Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the voyage of explorer Christopher Columbus, who set sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain, and on October 7th 1492 became the ‘first European’ to ‘discover’ the Americas. Hollywood was quick to acknowledge this event, and one of the films that was commissioned was this one: Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, which was directed by John Glen, and starred Georges Corraface as Columbus, alongside Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck, Rachel Ward, and a then 20-year old and undiscovered Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film is, of course, a complete hagiography, celebrating Columbus’s life and achievements while overlooking the fact that in reality Columbus was a terrible, vicious, murderous idiot who was directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of natives, never actually set foot on the American mainland, never once realized that he wasn’t in India instead of the Bahamas, and anyway had likely been beaten across the Atlantic by Leif Eriksson and the Vikings, who had established settlements in what is now Newfoundland 500 years previously. But that’s all by the by.

To say that Christopher Columbus: The Discovery was a troubled production is an understatement. It’s original director, George P. Cosmatos, was replaced by John Glen shortly before shooting began; in the wake of Cosmatos’s departure its two main stars, Timothy Dalton and Isabella Rossellini, who were due to play Columbus and Queen Isabella I, also left, resulting in Corraface and Ward coming in to replace them at very short notice. Then the production also found itself racing against a competing project, Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise; this film won the race to hit theaters first, but it needn’t have bothered – the film was a critical flop and a commercial disaster, grossing just $8 million against its $42 million budget.

None of this seemed to affect the film’s composer, though. The music was written by Cliff Eidelman, fresh off the success of his 1991 score for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and he responded to the film with one of the best scores of his career, music that vastly outshines the movie it accompanies, and which celebrates and venerates Columbus and his journey as noble and heroic, as per the prevailing wisdom at the time. The score was recorded in Washington with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, plus a large mixed-voice choir for the many cues of religious reverence and glorification, and it’s just superb, a multi-thematic and powerful epic. The performance by the Seattle orchestra does occasionally come across a little flat, but what it lacks in oomph it more than makes up for with Eidelman’s magnificent writing.

The score is built around several recurring themes and ideas, many of which perform sequentially and/or contrapuntally as the score progresses, before finally coalescing into a piece of unrivaled majesty during its epic conclusion. The themes for Columbus himself, and his pioneering seafaring spirit, are introduced in the opening cue, “The Great Sea”. It’s never entirely clear which theme is which as they tend to follow each other around throughout the score, but the one that appears to be for Columbus personally is the lyrical woodwind motif that begins at the outset of the cue – thoughtful, perhaps a little mysterious – while the other Discovery theme is the broader, more heroic theme for brass that begins at 0:48.

The fact that these two themes more often than not play sequentially indicates that Eidelman felt the two concepts were inseparable elements of Columbus’s personality. In the opening cue these two themes are bisected by a rich, flighty brass fanfare of regal nobility that appears to represent the Spanish monarchy that funded Columbus’s voyage, and is accompanied by some wonderful percussion ideas – notably rattling tambourines – which give the music a flavor of the renaissance befitting the time period and setting.

These two themes dominate much of the score. Both Columbus’s theme and the Discovery theme play under “Come O Come Emanuel,” which is Eidelman’s lovely new setting of the ancient liturgical hymn ‘Veni Veni Emmanuel,’ which was written over 1,000 years ago by monks celebrating advent and Christmas. Eidelman’s recurring action motif is then introduced in “The Broken Cloud,” which begins in a darker and more ominous vein, churning strings and haunted horns, before erupting into a throbbing, staccato action sequence for tempestuous trumpet cascades and slashing percussion, the textures of which remind me of Patrick Doyle’s Henry V. This eventually gives way to a flamboyant arrangement of the Discovery theme full of pageantry, and then the first performance of the lyrical woodwind-led love theme for Columbus and his mistress, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.

“Never Forget” arranges the themes prettily for woodwinds, strings, and strummed guitars, with a dance-like delicacy that is just lovely, while the more subdued “Spain Defeats the Moors” arranges the themes with a hint of trepidation, but still remaining in the invitingly tonal world that Eidelman’s music always inhabits. “Houses of Gold” returns to the lush fanfares of earlier in the score as Columbus secures the funding he needs to mount his voyage from Queen Isabella’s new horde of acquired wealth, and this leads directly into “The Voyage,” which accompanies Columbus and the various crews of the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María as they leave port and head east out into the open sea. This sequence contains massive, celebratory, fully orchestral statements of Columbus’s theme and the Discovery theme, full of promise, optimism, and militaristic bravado.

Of course, once the ships are out on open water and thousands of miles from home, reality kicks in, and the cues “Mutiny on the Bounty,” the more hopeful “Remembering Home,” and “Saint Elmo’s Fire” underscore the terrible conditions onboard, the mutinous thoughts of the crew, and the longing they feel for the homes they left behind. Eidelman returns to his dark and imposing action motifs frequently throughout much of this sequence, and offsets them against ominous religious chanting, and extended sequences of brooding orchestral dissonance, as well as more references to the two main themes. Just when all seems lost the crew finally spots land and the music erupts into the joyous relief of “The Discovery (Gloria),” which sets the lyrics of the ancient hymn ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ – which many will recognize this from the more modern carols ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ or ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ – to rapturous statements of both main themes.

Eidelman’s music for “The New World,” is lush and evocative, mysterious and ancient sounding, and places the two main themes in a new arrangement featuring tribal percussion, breathy native pan flutes, and gorgeous cascading string and woodwind textures that illustrate the unspoiled natural beauty Columbus and his men experience as they explore the islands. Unfortunately, “Alvarao’s Fatal Act” causes problems, and Eidelman responds to the deadly drama with another superb performance of his menacing action music, more dark brass motifs and insistent snare drum riffs.

After surviving a “Storm” – the Discovery theme surrounded by toiling, tempestuous orchestral chords – the ships finally return home, and in the conclusive “A Hero’s Welcome (Epilogue)” Eidelman lets rip with one of the most satisfying finale cues of his entire career, massive, rousing, thrilling statements of the two main themes that celebrates Columbus’s news of the new world with all the glory and power he can muster. The statement of the Regal Fanfare that begins at 3:46 is breathless and anticipatory, and when it finally gives way to the huge performance of the Discovery theme at 3:53 – huge orchestra, cymbal clashes, timpani hits, even a gong – the effect is stunning. I am usually covered in goosebumps by this point. But there’s still several minutes of music to go after this high point, including a gorgeous pan flute statement of Columbus’s theme, before Eidelman finishes the cue with a thrilling fanfare of enormous grandeur that is supremely satisfying. There are a lot to choose from, but these seven minutes might represent my all-time favorite Cliff Eidelman music.

Even though the legacy of Christopher Columbus himself has diminished over the years – and rightly so, considering the atrocities he committed, and the destruction he wrought over the American continent – and even though the film itself may be a tawdry mess, this music should not suffer the same fate. For me, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery represents Cliff Eidelman at his absolute best; when he was writing themes of power and passion and deep emotion for full orchestras like this, he had few equals. Astonishingly, he was only 28 when this film came out, and he’s only 57 now, which means he should still be in the prime of his career, but he hasn’t scored a major film in well over a decade. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery is a prime example of why that fact is an absolute disgrace, and why I continue to hope that someone will re-discover his talent and give him the film music renaissance he so deserves.

Buy the Christopher Columbus: The Discovery soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Great Sea (1:35)
  • Come O Come Emanuel (traditional, arr. Cliff Eidelman, lyrics by J. M. Neale) (2:23)
  • The Broken Cloud (3:39)
  • Never Forget (2:00)
  • Spain Defeats the Moors (3:09)
  • Houses of Gold (1:07)
  • The Voyage (1:29)
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (3:17)
  • Remembering Home (1:31)
  • Saint Elmo’s Fire (4:07)
  • The Discovery (Gloria) (traditional, arr. Cliff Eidelman) (3:03)
  • The New World (3:22)
  • Alvarao’s Fatal Act (2:17)
  • Storm (1:02)
  • The Return (0:41)
  • A Hero’s Welcome (Epilogue) (7:27)

Running Time: 42 minutes 09 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5389 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Cliff Eidelman. Performed by The Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Mark McKenzie and William Kidd. Recorded and mixed by Doug Mountain. Edited by Robin Eidelman. Album produced by Cliff Eidelman.

  1. Tyron young
    November 1, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    I love that score by cilf eieldelmem I brought that soundtrack when the film came out I thought it was one of the best scores of that decade…it deserves a expanded full edition…….please make it possible. Sincerely yours t young

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