Rebecca (1997) / by Charlie Brigden

rebecca The highly popular 1938 novel Rebecca written by Daphne du Maurier has been filmed a number of times and perhaps most famously by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself as the debut of his directorial career in the United States (scored by Franz Waxman). The somewhat less famous version is the British two-part television mini-series from 1997, which was produced by the Carlton Television and directed by Jim O'Brien, starring Charles Dance, Emilia, Fox and Diane Rigg and sporting a powerful score by Christopher Gunning. It is a project the composer himself remembers very fondly. And for a good reason as this soundtrack testifies.

The story of Rebecca involves a young woman, who while employed as a lady's companion in the French Riviera falls in love with a widower Max de Winter and ends up marrying him and moves with him to the grand English family estate of the de Winters, Manderley. There she meets the efficient but aloof housekeeper of the ancestral hall, Mrs. Danvers, who seems to cling to the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter with macabre fascination and adoration and slowly starts a psychological game with the new wife to drive her out or possibly to a darker fate. The slowly unfolding mystery that surrounds the deceased wife reaches dark revelations and a fierily conclusion at the climax of the movie which ultimately sees the main couple saved from dire straits and beginning their life together anew, finally having exorcised the ghosts of the past.

Gunning's score presented on its premiere soundtrack release in a 55 minute programme (culled from the 90 minutes of music composed for the mini-series) is a delight for all fans of bold thematic film music as the score is full of memorable themes and old fashioned high drama ranging from sunny Arcadian evocations of English countryside and seascapes to masterfully painted psychological anguish and foreboding and achingly innocent romance done with almost Golden Age sweep. Although composed for a moderate ensemble (this was a television production after all) the composer never plays down to the medium and so the music sounds like a full bloodied film score with depth and scope that belies the relatively small forces behind it. Strings, woodwinds, horns, harp, piano and percussion form the orchestra that is led by the sonorous sounds of the solo cello played by Moray Welsh. As with many other TV productions Gunning wrings a surprising amount of dramatic power from his relatively small ensemble, a bit over 30 players, recorded with clarity and orchestrated with skill here.

The score is of symphonic scope and is squarely focused on thematic development. Three major thematic lines are continually varied throughout the album in a very classic fashion. The story is rife with dramatic musical possibilities and none more than the persona of the eponymous Rebecca, who is never fully seen but whose memory haunts the characters and overshadows everything with ominous presence. The composer hones in on her person and crafts a stunning cello led theme full of dark anguish, mystery and potent lyricism that permeates the score in various forms, appearing around every corner and slowly comes to dominate the proceedings. Secondly there is a beautiful and suitably sweeping lyrical love theme, which also works as a musical portrait of the innocent young woman who becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and thirdly the composer conceived an expansive, simple yet stately theme for the ancestral home of the de Winters, Manderley, that assumes a very British pastoral character to describe the estate and the English countryside itself.

The composer focused very keenly on the romance aspect of the story and the subtle strains of the love theme already function as the curtain opener of the score in the 'Opening and Main Title' but the melody gets a fuller, lovely reading on solo flute in 'Courting' which blossoms into the main romantic idea in a broad string variation reminding of the late John Barry in its velvety expansive style, carrying a clear old fashioned air of romance. Despite Gunning admitting that he didn't think much of Franz Waxman's classic score for Hitchcock's version, his own music does share certain Golden Age penchant with Waxman's work for playing the emotions big and bold.

“Falling in Love” further explores the love theme offering another unabashed string led variation now sprinkled with woodwind and piano colours, the composer sparing no expense in drawing that last drop of emotional power from his melody. This same amorous musical mood continues directly 'The Proposal' which starts tentatively on gorgeous solo flute but suitably swells with emotion and turns expectant and giddy at its end. 'The Second Mrs. De Winters' Turmoil' brings back the flute which plays the gentle opening phrase of the theme, really a theme for the second Mrs. de Winter, that speaks of her innocence and emotional fragility, and slowly hints at the Rebecca's theme in a most deliciously ominous fashion. 'Max and the Second Mrs. De Winter' at the closing half of the album contains a brief haunting part hopeful part moody version of this innocent theme, now more matured, that sweeps to a dramatic final cadence and the melody reaches its dramatic height quite expectedly in 'A Night of High Drama' where it alternates between Rebecca's theme in a musical confrontation.

Even though Rebecca's theme looms large, the aforementioned love theme and Manderley's music are the musical antidote for the pall it often casts. Track 4, 'Manderley', features an expansive musical introduction to the ancestral country estate that simply shines with a very English spirit, which seems to come naturally to the composer, who combines here classical refinement with pomp and pastoral. 'Max Enjoys His Estate' is as bright as a spring morning with another heart melting flute solo and a new pastoral melody that joins with the Manderley theme and Gunning turns the theme in 'Preparations for the Ball' into a sprightly little minuet that dances with joyous energy and elegance that conjures shades of the effortless mastery of Erich Wolfgang Korngold in the same style and spirit. 'Shipwreck in the Cove' opens with a gorgeous new heroic hymn-like melody, so "English" that it feels like it could have been penned by Elgar or Vaughan Williams. This is all terrific stuff, all case book examples of dramatic scoring done right and with sensibility and melodicism.

Rebecca's theme is near omnipresent in the score, initially performed in very similar orchestrations and presentations of its melodic line but soon the composer starts to draw numerous variants with different instrumental combinations from it, but the elegant pathos filled cello solos of Moray Welsh are never far away and in a way they become Rebecca's musical voice. Stylistically this music comes close to what the fans of Poirot might expect and know from Gunning's work for that television series, which also often combined haunting with tragic. 'Opening and Main Title' first builds on dreamy pastoral tones of the horns and woodwinds intoning the love theme before launching into this dark hued tempestuous theme on solo cello underpinned by rumbling orchestral waves and taken up by high strings in fateful tones, telling us in the process that all will not be right on the estate of Manderley.

The development of the material continues in the 'Mrs. Danver's Obsession' where the theme is reprised ominously, again in a very formal fashion, through solo cello and strings, further solidifying the obsession of the housekeeper for her late mistress. While the theme is heard throughout, it will suffice to mention here a few highlights: 'Conflict' sees the motif appearing turbulently after a passage full of agitated churning strings and orchestral jabs, the cello's voice filled with passionate angst and tension and further illustrating the effective skills of Mr. Gunning's dramatic instincts and orchestrations. 'No One Could Match My Lady For Spirit' gives a slight galloping piano accompaniment to the idea for dramatic effect but it still projects dread through the high strings before settling into another tormented variant of the tragic melody. The trifecta of 'The Anguish of Mrs. Danvers', 'A Night of High Drama' and 'Manderley Destroyed' brings the story to a fiery conclusion with Rebecca's theme leading the listener through tempestuous distress, passion and tragedy in an impressive musical conflagration of varying moods that also shows how mastery of orchestration can get a lot more out of a smaller orchestra. 'Closing Credits' gives the story and the score a perfect send-off with a final soaringly dark reading of Rebecca's melody in all its tragic glory.

Christopher Gunning's score for Rebecca is in short an extremely impressive work, especially when you consider it was composed for a television production, and worthy addition to any soundtrack collection. Although it is hardly groundbreaking in form or style nor intends to woo you over with overly challenging modernistic writing, the score has enormous narrative clarity through its precise and memorable themes, powerful orchestrations, excellent crystal clear recording and musically bold handling of the subject matter that translates into a very enjoyable and listenable album that brims with musical drama. Complementing the score come the very informative liner notes by Gergely Hubai and the disc's musical programme is capped by a brief commentary bonus track by the composer himself sharing his reminisces and thoughts on the score and the scoring process. Rebecca comes highly recommended to all film music buffs, particularly to those whole love orchestral scores in the grand old fashioned vein and Caldera Records should be truly commended on their efforts to get more of Mr. Gunning's music released. This is top notch stuff!

-Mikko Ojala

Rebecca is out now on Caldera Records