55 Days at Peking

55 Days at Peking
55 Days at Peking

After experiencing the epic movie LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and having my first brush with film music, I was taken to see 55 DAYS AT PEKING. I have to admit I never really noticed the music in this movie – I think I was too busy enjoying all the explosions, the battle scenes, the costumes, the array of uniforms on display and the gripping storyline. I loved the film and a few years later came across the soundtrack LP on CBS Records in a second hand store for the princely sum of 24 shillings and 6 pence, which in today’s currency is about £1.25. Alongside the LP in the rack were THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and EL CID, both at the same price. I looked carefully at all three and decided 55 DAYS had the better cover so I got it (I hasten to add I did return and got the other three with my saved pocket money). What I loved about the old LP record were the notes on the back cover about the movie and the music. Whilst I travelled home on the bus I read and digested the notes, so by the time I got home and played the record I was an expert – or so I thought! Tiomkin’s music is rousing and melodic and I mark this soundtrack as being one of my personal favourites and a big influence upon me in my future years as a collector of soundtracks.

Before I get to the review of this wonderful new two CD edition released by the ever industrious La La Land Records, I have to say my connection with the music of 55 DAYS did not end there. In my teens I started to trade LP records with other collectors and one in particular, an Italian gentleman, was looking for 55 DAYS AT PEKING. Mine was not in great condition but he was prepared, he said, to take a chance. Well, when it came down to it I could not part with my trusty old LP so I searched around for another but alas could not find one. Then to my surprise, I saw a gatefold edition on a Japanese label, Toho records I think, which had been re-issued. The art work was wonderful and of course I was already aware that the music was brilliant. I got it thinking I would replace my old LP with it and then send the old LP to Italy – but again I could not do it, so ended up sending the newly released LP to the Italian for a Morricone LP if I remember correctly. Then as compact discs took over I started to replace my LPs with CDs and managed to get 55 DAYS on Varese – great stuff. Then a few years later I was in the same second hand store where I had purchased my original LP and there it was – 55 DAYS AT PEKING the un-released music. WHAT? I thought, and picked up the disc, kind of hiding it. It was a boot I thought. Then it turned out to be from a private collection and contained music from the movie or music cues related to the film which had not seen the light of day. So I purchased it. It had been put together by one of the recording engineers on the original recording and contained not just unreleased music cues but also sections where you could hear Tiomkin speaking or chastising the engineers. A wonderful compact disc which is still within my collection and one that I won’t ever part with. So now comes the double CD expanded edition of Tiomkin’s soundtrack. Has it been worth waiting for? Hell yes…

Sweeping and grand sounding waltzes play alongside a plethora of at times chaotic, agitated, disjointed sounding but exciting action cues which are intermingled and interweaved with tender love themes and beautiful oriental tone poems which seem to glide on a breeze infused with the smell of fresh blossom. Tiomkin’s score was like a United Nations of film music, the composer producing full-on marches for American marines, British Redcoats, French, German, Russian and Italian soldiers and also providing a musical support for the rebellious boxers and Imperial Chinese troops. Maybe when we see the movie nowadays we might think for a second or so that Tiomkin’s score is a little contrived or clichéd as he provides what are now commonplace musical sounds and styles to depict or support each legation that is stationed at Peking. But although all are from different cultures, countries and traditions whilst the siege is on, they all manage to pull together and sing from the same hymn book or in this case the same manuscript, in the hands of a true master Dimitri Tiomkin. The score is indeed an epic one and is also a soundtrack that provides some wonderful support for this great motion picture, enhancing each and every scenario with wonderful melodious content as the composer etches perfectly his exciting, adventurous and luxurious musical ideas upon the proceedings, ensuring that this imposing and magnificent adventure has an appropriate musical background and in some cases foreground. One cue that has always stayed with me no matter on which format I listen is “Attack on the French Legation (track 22/disc 1). Tiomkin’s utilization of near rasping brass and energetic strings playing out a full working of the theme he created to accompany the Chinese Boxers, or the rebellion theme, is heard as the Boxers launch a frenzied attack on the French sector of the city. This causes panic and chaos in the streets and Natasha (Ava Gardener) is caught up in the mayhem as she makes her way to meet a contact, followed by fragments of her Russian styled theme. Tiomkin also introduces “Le Marseilles” fleetingly, depicting the French garrisons’ brave attempt to hold off the ferocious attack and also cope with fleeing civilians. The scene is truly impressive and is supported and elevated further by Tiomkin’s almost frantic sounding score which never lets up or pauses until the last few moments of the cue, giving the scene a sense of depression and also alarm. Percussion, brass strings and woods work together but also battle against each other, creating a musical battle royal.

But I get ahead of myself so back to track 1, “The Overture”. For this opening track the composer provides us with a potted Overture of a number of the important or principal themes we hear later in the score. It begins with a vigorous and slightly troubled performance of the Rebellion theme which opens proceedings and heralds the start of this action filled epic. This opening is soon replaced by an up-tempo version of the theme for Natasha, which is Russian orientated in style. Although brief, this theme makes its presence felt and establishes it. The composer then segues into an instrumental version of the film’s love theme “So Little Time”, introducing this haunting composition to the listener. Again this is short lived and is overwhelmed by the return of the fearsome Rebellion theme which brings the Overture to its conclusion in an outbreak of brass strings and pizzicato punctuations. Track 2, “Main Title”, is a fuller version of the love theme and is like the calm before the storm. It accompanies delicate Chinese styled watercolours; the calmness only being disturbed for a moment as Tiomkin allows the rebellion theme to raise its fearsome head as the title of the movie looms upon the screen.Amongst the tracks are numerous cues which have not been issued before and an equal number which were not utilized in the film. All in all there are 57 tracks on this double disc set – every one a musical gem to be savoured and appreciated. Tiomkin’s score is an epic one to revere and respect, being film scoring in the time honoured tradition of the Golden Age. This is also an epic release which I recommend without reservation. Packaged to La La Land’s usual high standard, it is a delight for the ears and a feast for the eyes. The notes by Frank K. DeWald are glorious, with a history of the film and also a track by track description.

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