Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > PETER IBBETSON – Ernst Toch



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In early 1935 Paramount Pictures executives decided that they would adapt and bring to the big screen George du Maurier’s1891 romantic fantasy novel Peter Ibbetson. Louis D. Lighton was assigned production and provided a budget of $750,000. Henry Hathaway was tasked with directing, and a team of screenwriters lead by John Meehan were hired to write the screenplay. A fine cast was assembled, but not without controversy. Fredric March and Robert Donat were originally envisioned for the titular role, but in a dubious decision, Hathaway decided to cast against type, Gary Cooper, who had achieved fame in Westerns and heroic dramas. Joining him would be Ann Harding as Mary, Duchess of Towers, John Halliday as the Duke of Towers, and Ida Lupino as Agnes.

The film is set in France and England in the 19th century, and offers an inspiring tale of a love transcendent, which surmounts all obstacles. Gogo and Mimsey are childhood friends living in Paris. When Gogo’s mother dies, his uncle takes him to live in London and renames him Peter Ibbetson. Many years pass and Peter, now an architect, takes on a project for the Duke of Towers. He and the Duke’s wife Mary subsequently fall in love, discovering that she is his childhood sweetheart Mimsey. The duke discovers their affair and attempts to kill Peter. In self-defense Peter defends himself, kills the duke in the process, and is arrested for murder. The court displays prejudice in the trial as the duke was a Peer of the Realm. Peter is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In prison Peter breaks is back after a fight with his guards and languishes in his cell. Remarkably, Mary is able to visit Peter in his dreams, and what unfolds is an idyllic life of eternal youth and romantic love together shared while Peter is sleeping. Over the years they age and Mary eventually dies, revisiting him one last time from beyond the grave. This elicits his promise to join her in the afterlife, which he does, as he too dies. The film was a commercial success, and was lauded by critics for its beauty, serenity and tale of a love, which overcomes all obstacles. It earned one Academy Award nomination for Best Film Score for its composer, Ernst Toch.

Like compatriot Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Toch was an Austrian Jew who was forced to flee Nazism, finding work as a film score composer in Hollywood. He landed a job a Paramount Pictures, and was assigned the project by Director of Music Irvin Talbot. Upon viewing the film Toch understood that this was at its core a tale of love transcendent, of two child lovers that are ripped apart physically, yet their love endures through the years, unbreakable. Later as adults they by chance reacquaint, rediscover and rekindle their love. Yet life again prevents realization of their happiness, crushing their dreams with tragedy as Peter is wrongly convicted of murdering Mary’s husband and imprisoned for life. They nevertheless gain solace during the travails and overcome their separation by living a life of love in their shared dreams.

Toch understood that he would have to speak to both the romantic and fantasy elements of the tale. He chose to anchor his soundscape with two primary themes; the Childhood Theme represents Gogo/Peter’s and Mimsey idyllic past as child lovers, but also their memories as adults of that golden time when they lived as neighbors in the Paris countryside. It offers an idyllic pastorale by woodwinds gentile and strings tenero. Notable is how the theme gains emotive power as our lovers return to this idyllic setting as adults during their shared dreams. The Love Theme is silent most of the film, only finding voice when Peter and Mary at last share their love during their nightly dream rendezvous. It emotes as a tender romance for strings romantico, yet blossoms exquisitely when taken up by solo violin d’amore. For the rest his soundscape Toch offers aural cinematography, infusing scene after scene with music which speaks not to character or setting, but instead the overt and/or underlying emotional dynamics.

There is no commercial release of the score, as such I will use film scene descriptors, and time indices in lieu of cue titles. 00:00 “Studio Logo” opens with heraldic trumpets as the Paramount Pictures logo displays. We segue at 00:12 into “Main Title”, which supports the display of the opening credits against tranquil forest scenes. Toch offers an exquisite rendering of his Love Theme by strings romantico. At 1:25 we flow into the film proper with narrative script informing us of English people who had settled in a Paris suburb. In an unscored scene Gogo and Mimsey complain to their respective mothers about their latest quarrel. They are both coaxed to play nice and go outside, where they of course resume their quarrel. 06:25 “Call The Doctor” reveals Gogo’s house servant desperately calling out to fetch a doctor. Strings of alarm join with dire horns surging on a crescendo of desperation to support her panic. She grabs Gogo and they enter the house at 6:52 and strings tristi sow a descending contour of woe as they find his mother’s disheveled wheelchair empty. At 7:10 a flute affanato soliloquy supports a sister praying aloud at the house altar as a worried Gogo looks on. His mother lays in bed and we see his anxiety as he weeps when the servant covers her with a sheet, draws the bed curtains, and then kneels in prayer. Strings affanato join the flute to emote a threnody as Mimsey sees Gogo, and also begins crying.

08:29 “Mimsey’s Gift” reveals her return to her yard where she gathers up the wood over which she and Gogo had been arguing, and takes it by cart to his yard as a gift. Toch supports the pathos and her kindness with a gentle musical narrative borne by strings tenero. In an unscored scene the stern Colonel Forsythe, Gogo’s uncle, arrives and informs him that he is taking him to his new home. Gogo is distraught and says he wants to remain in Paris as Mimsey reaches for his hand to console him. 12:34 “The Departure” reveals Gogo departing with his uncle by carriage as a sad Mimsey looks on. Gogo looks back, and his uncle grants him permission to say goodbye to his little playmate. Toch supports with a tender romance for strings as he joins the sad Mimsey. At 14:18 strings energico of flight and woodwinds animato support Gogo impulsively grabbing Mimsey’s hand and then fleeing with her. Comedy seeps into the spirited musical narrative as the colonel chases after them, finally retrieving Gogo as he climbs up a tree. At 14:56 as Gogo is dragged away, he cries out that he will be back, supported by aching woodwinds tristi. The woodwinds support their carriage ride in the country, but fade as the colonel decides to rename Gogo (Pierre), a proper English name, Peter Ibbetson. 16:10 “Chapter 1 Ends” offers narrative script declaring the end of chapter 1 in the strange foreshadowed life of Peter Ibbetson. Woodwinds gentile and pizzicato strings offer a pleasant statement to support.

16:23 “London” opens with swaying strings gentile as a panorama of London is seen, which shifts atop harp glissandi to a business plaque; “Throckmorton and Slade Architects. Woodwinds felice support an adult Peter in his workshop completing a wood model for a prospective client. Peter declines his coworkers offer for a night of gin drinking and maids, preferring to do nothing so as to forego the inevitable headache the next day. In an unscored scene Peter’s boss joins, and Peter advises that he is quitting as he is discontent with his life, and London. Mr. Slade attempts to dissuade him, and counsels to look inside for answers, relating that even though he was born blind, he can still see everything in life in his dreams. Peter accepts his gift of a holiday and agrees to seek enjoyment in Paris. 21:32 “Musèe de Paris” fanciful woodwinds animato full of life support interior shots of the art museum. Yet at 21:52 we descend into a string borne narrative of sadness as we see forlorn Peter staring at a seascape. Yet this is fleeting as the woodwind motif returns and he departs after the arrival of a chatty couple. Agnes, an English woman at the exit stall, keeps the gate locked as a pretext to flirt with Peter, who accepts her invite to join her after work.

23:04 “Time Together” reveals Peter and Agnes sipping wine at a café supported by a classic Parisian serenade. She suspects by his demeanor that he suffers from a woman problem, which he denies. As he looks out the window, he sees his boyhood storyteller Monsieur Duquesnois on the street and excuses himself as he runs to greet him. He is enfeebled and being escorted by a care nun, but after jogging his memory, he recalls his little Gogo. The nun escorts him away and Peter returns to the café, where he asks Agnes to accompany him to the house where he used to live. 25:58 “Peter Returns Home” offers a beautiful score highlight. Strings gentile support their promenade down the country road with harp glissandi and trilling woodwinds heralding his arrival atop a refulgent crescendo of joy as he enters the front gate. Toch graces us with the elegant writing of his Childhood Theme, which creates a resplendent ambiance, which evokes his boyhood wonder. At 26:52 Agnes runs to a swing carried by strings felice and begs him to swing her. Wistful, child-like woodwinds join as Peter instead focuses on the last spot where his wagon stood. Swaying strings support Agnes swinging to and fro, yet Peter is in his boyhood world as he ignores her and explores the grounds seeking his old play spots. At 27:55 the music becomes pensive atop wistful woodwinds as he finds a bench that he and Mimsey would crawl under. As he goes through the gate and walks through the garden the music brightens, carried by strings tenero as he recalls those golden childhood days. When he arrives at their tree, strings bear a sad, aching wistfulness as he recalls his last moment with Mimsey before his uncle grabbed and carried him away. We close atop a harp glissando as he wonders what might have been.

In an unscored scene, we see Mr. Slate greeting Peter at the London train station, where he thanks him for accommodating his request that he return. Peter has agreed to accept an assignment in Yorkshire to build a new stable for the Duke of Towers. Later Peter arrives at the Towers’ estate and assesses the dilapidated stables he must tear down and replace. The Duchess Mary Towers joins him, and they for a moment lock eyes as though each believes they have met before. He explains his design plan, which she rejects immediately. She says that she wants only an addition, not his plan for a complete tear down and rebuild with a design that matches the manor. After arguing, he refuses the assignment saying he cannot build something he does not like, and she dismisses him, saying he is impertinent. He apologizes and she departs aggrieved. Most interesting is that their adult interpersonal emotional dynamics, a classic battle of wills, mirror their child-like arguments. Later that evening in 34:03 “Dinner” we hear an opera soprano star singing a song with piano accompaniment for guests the duchess has invited. The butler arrives and surprises Peter by bringing a dinner platter to his room. He gives the butler a drawing to give the duchess as payment for his dinner. She receives it and smiles as it displays a cartoon of horses ‘ooing’ with smiles for their brand new stable! She commands Jenkins to tell Ibbetson that it is best he takes the morning train, and that she invites him to join her and her guests. She giggles and shows her husband the drawing, and he scowls, calling Ibbetson, impertinent. Soon, Peter arrives and they enjoy pleasantries, as her husband joins and directs Ibbetson to stick to his convictions regarding the stable.

39:34 “Peter’s Design” offers a wonderful score highlight and a delight for woodwind lovers. It reveals drawings of Peter’s original design supported by a retinue of bubbling woodwinds animato and strings spiritoso. This spirited musical narrative wonderfully animates a montage of scenes displaying the stable’s construction, as wells as Peter and Mary bonding. At 40:21 swirling strings and a descent motif mimic a wind gust blowing a hat off one of the workers. The music darkens ushering in a torrent with swirling strings, dancing xylophone and grim woodwinds as storm clouds fill the skies and rain begins. As the duchess and Peter take cover, she thanks him for his beautiful design, and for his patience with her. The next day in an unscored scene the duke breaks in a new horse, and then congratulates Peter on his stable design, to which the duchess admits, that she was wrong in opposing it. After the duke departs, Mary shares a dream she had last night, which strangely Peter discloses he shared. They are perplexed to understand this, but in the end, she counsels that they should both just forget about it as she departs.

In an unscored scene Peter is dining with the duke and duchess. After a series of probing questions, the duke untactfully asks Peter, how long he has been in love with his wife. Mary and Peter are taken aback, and deny any physical infidelity, but Peter does disclose that the little girl to whom he was torn away from, has at last been replaced in his heart by her. They both have an epiphany, realizing at this moment, that she is Mimsey, and he, Gogo. Later in her bedroom, Mary is agitated and paces back and forth. In Peter’s room, he too is agitated and orders Jenkins to take his luggage to the carriage as he is departing. The duke visits Mary and demands to know if Ibbetson is departing, and that she can put this all behind her. She answers yes, and he admits that he is not the best lover, but has the pride of one as he summons her into his arms. He kisses her, but there is no passion, and we see in her eyes that her heart lies with Peter. The duke realizes this also and departs without another word.

Peter goes to her bed chamber at 51:30 “Peter Confesses His Love”, a romantic score highlight. Dire strings herald his arrival as he finds her weeping on the bed. As he comes to her strings appassionato emote an aching romance for strings as he demands that they leave tonight together. He confesses that he loved her years ago and lost her and has not known a moments peace, until now. Adding, he does want any more of life without her. At 52:28 strings affanato voice her heartache as she turns away and asks where he was all these years, and why he did not try to find her. She says she cannot go, and he becomes angry saying he never forgot, nor forgot Paris, but she apparently did. His words cut deep and she goes to her dresser and pulls out her white childhood dress, saying she never forgot their childhood. Forlorn woodwinds tristi voice her pain, but he presses, declares that he will not lose her, and that they have to tell him. She is conflicted saying this will hurt a man who has been kind to her. Yet she surrenders to him at last, they share a kissing embrace. The moment is shattered when the duke arrives with a pistol, and says; very, very, pretty. In 55:41 “Peter Kills the Duke” the duke is outraged draws his pistol, and orders Mary to go into the arms of her lover. Peter throws her aside, dashes and retrieves a chair, and hurls it at the duke as he fires. Tremolo violins shriek as the chair smashes apart on the duke’s head and he collapses. Woodwinds wail, drums of doom sound and portentous descending strings join as loud knocking is heard on the door. In 56:08 “End of Chapter 2” narrative script reveals that Peter has been sent to prison in the bleak English moors for murder. Toch chooses to juxtapose the bad news with a woodwind gentile pastorale.

56:20 “Prison” offers a powerfully written score highlight. It reveals Peter chained and shackled in his cell. A forlorn musical narrative by woodwinds repeat a bleak four-note figure joined by strings of woe as a guard brings in his meal. At 56:42 a harp glissando supports a contemplative Peter, and a shot of his uneaten meal. His fellow prisoners mock him, the guard berates him, threatening to force feed him tomorrow, and cruelly empties his water cup on his face as he departs. The idyllic Childhood Theme pastorale supports as a montage of the duke’s voices and a montage of the court trial unfolds supported by beleaguered strings full of hopelessness. At 1:00:11 a raging crescendo of pain and desperation swells with ever increasing dissonance as we see Peter being convicted, imprisoned, and then angrily fighting his prison guards. We achieve a horrific climax at 1:01:00 with Mary screaming in her bedroom as a guard shatters Peters spine with a devastating strike with his wooden handle of his scourge.

59:06 “Peter Dreams” reveals nightfall and the guards lighting the gas lamps. A pitiful Peter lays on his straw bed as Toch weaves a nocturne by woodwinds gentile and idyllic strings. At 59:39 a harp glissando takes us into a dream where we hear the dinner conversation where the duke asked “How long have you been in love with my wife”. In 1:01:36 “Love Reborn” Toch offers a musical testament to the power of love with a beautiful score highlight. It reveals a doctor examining Peter and informing the guards that it is hopeless, and that little time remains. Sweet strings d’amore voice a romance for strings, which support Mary calling to Peter in his mind. He responds and she appears in his prison cell, tells him he is free, and to take her hand. He rises from his cot and sees her walk right through the cell bars, declaring that this is a dream. She responds that they are both sharing a dream as before and that he must believe this. Yet at 1:03:05 as he cries out this is a lie as trumpets resound and launch an angry, dissonant torrent of disbelief, which subsides as she calmly reassures him. At 1:03:30 strings d’amore voice the Love Theme as she soothes him, asks him to believe and trust in the power of their love. She says finally, we can at last be together always, adding we made it happen before, and we can continue to make it happen again and again. Yet at 1:03:59 trumpets of disbelief resound, joined by darting, trilling woodwinds as he shouts out “No! Leave me alone!” Yet the Love Theme returns as she says she loves him, and will not let him die. She cannot seem to reach him, yet at 1:04:30 an ethereal, other-worldly musical narrative unfolds borne by strings, and intangible twinkling metallic adornment as she asks him to believe when she sends him her ring tomorrow. He answers yes, and she vanishes as the ethereal motif dissipates unto nothingness.

In an unscored scene the next day, Mary asks the doctor to take her ring to Peter, but he declines, saying Peter is dead. She assures the doctor he is not as she would feel it. The doctor acquiesces and is surprised to find that Peter remains alive. He presents him her ring, and Peter is stunned, and asks, is it real? To which the doctor answers, yes, it is real. He accepts it and relates that the ring is a gateway to a world with Mary, our world. 1:08:43 “Mary and Peter United” offers the score’s crowning jewel. It reveals Mary asleep, bathed by moonlight rays. Toch supports with a flute lead nocturne with kindred woodwinds and harp adornment. We shift to Peter’s cell where he too sleeps while bathed in moonlight rays. He cries out Mary and at 1:09:30 a stirring ascent by strings romantico empowers a crescendo dramatico as Peter gets out of bed. As he begins walking, strings energico and woodwinds animato propel him, as we see him walk through the cell iron bars. A string propelled crescendo dramatico surges as he walks past all the prisoner and crests at 1:10:10 as his three guards bar his way, and laugh maniacally. Yet Mary calls out Peter supported by strings of hope. She is illuminated by moonlight, says they are alone, and beckons him to join her. The guards vanish, an impassioned ascent brings him to her, they join hands, and depart together. The Love Theme blossoms at 1:10:50 as they return to their beloved Parisian estates, restored to their young adult beauty. She sees her swing, and the wood planks over which they fought. An idyllic musical narrative joins as he takes off his jacket, and he tells her he is going to finish building his wagon. The music becomes playfully exuberant as they board the wagon, roll down the hill carried by a descent motif, and then topple over, rolling on the grass with childlike delight.

In 1:12:25 “Castle of Love” they see the foot tracks they made in the sand yesterday, and set off to retrace their steps supported by playful, child-like musical narrative. Toch graces us with a magical, idyllic romanticism as our lovers walk in a verdant countryside crowned by cloud swept skies. The ascend to a hill crest and Peter offers her a gift. At 1:13:26 harp glissandi, xylophone and resplendent metallic twinkling unfold as we behold a glistening fairytale like castle, which he says he built from love out of the clouds, the heavens and the stars. She loves it and a violin d’amore voices her joy. However, tense pizzicato strings support his refusal of her request to go in, saying a breath would blow it away. Yet the Love Theme borne by a violin d’amore supports as she says do not think such things, as we are free as long as we live. At 1:14:02 an organ solenne is heard, which causes them to gaze at the castle. The music darkens as storm clouds sweep in bearing thunder and lightning, unleashing a horrific orchestral maelstrom announced by dire horns as a lightning bolt strike destroys the castle. The maelstrom supports an avalanche, and Peter and Mary’s desperate escape. They are separated by a cascade of falling rocks, and at 1:15:34 a diminuendo returns us to Peter’s cell, where he calls out for Mary. Returning to the dream, strings of desperation and anxious woodwinds support his searching amidst the rubble for Mary, as she in her bed cries out for Peter. Soon we see her also searching for Peter.

In 1:16:09 “Peter Finds Mary” the impassioned strings romantico of the Love Theme carry Peter to Mary, blossoming as they join in a kissing embrace. They now believe that they can shed their physical bodies and always come here to forever share their love as long as they live. In an unscored scene two doctors examine Peter and are dumbfounded that he remains alive. They tell him he is going to live, and he answers, yes, for years and years. 1:17:31 “The Passage of Time” soothing strings tenero support script narration saying “…and so many years went by”. A diminuendo takes us into a now aged Mary’s bed chamber where she dismisses her servant, refusing her efforts to call a doctor for her fever. 1:18:25 “Mary Says Goodbye” tremolo violins and a bass pizzicato support Peter laying on his cot, bathed in moonlight. The tremolo intensifies, and the pizzicato shifts to the upper register as we see him return to the verdant forest of his dreams. He sits up and sees Mary approaching him. Forlorn woodwinds bring her into his embrace and a musical narrative of sadness unfolds. She is distraught as she discloses that she is frightened, saying we must accept that we cannot continue to meet here forever. She adds that she has been too close to heaven as he kisses her hand, supported by a loving harp glissando. He asks, how much longer? She gets up, empowered by strings of hope and says a lot longer as they are still so young. A woodwind pastorale unfolds as he joins her on a bench where she asks him to hold her hands tighter as they are cold. Violins of expiration support her disappearance and usher in a musical narrative of dread as Peter returns to his cell.

In his cell he calls out – “No! Mary.” We shift to Mary’s bed chamber where a doctor examines her and declares to her servant that he will make all the arrangements. 1:21:15 “Mary Comes To Peter” offers tender strings delicato as we see Peter laying asleep on his cot. The strings slowly sway to and fro as we see him return to the misty dream world. The idyllic Childhood Theme supports his steps, but it is draped with sadness. His sits despondently and at 1:22:09 Mary calls to him, her voice draped with angelic, ethereal strings. Yet he cannot see her, even though she says she sits right beside him. She says to just listen to her voice as she has fought her way back to speak to him and bring him peace. Pizzicato strings support a musical narrative of hope as she relates that this is not the end, saying that here, there are no such words to describe such loveliness. Strings and organ solenne drape them in religioso auras and sentimentality as she says to be patient, and do not fear as we shall soon be together forever. She departs and the woodwind borne Love Theme with harp adornment support him picking up her gloves and calling out Mary as the screen dissolves and he returns to his cell. Strings aching for love regained support as he says he is coming to give them to her, and then expires in his cot. 1:24:26 “The End” offers shimmering tremolo violins crowned with a horn choir chord of hope to end the film. 1:24:38 “Cast Credits” are unscored.

It is a sad testament that Ernst Toch’s Academy Award nominated score has no commercial release. This film had an unusual tale, which spoke of love transcendent; two child lovers, soulmates, separated by cruel life circumstances, and forces beyond their control. They by chance fatefully reacquaint years later as adults, rediscover and rekindle their love, yet face an insurmountable impediment – Mimsey/Mary is married. Yet their love will not be denied and they find a way to overcome all obstacles to realize the love that life has denied them in their shared dreams. Toch establishes the idyllic wonder of their childhood refuge with his Childhood Theme, a beautiful pastorale, which perfectly embodies their verdant fantasy world. The Love Theme, a romance for strings, voices their love, which is unshackled and blossoms in their shared dream realm. In scene after scene Toch demonstrated insight and brilliance in elevating the film’s narrative. Highlights included; “Peter Returns Home”, “Peter’s Design”, “Peter Confesses His Love”, Love Reborn” and “Mary and Peter United”, all of which achieved a sublime cinematic confluence. Additionally, his use of aural cinematography masterfully fleshed out the overt, and covert emotional dynamics unfolding on the screen. Folk, I believe this score to be a testament to Toch’s mastery of his craft and a gem of the early Golden Age. Until such time as a label rerecords this masterwork, I highly recommend that you take in the film.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a short suite of the main and end titles: https://youtu.be/M_hcyNXiUNc

Track Listing:


Music composed and conducted by Ernst Toch. Orchestrations by Ernst Toch and Bernhard Kaun. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Ernst Toch and Nat W. Finston.

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