Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > BLACK NARCISSUS – Brian Easdale


September 26, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1946 director Michael Powell became aware of the 1939 novel Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden and decided that he wanted to bring its tale to the big screen. He purchased the film rights and secured financial backing from the British company General Film Distributors and a budget of $1.2 million. He and Emeric Powell would oversee production, co-direct, and write the screenplay. The film ended up creating controversy in the American Market with the National Legion of Decency, coercing several film edits deemed as “affront to religion and religious life”. Casting also caused controversy as once again white actors were cast in a number of roles for Indian characters. Deborah Kerr would star as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as Mr. Dean, Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, Flora Robson as Sister Philippa, Jean Simmons as Kanchi, and Sabu as the young General Dilip Rai.

In the late 1940s sisters from the British Anglican order Servants of Mary are invited by the General Toda Rai to setup a hospital and school in an abandoned palace in his Himalayan kingdom. Earlier an order of monks attempted this, and failed, but Sister Superior Clodagh is determined and sets off with four other sisters. Multiple problems arise related to culture, superstition and an emotionally unstable Sister Ruth who rebels and abandons the order due to lust for caretaker Mr. Dean. When she is rejected by him, she descends into madness, attempts to murder Sister Clodagh, and falls to her death in a struggle. Sister Clodagh admits defeat and she and the remaining three sisters depart just before the monsoon season arrives. The film was a commercial success, and critics praised its acting ensemble, and pioneering technical mastery in using of matte paintings for backdrops, which created stunning panoramas that ended up transforming film-making. The film earned two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger initially hired Brian Easdale to write an exotic dance set piece for a scene in which Jean Simmons performs a dance. They were very impressed with what Easdale provided that they extended an offer to score the entire film, to which Easdale agreed. Upon viewing the film Easdale understood that given the Himalayan setting, that he would have to infuse his soundscape with the requisite Oriental and Bharatiyan sensibilities, including the use of Tibetan horns, woodwinds esotica, and nativist drums which would be juxtaposed with the sisters’ English origins. The film’s unique and stunning visuals, and panoramas offered a wonderful canvass for musical accompaniment. Lastly, Easdale understood that he would need to speak to Sister Ruth’s tragic desire for love, whose rejection by Mr. Dean drives her to madness.

To support his soundscape, Easdale offered four themes, but for the most part preferred to fashion a tone poem, which instead spoke to the Himalayan setting and strong undercurrents of emotion. The four recurring themes were; The Himalayan Theme, which provides an ethnic tapestry borne by woodwinds esotica, strings and assorted nativist woodwinds and percussion. It established the unique windswept jungle setting at the top of the world. Kanchi’s Theme, serves as the identity of this rebellious seductress, which offered a dance-like solo flute esotica adorned with exotic percussion accents. The Madness Theme was brilliantly conceived and executed. Easdale used eerie wordless, otherworldly male and female voices with dissonant string figures to evoke the madness of Ruth. The Flashback Theme spoke to flashbacks by Sister Clodagh to her days prior to joining the sisterhood. Easdale employed ethereal wordless vocalists and string figures to juxtapose the past from the present. Lastly, traditional Christmas carols such as “The First Noel” and “Lullaby, Mine Liking” were used to support the celebration of the sacred holiday. Cues coded (*) contain music not found on the album.

“Black Narcissus Opening” offers a magnificent score highlight with a grand, vibrant and sparking musical narrative. It opens with massive Tibetan horns resounding over the renown snow crested mountains at the roof of the world. At 0:12 resplendent strings usher in the roll of the opening credits, which display against the grand Himalayan Mountain range. At 0:36 the vibrant and sparking musical narrative empowered by strings felice, which flow seamlessly at 0:46 atop strings romantico into Ruth’s idealized Love Theme. At 1:18 bubbling musical narrative by strings felice. We conclude grandly at 1:36 with bold declarations by horns maestoso to conclude the opening credits. “A New Convent in the Himalayas” offers a mesmerizing score highlight, which bathes us in the auras of an ancient land. Sister Clodagh is summoned by Mother Superior and is informed that she has been appointed Sister Superior and tasked with establishing St. Faith; a new convent, school and hospital in mountain crest palace of Mopu. Music joins to accompany narration by Mr. Dean, who describes the people, culture, geography, and caretaker of Mopu, Angu Ayah. Easdale supports with an exotic, ever shifting tone poem, replete with both men’s and women’s wordless choir, fluttering woodwinds and strings which flow like currents of winds that sweep over the palace. I found this an amazing composition.

“The Old General Arrives” (*) reveals the arrival of the owner of Mopu with his entourage, which includes Mr. Dean, propelled by Indian horns. He advises Ayah that nuns will soon arrive to establish a school and hospital, and that she is to assist, and take care of them. Ayah is resistant, but reluctantly obeys as he departs. She joins Mr. Dean in viewing an erotic tapestry and remarks about the irony of a convent being established in a former House of Women. Easdale supports by weaving a dancing musical narrative with woodwinds esotica. Back in Darjeeling Mother Superior assigns sisters Philippa, Briony, Ruth, and Honey to Sister Clodagh’s staff. When Sister Clodagh inquiries concerning Mother’s opinion of the assignment, she is jolted by her brutal honesty – that she does not believe Clodagh is mature enough for the assignment. The scene ends with Easdale bathing us in the ethereal religioso auras as she counsels Clodagh to foster dedication and hard work. “The Call To Prayer” (*) reveals Sister Clodagh ringing the call to prayer bell, which is contested by blasts of rival Buddhist Tibetan horns. Later at night Sister Clodagh struggles to sleep due to the incessant beating of nativist drums, which signal that the General’s son is ill.

“Construction” (*) offers a montage showing a cadre of workers making much needed repairs to St. Faith, which Easdale supports with vibrant spritely strings. Later, as they unpack and mount a statue of the Virgin Mary, patroness of the convent, warm strings felice create an ambiance of comfort. “Native Girl Kanchi” offers an exotic score highlight. It reveals a girl Mr. Dean has brought to the convent; a native girl called Kanchi. Easdale introduces her dance-like flute borne theme, which is adorned with exotic percussion accents. He admits that she is a problem child no one wants, and his hope is that Sister Clodagh can help “save her soul”. Wandering strings take up the melody as Sister Clodagh decides to accept the girl. At 0:32 and 0:40 woodwinds sardonici express Mr. Dean’s mischievous glances at Sister Clodagh as she inspects Kanchi’s body piercings. Sister Clodagh orders that sleeping accommodations be made for Kanchi, and we close with a reprise of her exotic theme as she departs. After 0:46, the remaining music of the cue is attached to a scene later in the film (Kanchi’s Dance).

In “Sister Philippa’s Discontent” (*), end of work day bells toll and Sister Clodagh joins Sister Philippa, who seems oblivious. She expresses her troubles and loss of spiritual serenity to Sister Clodagh, which Easdale supports with a dissonant ethereal musical narrative expressed by beleaguered strings and eerie woodwinds. Later as they pray in the Chapel in “Flashbacks # 1 and 2” (*) an ethereal wordless woman’s choir sings as Sister Clodagh watches vines dancing in the breeze. Men’s wordless choir joins to support a flashback to an Irish lake where we see her fishing with her beau Con. She relates to him that she wishes they could stay like this for the rest of their lives and the scene fades back to the present, and we see regret in her eyes. A barking dog triggers another flashback as we see a pack of hunting dogs in pursuit of a fox. Spirited hunting horns, wordless male chorus and a galloping musical narrative propel the scene as we see Clodagh and Con riding horseback behind hunting dogs through verdant fields. Yet the music dissipates as we again return to the present and Sister Clodagh’s vacant gaze.

“The Young General” (*) arrives in resplendent white garments and orders Ayah to bring the sisters as a wandering solo flute esotica plays in the background. He introduces himself and request he be enrolled so he might learn mathematics, physics, foreign languages and religion. Sister Clodagh declines, saying the convent only teaches children and girls. Yet he persists, is remarkably persuasive, and she relents. “Kanchi’s Dance” (*) reveals Kanchi alone in a room where she begins to dance, which Easdale supports with a seductive danza esotica. This was the composition, which landed Easdale the scoring assignment. The dance is interrupted when the young General is told to wait in the room and enters. Kanchi is flirtatious and her theme joins atop a flute seducente as he moves away with forced disinterest. As Sister Clodagh enters, strings of flight carry Kanchi’s run and exit at the other end of the room. “First Class” (*) reveals the Young General arriving for his first class supported by a spritely musical narrative borne by strings felice and fluttering woodwinds of delight. As we see the various classes, the music softens, warms atop strings gentile with woodwinds delicato adornment. We close with woodwinds waffling on the breeze as the Young General pulls out his handkerchief with what he describes as a “Black Narcissus” scent.

“Flashback #3” (*) reveals the sisters talking about the Young General’s many resplendent outfits, with today’s bearing emeralds. This triggers a flashback to Sister Clodagh receiving an emerald necklace with matching earrings from her grandmother to wear, with the promise that she will gift them when she marries. The Flashback Theme of ethereal wordless women’s voices and strings supports. She takes them off, the runs to meet Con at the door for their date, and we return to the present. “Mr. Dean Joins the Christmas Celebrations” reveals the sisters and children singing diegetically the traditional carol, “The First Noel”. Mr. Dean and the Young General arrive and Mr. Dean adds his male voice to the chorus. At 1:14 we flow into “Lullaby, Mine Liking” another traditional English Christmas carol, which supports a flashback of Clodagh and Con singing with other carolers. She is very moved when he gifts her a present, a lavender broach, which jolts her back to the present. The song shifts to a solemn orchestral rendering as the service is concluded and Sister Clodagh extinguishes the altar candles. She departs carried by the string borne melody and is joined by the Young General who thanks her for the birth of Christ. The scene ends with a harsh rebuke to an inebriated Mr. Dean who disrespects Jesus publicly.

“The Confrontation” (*) reveals Sister Clodagh reaching out to an increasingly troubled, and combative Sister Ruth. She is rebuffed and Ruth explodes in anger when her attachment to Mr. Dean is brought up. Music enters after Sister Ruth’s eruption as a swirling, dissonant string agitato figure attended by fluttering disquieting woodwinds. “The Spring” offers a beautiful score highlight. It opens with a montage of countless blossoming flowers of all colors and shapes, which Easdale supports with a paean of joy borne by strings felice and trilling woodwinds. At 0:19 prancing woodwinds delicato support little Joseph, who is carrying mail and packages, trek across a blossoming garden. Sister Ruth watches his progress intently and the music transforms into a descent motif joined by swirling strings as we see him running down a hill and into St. Faith. A new and sinister descent motif propels Sister Ruth down the stairs to greet him, where she rips a package addressed to her from his hands. At 1:01 we segue into “Kanchi Seduces Young General” where we see him arriving on horseback as Ayah brutally whips Kanchi for stealing. Ayah hands him the whip and departs and we see that he is taken in by her beauty. She uses her sexual allure to seduce the young man and Easdale supports the seduction with rising and falling phrases by strings seducente as she lays her head on his shoulder and he caresses her.

“Sister Ruth’s Wrath” reveals Joseph bringing Sister Ruth a glass of milk. He is afraid and approaches on guard supported by tentative woodwinds, which sow tension. She receives him full of menace, which scares him as he flees carried by a scurrying flute. She takes the glass and pours it out her window supported by a descent motif, only to discover Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean talking in the courtyard below. A crescendo furioso carries her angry run downstairs, yet it dissipates into a diminuendo of unease as she slowly makes her way to a balcony where she covertly observes the two together talking. Blasts by Tibetan horns (not on the album) resound. We segue into “Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean” (*) an emotional score highlight. We see her letting down her guard and opening up on how she once loved a man back in Ireland. A subtle romance for woodwinds unfolds as they share an intimate moment, juxtaposed in the film by a glaring Sister Ruth. Strings doloroso move to the forefront as she relates how Con abandoned her for a career opportunity in America, which led her to leave her homeland and join the order in England. She pines for the unrequited love of her youth, begins to weep, and we feel this heartache in the musical narrative. He offers her a handkerchief and she discloses her failure as Sister Philippa has asked to transfer and Sister Ruth a decided to not renew her vows. Strings appassianato surge as she relates her frustrations with the convent’s location, the cruel winds, the inscrutable Holy Man and the Young General. Mr. Dean responds by counseling her to leave as soon as possible before the rains as this was never a proper place for a convent.

We see a choir of drums beaten by townsmen, which prevents Sister Clodagh from sleeping. She performs night rounds and finds the light on in Sister Ruth’s room. The door is barred, but after she insists on entry, Ruth accedes and we flow into “Sister Clodagh Tries to Reason Ruth” atop a shock crescendo with choir, which reveals a defiant Ruth standing before her in a stunning scarlet dress. Ruth raves, and there is madness in her eyes, which Easdale supports with a very unsettling musical narrative borne atop eerie waves by wordless mixed chorus and forlorn woodwinds. A diminuendo of tension unfolds as we see a stand-off unfold; Ruth paints her lips with bright red lipstick as the candle burns down, while the camera reveals erotic female images on the wall. Sister Clodagh falls asleep, which gives Ruth her opportunity to escape, supported at 2:21 by a string ostinato. Sister Clodagh wakes and pursues, while waking up the rest of the sisters. Easdale unleashes a horrific accelerando as we hear madness in the wordless choir of voices.

In “The Search for Sister Ruth” (*) Sister Clodagh leads a desperate search for Sister Ruth who she believes has gone mad and might hurt herself. Easdale supports the frantic search of St. Faith and its grounds with a dissonant musical narrative by slithering strings and wailing wordless voices. “Ruth Meets Mr. Dean” reveals that Ruth has descended to the town and seeks out Mr. Dean at his house. Incessant nativist drums and yearning strings carry her progress. At 0:10 she enters his house and the music warms, and becomes comforting, with a romance for strings, her idealized Love Theme informing us that she has at last found what she has been seeking – a man to love her. He enters and the cue ends, but in the film the incessant nativist drum rhythm continues. He brusquely rejects her after she tells him that she loves him. She pleads, but to no avail. He tells her to go back to Sister Clodagh who will ensure she gets to Darjeeling.

“Ruth’s Rejection and Madness” offers a powerful score highlight where the score reaches its emotional apogee. Ruth suffers a psychic break and passes out from the devastation of Mr. Dean’s brutal rejection. Ruth seethes with anger and agrees to return to St. Francis, spurning his offer to accompany her. Music enters atop the Madness Theme of dissonant, other-worldly wordless voices with undercurrents of occult anger by strings sinistri. At 0:59 dreamy harp glissandi and strings doloroso support a sleepy Sister Clodagh waking, joined by Joseph who brings her morning tea. The formless musical narrative speaks of despair and futility as she goes to chapel to pray. At 1:40 a crescendo of terror surges as we see the glaring eyes of Ruth burning with hatred. Celli and bass commence a toiling narrative of woe as we see Sister Clodagh walking through the courtyard. In the chapel she collapses to kneel in prayer as the door behind opens with the eerie voices of the Madness Theme surging on a crescendo of terror as we see Ruth run up the stairs, and Sister Clodagh realize that she has returned. The tortured celli and bass narrative resumes as Ruth glares down on Sister Clodagh drinking from a fountain. Violins affanato carry a suffering Sister Clodagh to the bell as it is almost 6 am. Slowly, a menacing dissonance creeps into the music, joined at 4:21 by eerie woodwinds and the voices of the Madness Theme as we see Ruth approaching. As she begins ringing the bell, the voices of the Madness Theme slowly surge with a swelling menace as the crazed Ruth enters the courtyard. We crest atop a monstrous crescendo of horror at 5:07 as Ruth pushes her over the edge, and then tries to pry her hands off the lifesaving rope. Yet Ruth in her rage loses her balance and falls off the platform to her doom, supported by bell tolls and drums of death.

“Leaving the Convent in the Rain” reveals the sisters preparing to depart St. Faith. Sister Philippa weeps at a shrine, while Sister Clodagh say goodbye to the Young General, who apologizes for his behavior. Later while traveling on the road, Sister Clodagh gazes upwards one last time at a cloud shrouded St. Faith, her eyes, full of regret. Mr. Dean joins, knowing he will never see her again. He agrees to her last request, to tend to Ruth’s grave. She offers her hand to say goodbye, which he grasps tenderly, with regret seen in both their eyes. Music enters with her departure as the monsoon rains begin. Strings full of regret support his parting glance as she disappears into the mist, draped by the exotic auras of the Himalayan Theme.

The album is available on streaming platforms, yet regretfully it contains intrusive dialogue and obnoxious sound effects, which detract from the listening experience. It suffices to say that the score begs for, and is worthy of a new recording. Renowned musician and biographer Christopher Palmer once described Easdale’s musical style as; “an eclectic English idiom that owes something to Britten as well as to the Bax-Bridge generations. In general, his combination of lush late Romanticism mixed with “ethnic” colour and more austere Modernism suited the world of film music more than the concert hall. I must agree with this astute and insightful assessment. What is so amazing about this score is how Easdale through use of exoticism, nativist instruments and ethnic auras created a truly unique and beautiful soundscape, which found perfect confluence with the stunning cinematography of the film. His brilliant use of wordless choirs, men’s, women’s and mixed to evoke the unsettling, and ultimately disturbing descent into madness by Sister Ruth, as well as the more ethereal qualities, which supported Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks are simply, remarkable. This was a very intimate film exploring powerful emotions of regret, doubt, disillusionment and jealousy. In scene after scene Easdale masterfully spoke to both the overt expression of these emotions, as well as those unspoken. I truly recommend you take in the film to fully appreciate Easdale’s masterwork. Lastly, it is a shame that all we have today are a few compilation albums from this very talented composer. Let us hope that someday soon we get new recordings of score by this unheralded, yet remarkable composer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the film opening: https://youtu.be/D6gmpLodMlk

Buy the Black Narcissus soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Black Narcissus Opening (1:52)
  • A New Convent in the Himalayas (2:02)
  • Native Girl Kanchi (2:10)
  • Mr. Dean Joins the Christmas Celebrations (2:11)
  • The Spring/Kanchi Seduces Young General (1:51)
  • Sister Ruth’s Wrath (1:51)
  • Sister Clodagh Tries to Reason Ruth (2:56)
  • Ruth Meets Mr. Dean (1:06)
  • Ruth’s Rejection and Madness (5:56)
  • Leaving the Convent in the Rain (1:16)

Running Time: 23 minutes 11 seconds

Disques Cinémusique (1947/XXXX)

Music composed and conducted by Brian Easdale. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Brian Easdale. Recorded and mixed by Ted Drake. Score produced by Brian Easdale.

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