The Devil And Daniel Webster/Herrmann

January 19, 2007


One of the interesting aspects of listening to a classical suite (alas there is no OST) such as this one is you have a choice of recordings and one can compare differences. In addition to the Herrmann conducted suite (Unicorn UKCD 2065) there is also a complete recording of the suite with James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Koch3-7224-2HI). There is also London Phase 4 Stereo recordings, a John Williams compilation, and selections on Silva and Milan. The Koch and Unicorn recordings are the ones, which will be discussed in this review. Herrmann extracted and put together this suite about a year after the film release with the CBS Symphony giving the premiere release in July 1942. It is the music that is available for now. Next year Tribute Film Classics will release a new re-recording of the majority of the material. All this reviewer can say is it’s about time.

The 1941 film, directed by veteran William Dieterle, starred Walter Huston (nominated for best supporting actor) as Mr. Scratch and Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster, telling the Stephen Vincent Benet story of a farmer who makes a pact with the devil. A good film that had the unfortunate luck of coming out the same year as Citizen Kane. All except the wonderful Bernard Herrmann score, which outdid his Kane score and won for him his only Oscar. Not only was Citizen Kane nominated but also other films such as Alfred Newman for How Green Was My Valley, Max Steiner for Sergeant York, and Franz Waxman for Suspicion, so needless to say the competition was quite fierce.

The first part of the suite is “Mr. Scratch” and it is marked Agitato which certainly contributes to the restless, disjointed filled music with frantic strings, dissonant brass, and wild percussion all built around the wonderfully ominous theme. One can already hear in a phrase or two the beginning of chords from Psycho as the strings play in an agitated style. “Ballad of Springfield Mountain” is truly a beautiful peaceful melody. The notation is tranquillo and the calmness and serenity was not necessarily the style of Bernard but it certainly was in the case of this movement. You would be very hard pressed to hear a prettier melody performed by the oboe from anyone! “Sleighride” will likely be one of the more unusual square dance pieces you will ever hear although I don’t think that this is something you’ll hear at a hoe down. “Swing Your Partners” is another square dance style (we’ll most of it) “The Miser’s Waltz” is done in a very slow methodical tempo, a pretty melody with a nice oboe solo followed by his very typical brash brass and percussion. The middle section is almost frantic and then a return to that slow methodical tempo again. While a waltz tempo this is not going to qualify as a Johann Strauss Jr. type. Who said that Herrmann couldn’t write beautiful themes! Certainly not me.

Another collector used the term antiseptic to describe the performance of Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony and I could not have chosen a better word. They perform it well but there is no vigor and excitement in their 20-minute performance. However a definite plus to this recording are the Currier and Ives Suite, Silent Noon, and For The Fallen all works which are normally not included on Herrmann compilations of any kind. The Unicorn release, with Herrmann conducting, is full of vim and vigor. While the actual recording and transfer are slightly less than the Sedares recording it more than makes up for it with a stronger performance. The Unicorn, in addition, contains the Welles Raises Kane Suite and a suite from Obsession. While both recordings are out of print they would be welcome additions to your collection and should be looked for. This work is a classic example of film music being successfully re-written for the symphonic hall.

Track Listing:

1. Mr. Scratch (5:31)

2. Ballad of Springfield Mountain (4:34)

3. Sleigh ride (1:54)

4. The Miser’s Waltz (5:17)

5. Swing Your Partners (2:33)

Total Time is 20:01


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: