Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Blood is the Life

Happy Halloween!

I'm writing this time about Bram Stoker's Dracula, because it can be plausibly said to start with "B" and it's one of my very favorite scores of all time in any genre. It is an unquestionable success that arose from a film with quite a few questionable elements. I've actually been familiar with the score for much longer than I've been familiar with the film, which probably accounts for some of my great affection for it.

Transposed monsters

I first became familiar with this wonderfully varied and passionate music through another classic monster, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I my sophomore year of high school, we produced a stage version of Frankenstein that featured some of the most impressive technical work you could ever witness on a high school stage, or anywhere else for that matter. We had a platform for the Creature that rose into the air, glowing laboratory equipment, a very loud array of dramatic sound effects, and a wild variety of music, including the ever popular "O Fortuna" chorus from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. (I've actually written about this production before, when I dealt with Alexander Nevsky. Clearly, it carved a pretty important place into my memory.) Our director complemented this with some music from Wojciech Kilar's Dracula score, which was just a couple of years old at the time.

It turned out to be a perfect accompaniment to the searing drama and bombast of the likes of Carl Orff, but also a nice lyrical counterpoint for some of the quieter and more romantic scenes of Frankenstein. (As it happens, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein got its own epic film treatment the same year we performed our Frankenstein. It was a similarly weird mixture of overwrought bluster and fascinating treatment of the original literature, with a similarly excellent score that outshone its source material. More on that another time.) I asked to borrow the CD from the director when we were finished with the show, copied it to a cassette on my handy CD jukebox, and listened to it quite a lot thereafter.

Finally, the film

It took me a long time to get to Francis Ford Coppola's bizarre fever-dream of a film after that, and in the meantime, I actually read Bram Stoker's original novel and formed my own images in my mind, accompanied by Kilar's music. By the time I got to the actual film Bram Stoker's Dracula, Kilar's score and the character of the Romanian count had formed a tight bond in my mind.

As such, I was bound to be disappointed by Coppola's version, and I was, at first. The novel evokes such an expansive and evocative setting that Coppola's deliberate artifice and soundstage-bound settings seemed limited to me - then there were the several examples of tortured miscasting among the actors, none more embarrassing than Keanu Reeves' Jonathan Harker. Reeves is so wooden that the other actors could have driven him straight through Dracula's heart and ended the story a lot earlier, and his feeble attempt at an English accent makes Kevin Costner's Robin Hood sound like a masterpiece of vocal artistry. But the music held my attention and held the whole film together with a solid and satisfying emotional arc. It prompted me to come back and revisit the film later, and I've since come to regard it much more highly, even though I still believe it has very deep flaws.

Love Never Dies

The lyrical heart of Wojciech Kilar's score is rooted in a love theme for Dracula and Mina, who in this version may very well be a reincarnation of the medieval warlord Vlad Dracul's beloved wife Elizabeta. This yearning minor-key theme is repeated and varied throughout the film, changing instrumentation frequently to evoke a range of feelings from haunted dread to passionate eroticism to spiritual salvation. This theme emerges first from quiet strings into a haunting, lonely solo soprano in "Mina's Photo" (Track 3), but quickly passes back to violins to begin to hint at the yearning in the undead prince's cold heart. Later, a different solo instrument, the flute, picks up the melody in "Love Remembered" (Track 7), with a gentler, Debussy-like accompaniment of strings and harp underscoring the growing attraction of Mina to Dracula and the excitement of gentler passions in the monster's heart.

The theme reaches its lushest and most tragic realization in "Mina/Dracula" (Track 11), in which the melody is taken up by low strings that simultaneously produce great warmth, but whose rumbling and scratching hints at the doomed nature of Mina and Dracula's love, even as the English horn and flute reclaim the melody with increasing desperation and a romantic piano enters and builds to a crescendo in the high strings. The dexterity and smoothness with which Kilar builds a romantic passage out of essentially one repeated melody is breathtaking, and the moment at which a French horn enters (around 3:42) to express a variation of the theme sounds like a cry of pain and longing, before the melody transmutes once again into chords which suggest deep spiritual and religious faith - an important point to emphasize in a story about a man whose centuries-long curse is the direct result of renouncing God because of his wife.

By the time this love theme reaches the end of the story, in "Love Eternal" (Track 13), its mood is mournful rather than romantic, shared among peaceful strings and an angelic choir which sings this not-so-sweet prince to his rest - the dream is lost even as Dracula's evil is dispelled.

Tellingly, the main theme for Bram Stoker's Dracula, which symbolizes the vampire himself, is based on the same chord progression as the Dracula/Mina love theme, revealing musically the very heart of the production - love transforming a man into a monster, and eventually, back again through death and transfiguration.

Monster music

The score to Bram Stoker's Dracula also features some more traditional thrills. The opposing force to Dracula's evil is represented simply by a brash ostinato for the "Vampire Hunters" (Track 2), a relentlessly driving charge that underscores (literally!) the coalition of Dr. Van Helsing and the young men who hunt down the evil monster and eventually do him in. This appears in various guises and instrumentation throughout, but always the very same strident rhythm. I wonder if it doesn't also highlight the fact that the trio of young suitors to Lucy who become the vampire hunters are all a bit "one-note" anyway, more types than actual characters - the priggish nobleman, the tough Texan with the big knife, the sensitive doctor - but I'm not sure if this is intentional or just a side effect of being paired with the acting in the movie, which with the exception of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins (and a delicious Tom Waits cameo), is mostly just embarrassing.

There's some good old fashioned terror, too, and Kilar uses creative layering of clashing musical elements to create jarring effects in several tracks. The combination of live playing and studio mixing is especially effective in "The Storm" (Track 6), when a pretty melody on bells and piano is played in several overlapping tempos to create a disorienting and hallucinatory effect, before trombones break in to present the approaching menace of the doomed ship carrying Dracula in a dreadful storm. Additional layers of a soaring ghostly female voice, the barking and snarling brass, determined low piano, and the occasional return of a queasy version of the previous pretty melody create a pit of mounting dread. The crowning terror comes from a chanting male choir who sings, "SANGRIS VITA EST" - the blood is the life - over and over, culminating in a full choir statement of the swelling melody and dissolving into moans and screams, as though the entire orchestra and choir itself were on board the ship as it ran aground. (I recently acquired a CD of a re-recording of parts of the Dracula score along with some other Kilar pieces, and the choir on this number ends up singing far too politely to create the terror-stricken sound that the composer clearly intended. Sometimes you just have to throw away the score and get wacky.)

Music Eternal

Wojciech Kilar is pretty well-known in his native Poland as both a classical and film composer, and has worked with some of the most notable names in Polish and international cinema, including fellow Pole Roman Polanski. He's never become quite as popular here, sadly, and despite having won numerous awards, hasn't ever won an Oscar. I wonder if that's simply because too few people in AMPAS can figure out how to pronounce his name. He's composed other wonderful scores, including The Portrait of a Lady, The Ninth Gate, Death and the Maiden, and The Pianist, and I'm very happy that I've been able to collect some of these as well as his classical works. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's newest music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, a fellow Pole, delighted me in one of his first concerts in town by playing a concert suite of some of Kilar's music. I hope to hear more of it. Meanwhile, if you're looking for some great mood music for your Halloween hauntings, you could do much worse than Bram Stoker's Dracula.

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