous score highlight. Orson Welles speaks the end and cast credits supported by a sumptuous, harp adorned, romance for strings. We conclude with an ethereal coda of the Main Theme, which ends grandly in a flourish.

I wish to commend John Lasher for the long-sought re-recording of Bernard Herrmann’s masterpiece, “The Magnificent Ambersons”. The audio quality is excellent as is the performance of the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Tony Bremner. Studio executives severe editing of Welles’ film mutilated Herrmann’s score and musical storytelling. Yet thanks to the album’s creative team, Herrmann’s original conception has been brought to life. To support the storytelling, Herrmann chose to score the film with a chamber music like sensibility that created intimacy using small ensembles, which featured exquisite soloist performances. Neville Taweel’s wondrous violin solo in “First Nocturne” and Henry Wenig’s sublime cello solo in “Second Nocturne” reveals a stirring romanticism not usually associated with Herrmann. These tear evoking cues, along with “First Letter Scene”, Second Letter Scene” and “Romanza” offer some of the finest romantic compositions in Herrmann’s canon, elevating this score as one of his finest. The film offered a narrative, which featured the intersection of powerful emotions, and in scene after scene Herrmann’s music achieved a breath-taking confluence. In my judgement this score joins “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and Jane Eyre” as one of Herrmann’s most eloquent, evocative and romantic of his illustrious career. I highly recommend you purchase this album as an essential score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful ten-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEFqYB9CkKI

Buy the Magnificent Ambersons soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme & Variations; George’s Homecoming (07:18)
  • Snow Ride (03:05)
  • The Door; Death & Youth (00:56)
  • Toccata (01:12)
  • Pleasure Trip (01:06)
  • Prelude (01:30)
  • First Nocturne (04:08)
  • Garden Scene (01:14)
  • Fantasia (02:11)
  • Scene Pathetique (02:19)
  • Waiting 1 and 2 (01:32)
  • Ostinato (01:52)
  • First Letter Scene (03:25)
  • Second Letter Scene; Romanza (02:12)
  • Second Nocturne (03:22)
  • Departure; Isabel’s Death (01:47)
  • First Reverie; Second Reverie (02:40)
  • The Walk Home (02:49)
  • Garden Music (02:59)
  • Elegy (01:23)
  • End Title (02:20)

Running Time: 51 minutes 20 seconds

Preamble Records PRCD-1783 (1942/1990)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Tony Bremner. Performed by The Australian Philharmonic Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Featured musical soloists Neville Taweel, Henry Wenig and Janet Perkins. Recorded and mixed by Robin Gray. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann and Dave Dreyer. Album produced by John Lasher.

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