Cromwell

Frank Cordell
Frank Cordell

I first became aware that Frank Cordell was involved in scoring the film CROMWELL (1970) on reading article in “Films and Filming” in 1969 reporting that the composer was having more than a few problems completing the score. I vaguely recall that there were even rumours at one point saying he had been replaced. Thankfully this was not the case and Cordell produced a stirring and imposing musical score tailored to the movie which enhanced and supported it perfectly. His sterling efforts on the soundtrack earned Cordell both Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best original score in 1971; the composer being nominated alongside Jerry Goldsmith for PATTON, Henry Mancini for SUNFLOWER and Alfred Newman for AIRPORT – all of them losing out to Francis Lai for his haunting score to LOVE STORY.

At the time of the film’s release Cordell’s music was slated by critics, many of them saying it was unsuitable for the movie and one even remarking that the music was the weakest attribute of the production. I could not understand why they were so anti the music because I thought Cordell’s music was totally suitable and in keeping with the period in which the film was set. It underlined the action and enhanced the drama perfectly but at the age of fifteen what did I know? All I do know is that the music has stayed with me all these years.

Born in 1918, Cordell was to become an important figure in British light music, including music for radio, television and film. The composer began to work steadily on film scores from the early 1950s and also wrote music for TV advertisements. He was a renowned and respected conductor and arranger becoming musical director for HMV/EMI in 1955. It’s probably true to say that the composer reached his busiest in period in film music composition during the 1960s when he scored THE REBEL and THE BARGEE, starring Tony Hancock and Harry H Corbett respectively, both of which were successful and now regarded as British comedy classics.

Cordell also provided rousing and exciting soundtracks for films such as the World War II drama MOSQUITO SQUADRON and the period drama/adventure KHARTOUM. In contrast was the emotive and poignant musical backdrop for RING OF BRIGHT WATER and the song from this soundtrack, performed by Irish born singer Val Doonican, entered the British popular music charts in 1969. Cordell remained busy and in 1970 scored HELL BOATS and CROMWELL. The soundtrack for CROMWELL was originally released on a Capitol LP record but Cordell’s score was suppressed under sound effects and dialogue. Nevertheless, its quality still managed to filter through and make its presence felt. For many years soundtrack collectors were asking record companies to release the score but to no avail because the tapes had apparently been lost. There was one piece of music from the score recorded and released on a Chandos compilation CD – this was a quadrille based upon the theme Cordell penned for King Charles. There was also a performance of themes from the film broadcast on BBC radio in the 1970s which was, I believe, conducted by Cordell. Intrada Records delved deep into the archives and unearthed the tapes which they had originally thought were the tapes of the original LP record but there had been an error in the labelling of the masters and when Intrada went through the recordings they found the music tracks. So the score had been there all the time; in the archive at EMI for over forty years. This special two disc set not only includes the previously unreleased score but also the original Capitol recording with dialogue and effects on the second disc.

For “The Main Title” the composer utilizes a powerful and daunting brass fanfare to introduce an imposing choral theme which immediately creates a sense of power; “Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord. He hath put down the mighty from their seat. He hath exalted the humble” which creates a commanding and humbling atmosphere. This opening of Cromwell’s theme is the core theme for the soundtrack; the composer adapting and arranging the theme in various ways. At times it is fearful and dominant and on other occasions it is emotive and heart-rending. It underlines action scenes, accompanies moments of sadness and emphasizes the deep religious beliefs and patriotic feelings of the film’s central character.

The choir is interspersed by further brass flourishes, percussion and timpani, supported by strings, adding a sense of urgency or desperation but also infusing a calming atmosphere. This is an impressive and commanding piece which sets the scene in the movie superbly. Track two, “Such Talk is Treason”, is a short but tense composition. Cordell uses brass to begin but swiftly turns to woodwind and string sections to heighten the dramatic atmosphere. The music is heard as two of Cromwell’s friends visit him to persuade him not to leave for America. Cromwell agrees to stay and returns to Parliament in the hope he can be instrumental in persuading King Charles to change his ways. Track three, “Confrontation on Common Land” is heard as the King’s soldiers under the command of Lord Manchester commandeer land which has been given to commoners. Cromwell intercedes but fails to stop the action and is helpless to stop the arrest of one of his workers for treason after calling the King a thief. The piece begins with a sombre and threatening brass stab, which segues into tense strings, punctuated by percussion. Brass returns but is subdued in its performance of the central theme – the music relays here the sense of frustration and vulnerability felt by both Cromwell and the commoners in the face of the unlawful actions of the King. “ You should know Cromwell, that the King is the law of this land” remarks Manchester. “On the contrary my Lord Manchester, it is the duty of the King to up-hold the laws of the Land”. retorts Cromwell.

Cordell’s tense and pulsing music adds much to the scenes overall impact. As I have already said, Cordell’s music was not well received at the time of the film’s release, but has since seen a turnaround in those opinions. The style employed has been likened to Walton and Copeland and has been said to contain phrases and quirks of composition and orchestration that can be compared to Alex North. Cordell’s score can be divided into two sections. There is the theme for Cromwell and the thematic material for King Charles and the Royalist forces which are based upon music, hymns and psalms from the 17th Century and then the composer employs a more conventional way of scoring some of the action cues; i.e. the battle scenes, where driving strings, racing snares, booming percussion and brass take up the gauntlet. But even within these cues, Cordell still manages to incorporate themes for both Roundheads and Royalists as they engage in a deadly conflict that set Englishman against Englishman.

Track 13, is one of the many outstanding cues on the disc. “The New Army” was always one of my favourite tracks on the original LP record but the music was partly concealed under sound effects. The music underscores Cromwell training his new model army and heralds their arrival, with the composer bringing to the fore Cromwell’s theme vocalized by male voices and supported by martial instrumentation in a stirring and inspiring arrangement. Another section of the score which is engaging and wonderfully done comes at the end of the track “The Battle of Naseby” which was a turning point in the English civil war in the favour of the Parliamentary forces. It is the scene where Cromwell realizes that they have been victorious in their fight against the King, but at the same time he receives news that his son has been killed in the battle. A lone soprano performs the opening phrases of the central theme “Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord” eerily but emotively and celestially as we see Cromwell’s pain for his son as he leads him away draped over his horse. Cordell’s music rises in an almost a triumphant manner as the scene closes but at the same time the music underlines the sense of loss experienced by Cromwell as the images fade and the movie goes to intermission. Track 30 “Away with this Bauble (Finale)” is heard over a speech given by Cromwell as he returns to Parliament with his army to eject the members who have become more corrupt than the King which they be-headed. He asks God to give him the strength to govern justly England, as Cordell’s majestic music rings out and brings the movie to its close. This is an important release and at last gives us the chance to savour and appreciate a score that was heavily criticized. As the liner notes say, it also gives us the opportunity to make up our own mind about its qualities and its pitfalls. For me, CROMWELL has always been a masterpiece and will remain so. The CD is magnificently packaged and presented with highly informative notes. Having the original LP recording also evokes memories of younger days when film music contained real substance, real themes and was exciting and innovative. Thank you Frank Cordell and thank you Intrada.

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