Home > Reviews > 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE – Vangelis



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 – the historical veracity of this statement remains in question, though, despite the prevailing narrative. Several projects were commissioned in Hollywood to mark the event, with director Ridley Scott’s film 1492: Conquest of Paradise being the most high profile, although it was beaten into theaters by the competing project Christopher Columbus: The Discovery by several months. This may actually have ultimately harmed the viability of Scott’s project, as it grossed just $7 million at the US box office, and is now generally considered to be one of the biggest flops of Scott’s career. The film does have an excellent cast (Gérard Depardieu, Armand Assante, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Wincott, Fernando Rey, Tcheky Karyo, Frank Langella), and boasts grand and handsome production values, but ironically it is best remembered today for its score.

The score for 1492: Conquest of Paradise was by the Greek composer Vangelis, who previously worked with director Scott on Blade Runner in 1982, but who in the decade between the projects had limited his mainstream output to a just a couple of movies – The Bounty in 1984, for example – and a handful of documentaries. 1492 was Vangelis’s triumphant return to the film music A-list, and it proved to be one of the most successful and popular works of his entire career, alongside the aforementioned Blade Runner, and his Oscar-winning classic Chariots of Fire. Anachronistically, and unlike composer Cliff Eidelman who wrote a rousing classical score for Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Vangelis decided to write and perform the score himself on synthesizers, augmented by just a few acoustic soloists – Flamenco guitarists Bruno Manjarres and Pepe Martinez, violin/mandolin player Francis Darizcuren, and flautist Didier Malherbe – and a choir, the English Chamber Choir conducted by Guy Protheroe.

What Vangelis was tapping into was the mid-1990s fascination with instrumental new age music, and as an album it worked tremendously well. Artists like Enya, Enigma, and Jean-Michel Jarre were immensely popular at the time, and Vangelis’s main theme “Conquest of Paradise” appealed to that same demographic; the recording eventually topped the mainstream pop charts in both the Netherlands and Germany, and went on to be certified gold and platinum in 17 countries, while Vangelis himself was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Score. And, to be fair, the theme is quite stunning: it starts with a slow militaristic beat, and grows to embrace a hummed melody over optimistic keyboard textures, which has its roots in a piece of fifteenth century folk music called a folía. The hums are then replaced by a choir singing in an invented pseudo-Latin language called ‘macaronia,’ before the whole thing erupts into a vibrant cacophony of expansive electronic chords, boldly searching for the horizon. It’s superb – rich and vibrant and emotionally appealing – and as a piece of standalone music it’s outstanding.

Unfortunately, like much of Vangelis’s output, it isn’t very good FILM music.

Ironically, this main theme doesn’t actually feature very prominently in the rest of the score proper, which is instead made up of a series of ambient electronic sounds and faux-ethnic woodwinds that are tonally appealing, but don’t really capture the sense of scope, adventure, and manifest destiny that Columbus aspired to, or that Scott clearly wanted to portray on screen. The “Opening” is muddy and murky, atmospheric synths and little flute textures backed by glittery chimes. “Monastery of la Rabida” is actually rather pretty and captivatingly mysterious, with a Latin choir singing the De Profundis hymn, and some warm textures from flutes, keyboards arranged to sound like a harpsichord, and more of those shimmering electronics.

“City of Isabel” features light renaissance rhythms, and then melts into more prominent choral work in “Light and Shadow,” which alternates between quite imposing chanting – no-one expected the Spanish inquisition! – and more poetic and conventionally attractive work from the full choir backed by a whimsical solo flute and electronic harpsichords playing what is perhaps a deconstructed variation on the chords of the main Conquest theme. “Deliverance” begins with expressive strumming from the Flamenco guitarists, sees the Latin choir singing the Dies Irae hymn, and gradually building to a powerful choral crescendo that is quite fascinating.

Of course, I fully understand what Vangelis was doing here; the desire to spread the Catholic religion outside of Spain was one of the main driving forces behind Columbus’s voyages, and the political and financial support from both Queen Isabella and her church was vital to its success, and so Vangelis was clearly trying to illustrate how that underpinned everything that Columbus did with intentionally liturgical music. It just never quite worked for me in terms of Vangelis’s actual sound, which always felt somewhat wishy-washy and under-powered. The Catholic Church was arguably the dominant political force in Europe at that time, and for me needed something much more regal and domineering to convey that influence.

There is a pretty calmness about the synth tones of “West Across the Ocean Sea,” and some of the electronic woodwind textures remind me very much of the music Hans Zimmer would write for Beyond Rangoon a few years later. Unfortunately, “Eternity” begins with a rather hapless evocation of music intended to represent the natives in what are now the Bahamas – a sort of weird, mewling synth idea backed with ethnic flutes – which is thankfully replaced by an idyllic-sounding electronic and choral interlude later in the cue. Vangelis’s musical depictions of the New World in the subsequent “Hispaniola” and the more dramatic and intense “Moxica and the Horse” offer various combinations of jungle drums, vocal war cries, trilling woodwinds, and guitar flourishes, and on the whole are much better and more interesting at depicting the new culture that Columbus and his shipmates encounter. The combination of two styles of vocals – the chanted Europeans and the more wild and vivid Natives – is clearly commenting on the culture clash, and is compelling listening, but unfortunately an unusual instrument in “Hispaniola” sounds for all the world like a rock guitar solo, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Similarly, some of the space-age bubbly textures in “Moxica and the Horse” feel very out of place.

“Twenty Eighth Parallel” is a serene version of the main Conquest theme for piano and dreamy, watery synths that is lovely and quite relaxing, and then the 13-minute cue “Pinta, Nina, Santa Maria (Into Eternity)” – named after Columbus’s three flagships – is a series of light pop rhythms that again lean more towards new age fantasy and commercial rock electronica, which sort of noodles along and eventually drifts off into the ether.

I mentioned earlier that, despite being enjoyable enough as a listening experience, 1492: Conquest of Paradise isn’t very good FILM music, and what I mean by that is that it doesn’t appear to have much structure or narrative development. All film music is, by necessity, reactionary, as it is driven by what the composer sees on-screen, but Vangelis seems to have taken this to a whole new level. I know that it isn’t, but a lot of 1492 sounds like it was improvised on the fly, as if Vangelis just played whatever popped into his head at the moment he was watching the film in real time. The main melodic idea heard in “Conquest of Paradise” never really establishes itself much in context, there is little to no recurring thematic material for characters or concepts or locations beyond basic instrumental textures, and the dramatic narrative of the music feels very obvious and tenuous, never really shedding any light on character development, motivations, relationships, or any of the other things that composers usually latch on to in order to give their music some sort of internal logic and deeper meaning.

Perhaps it has something to do with Vangelis’s history as a solo artist and pop arranger, and how he thinks more about his recordings rather than the score itself, but I have felt this way about virtually all of Vangelis’s scores, from Chariots of Fire to Blade Runner to later works like Alexander; they are perfectly pleasant to listen to, and often make for outstanding album experiences, but very rarely do they actually work well in context. 1492: Conquest of Paradise is exactly the same. As an album, I like it a lot. I enjoyed the New Age easy-listening chillout vibe offered by Vangelis and his contemporaries when they were having chart hits with instrumental songs, and this album is a perfect one to spin and relax to; the famous and popular main theme is especially excellent in this regard. However, for someone looking for an actual, successful film score that tells a compelling linear story and maybe offers some insights into who Christopher Columbus was and what his legacy is in the world… well, unfortunately, this isn’t that.

Buy the 1492: Conquest of Paradise soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening (1:21)
  • Conquest of Paradise (4:47)
  • Monastery of la Rabida (3:39)
  • City of Isabel (2:16)
  • Light and Shadow (3:46)
  • Deliverance (3:28)
  • West Across the Ocean Sea (2:53)
  • Eternity (1:59)
  • Hispaniola (4:56)
  • Moxica and the Horse (7:06)
  • Twenty Eighth Parallel (5:14)
  • Pinta, Nina, Santa Maria (Into Eternity) (13:19)

Running Time: 54 minutes 44 seconds

Atlantic Records 7 82432-2 (1992) – US Release
East West/Warner Music 4509-91014-2 (1992) – European Release

Music composed and performed by Vangelis. Featured musical soloists Bruno Manjarres, Pepe Martinez, Didier Malherbe, Francis Darizcuren and the English Chamber Choir conducted by Guy Protheroe. Recorded and mixed by Philippe Colonna. Edited by Robin Clarke. Album produced by Vangelis.

  1. October 8, 2022 at 11:12 am

    Its widely accepted that Vangelis did indeed compose/perform his scores ‘on the fly’ while watching and re-watching first rough edits of the films and then finished scenes as they were completed. So that’s probably why you feel his scores lack the development that most other scores have (which are meticulously planned and orchestrated prior to recording with a hired orchestra). Vangelis did everything himself, he was his own orchestra other than when using solo performers to add specific textures and sounds, and was always more interested in mood and ambience, how the film made him feel, than, say, embellishing character development.

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