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ClassicsOnline Home » HERRMANN / NEWMAN: Egyptian (The)
By Andy Cooper
This is a classic example of a film score that has become far more famous than the movie it was composed for.
A mystical epic about an Egyptian wanderer seeking the meaning of life in the time of the Pharaohs, The Egyptian was made in 1954 and could have been a great movie had 20th Century Fox stuck with its plan to cast the young Marlon Brando in the lead role. However, bland contract player Edmund Purdom got the part instead and supporting players Jean Simmons and Victor Mature couldn't save it.
Because composer Alfred Newman was busy with other work, he collaborated on the film with Bernard Herrmann, who wrote many great Alfred Hitchcock scores including Vertigo and Psycho.
This beautifully recorded performance, conducted by Willam Stromberg, features 71 minutes of the mysterious, brooding and evocative joint score.
Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) and Alfred Newman (1900-1970)
The Egyptian Film Score, 1954
Score restoration and reconstructions by John Morgan
"Give me width, not depth …"
– Darryl F. Zanuck to 20th Century Fox staffers in a Cinemascope ballyhoo
Great film music – music composed for the only art form created in the 20th Century – can stand alone as a great symphonic experience.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of 20th Century Fox's The Egyptian (1954), a unique one-time collaboration between two of the greatest artists who ever composed music for the cinema, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann.
This legendary score for one of the first wide-screen epics is as colorful and complex as any tone poem composed by Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov. As symphonic music, The Egyptian is rich in orchestral colors, complex orchestrations and chorus, all coming together to literally recreate a long ago time and place where courtly intrigue, martyrdom, and a triumph of the human spirit kindled a new way of believing: monotheism, as embodied in the worship of the sun-god, Aton.
The results of the Newman–Herrmann collaboration were so spectacular, the film music from The Egyptian has earned a life of its own.
The epic film…
The Egyptian had more width and, overall, more depth, than most pseudo-religious epics of the 1950s. Films such as The Prodigal and Land of the Pharaohs certainly matched the grandeur of Fox's adaptation of the popular historical novel by Finnish writer Mika Waltari, but The Egyptian posed a mystical sense that distinguishes it from the usual sand and spear epics.
Both the film and novel are based on one of humankind's oldest tales, the story of Sinhue, an Egyptian wanderer who was a seeker of life's true meaning. Stored in earthen jars and archived by ancient libraries, it was first written on papyrus scrolls that date as far back as 2000 B.C.
Here then was a great tradition of storytelling, one that almost made The Egyptian a memorable film. The behind-the-lens talent was certainly there. Director Michael Curtiz, an Oscar winner and veteran of both epics and drama (Casablanca, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Sea Hawk, etc.), gave the film coherence and a sense of mysticism. The script by wordsmiths Philip Dunne and Casey Robinson managed to tackle the novel's incredible range of characters and events. But the lead role was complex, more akin to Hamlet than the usual Hollywood hero. And here, a linchpin pulled early on hobbled the production: Marlon Brando was originally penciled in as Sinuhe. Brando might have given the role the range that it demanded. But the studio, in a paroxysm of thrift, went with Edmund Purdom, a contract player. That saved money, but at the cost of rendering the lead performance to a level secondary to sets and Cinemascope. In effect, it was a consummate example of Zanuck's "more width, less depth." Co-starring performances by a beautiful Jean Simmons and a muscular Victor Mature were solid; Michael Wilding gave a sensitive performance as a doomed pharaoh. A highlight of the cast was Peter Ustinov, who once quipped that being a part of The Egyptian was like being lost in Aida.
When The Egyptian premièred, critics were polite, and audiences warm, but ticket sales were nowhere near the expected box-office tally. The Egyptian earned an Academy Award nomination for Best (Color) Cinematography, then settled into oblivion.
The Egyptian Film Score
"For I … am a human being. I have lived in everyone who existed before me and shall live in all who come after me. I shall live in human tears and laughter, in human sorrow and fear, in human goodness and wickedness, in justice and injustice, in weakness and strength. As a human being I shall live eternally in mankind. I desire no offerings at my tomb, and no immortality for my name. This was written by Sinuhe, the Egyptian, who lived alone all the days of his life." – The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
[Track 1] Prelude (Herrmann): Full horns and brass, with violins and shimmering chorus over a foundation of timpani frame the memorable baseline of The Prelude, an awing musical tableau of an ancient world of long ago gods, temples and power. The chorus with solo harp defines Sinuhe's spiritual quest.
 The Ruins (Herrmann): Muted fanfares pulse the rhythms of the sacred Nile which is transformed by a magnificent burst of full orchestra as the grandeur of the Sphinx and pyramids are seen, not as ruins but as living symbols of Egypt's eternal power.
 The Red Sea & Childhood (Herrmann): Bass strings expansively present the Red Sea, becoming a delicate string background for the childhood of Sinuhe, The Egyptian. This orchestral line defines Sinuhe's longing for answers to heart and soul that are missing in his life. He is an orphan whose foster-parents care for him and give him encouragement to be a physician. But there's something missing and the music presages a quest that will take him to the halls of the pharaohs and the threshold of martyrdom.
 The Nile & Temple (Herrmann): An eloquent display of religiosity that permeates the film.
 Her Name Was Merit (Newman): A beautiful narrative of a winsome servant girl, Merit, who captures Sinuhe's eye with a theme that recalls elements of The Robe and David & Bathsheba.
 The Chariot Ride (Herrmann): A riotous orchestral rollercoaster ride as Horemheb and Sinuhe storm through the desert's wastes after an evening of drink and rowdiness.
 Pursuit (Herrmann): Horemheb hunts a lion and saves a prayerful man's life, a man who is discovered to be Pharaoh. Savage horns define Horemheb's violence and ambition.
 Akhnaton – One Deity (Newman): One of the greatest anthems to monotheism ever written for the screen. Newman's genius vividly landscapes the interior of Akhnaton's spirit and soul as a distant, radiant sunrise brings light throughout the flat darkness of the desert. A solo trumpet heralds the sun; veil-like strings rise, unerring in their sense of impending majesty. Voices join, crystallizing a moment of absolute mysticism.
 Taia (Herrmann): Low brass and ominous strings bind Akhnaton, Sinuhe and Horemheb in what is to be a doomed friendship.
 Party's End (Herrmann): A tentative display of faux-source music by Herrmann opens the door to a tragic romance. Strings that once portrayed Sinuhe's spiritual longing become more sensual.
 Nefer-Nefer-Nefer (Herrmann): A new sense of longing and sadness for the ill-fated romance between Sinuhe and the beautiful courtesan, Nefer-Nefer-Nefer (a sleight-of-hand for "Never, Never, Never"). Her treacherous greed for money and flesh goes unseen by the stricken Sinuhe whose naiveté is expressed by a plaintive oboe and strings.
 The Rebuke (Herrmann): Nefer-Nefer-Nefer shuns Sinuhe. Her rebuke is underscored by music that bespeaks her name again and again, spiraling down into hurtful frustration as Sinuhe realizes that he must give all that he owns and holds dear to this woman's dark demands.
 The Deed (Herrmann): Desperate woodwinds twist Sinuhe's decision to sign over all he owns and his parents' sacred tomb – dooming their place in eternity – to Nefer-Nefer-Nefer in hopes of buying her love. The music of his childhood fails to hold him back. A damning orchestral commentary condemns his lust.
 The Harp & Couch (Herrmann): Unsettling harps and strings unite the would-be lover with the object of his desire in an orchestral tease.
 The Perfection of Love (Herrmann): Strings lose a previous sense of romance and take on an increasing tension punctuated by a harp that becomes a piercing counterpoint to Nefer-Nefer-Nefer's display of heartlessness. Her "perfection of love" is to send Sinuhe away. Sinuhe is enraged.
 Violence (Herrmann): Sheer Herrmannesque exuberance as trombones pound with sharp woodwinds as Sinuhe attacks Nefer and is subdued by her servants, then thrown out of her house.
 Valley of the Kings [parts 1 & 2] (Newman): A desolate Sinuhe buries his parents, who have died paupers because of their son's lust. Sinuhe decides to leave Egypt in hopes of finding his fate and some sense of redemption. Merit gives herself to him in hopes of offering consolation. Delicate strings throughout move Sinuhe back to his spiritual quest and a momentary reference to Hymn to Aton, the Sun, makes a first appearance. Sinuhe goes into self-imposed exile.
 The Homecoming (Herrmann): Egypt's might and order has disintegrated into chaos as Sinuhe returns from his wanderings. A new religion, the worship of one god, Aton, has caused upheaval and discord among the people and the once powerful priests of the old order.
 Hymn to Aton (Newman): The words to this extraordinarily beautiful choral work were actually written more than 3,000 years ago by Akhnaton himself. Brilliantly composed for voices and orchestra, Newman and Ken Darby created one of the most exquisite portraits of an ancient religion. Its exotic, mystical quality is wondrously ethereal, a profound expression of blissful, devoted worship. Sinuhe feels the power of Aton, as he does Merit's love – his heart and soul warmed by both.
 Sight, Sounds & Smells (Newman): Sinuhe swears his healing arts to aid the poor. A colorful cue that illustrates daily life in ancient Egypt.
 Live for Our Son (Newman): Sinuhe learns that he has a son by Merit. An oboe introduces a tender, more mature variation of Merit's theme.
 Am I Mad? (Newman): An orchestral portrait of Akhnaton torn between spirituality and the reality of defense and war. Sinuhe has brought Horemheb an iron sword. The two take the new weapon to Pharaoh, urging him to stave off an impending attack by Hittites armed with this new technology. The Hymn to Aton, the Sun returns in a more lyrical form as Pharaoh urges peace and asks, "Am I mad?" A solo trumpet variation of Aton's desert sunrise recurs that is overridden by an early presentation of music that will hauntingly become Sinuhe's Exile & Death.
 The True Pharaoh (Herrmann): Sinuhe learns that he is the son of the great pharaoh, by one of his lesser wives, who ruled before Akhnaton. Sinuhe's half-sister, Baketamon, tells him that as an infant, he was taken from his mother by the queen and set adrift on the Nile where he was found by his foster family. But Sinuhe refuses the temptation to make a bid for the throne. A counterpoint of martial brass foreshadowing Horemheb's coronation punctuates the lure of power, but the radiance of Aton subdues the threat.
 The Tomb (Herrmann): A daunting line of brass chords expresses the awesome afterlife of the great pharaoh. A deep, sustained note vividly presents the might of the great king and muted trumpets bring his legacy to life as Sinuhe confronts the sarcophagus of his real father.
 Holy War (Herrmann): The old gods rise up against the new and the slaughter of the innocents results. One of Herrmann's most savage compositions, a whirlwind of violence. (Some slight references to Herrmann's King of the Khyber Rifles.)
 Dance Macabre (Herrmann): One of Herrmann's boldest statements, full of shrill flutes, brass and percussion. Disconcerting fanfares end the cue, punctuated by cymbals in a crushing statement of finality.
 The Death of Merit (Newman): How beautiful art thou is played in increasingly dark tones as harrowing, terrified voices are raised, pleading for rescue and deliverance. Newman's exposition opens in innocence segueing into fanfares of agonizing terror. The chorus becomes a murderous lament as arrows coldly slay men, women and children. The hymn becomes an anguished dirge of wails amid the cry of unrelenting strings. The cue ends with a deathly reprise of Merit's theme, with heavy brass restating – now in epitaph – "How beautiful art thou …"
 Death of Akhnaton (Newman): A display of Newman's great power as narrator as the composer references earlier themes, ingeniously reworked here. Plucked strings, voices and tambourines introduce the Hymn to Aton, the Sun, which is followed by a reference to Merit who brings Sinuhe to the side of a king who must die. Then an orchestral reprise of the rising sun that first brought Sinuhe, Horemheb and Akhnaton together as friends now binds Sinuhe and Horemheb in a conspiracy of death. Wailing voices and strings join a low solo trumpet as strings articulate "How Beautiful art thou…" Fading brass and extended strings follow Akhnaton's spirit into darkness as the gentle king who wanted only love and peace dies from a poisonous draught given by Sinuhe who is both shaken and moved by Akhnaton's martyrdom.
 The New Pharaoh (Newman): After a statement of Sinuhe's new-found spirituality, a burst of martial savagery marks a dramatic shift in the score to brutal commentary on the coronation of Horemheb as new pharaoh. His first edict? To sentence Sinuhe to permanent exile.
 Death & Exile (Newman): Low fanfares herald an exiled, aging Sinuhe, estranged from his native land, his son, and his heart and soul. He sets aside rolls of papyrus, a fragile memoir of his life, and confronts the vastness of an empty sea – an eternity of ebb and flow – as a radiant sun begins to set, the same sun that so many years before brought him to a fateful, life-changing meeting with Akhnaton. A magnificent solo trumpet over strings restates Sinuhe's spiritual quest that finds complete expression in full chorus and orchestra, rising higher and higher in a breathtaking reprise of the Hymn to Aton, climaxing with a crash of cymbals.
Jack Smith is film music critic for Films in Review and Soundtrack! magazines. A veteran reporter and editor, he has interviewed numerous Hollywood celebrities including composer Jerry Goldsmith, and directors Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah. He is also co-producer of the Brigham Young University Film Music series. A successful commercial photographer, Smith lives with his wife, Jackie, in Southern California.
In preparing the music for this recording of Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann's score to The Egyptian, my main objective was to distill the almost 100-minute score to the best 70 minutes. My criteria for choosing the music for this recording was based on what I felt worked best away from the film as a musical listening experience. For over forty years, the so-called original 49-minute soundtrack album has been in and out of print many times. Although the film's soundtrack was recorded in four-channel stereophonic sound, the album was only available in mono, with much artificial reverberation added. Furthermore, most of the selections were rerecorded for the album, and Alfred Newman made changes in some of them. For this recording, I have gone back to the primary source materials to present this music as it was originally composed for the film. Some of the full scores for the Newman-composed sections are lost, so I reconstructed them from conductor parts.
In an 15 April 1954 memo from studio head Darryl Zanuck to composer Alfred Newman, always Zanuck's favorite in the Fox music department, the Fox executive wrote: "Undoubtedly The Egyptian will be a big important musical score. More than anything I would like to have you do it but I do not conceivably see how you can do it at the same time you are doing Show Business (There's No Business Like Show Business) and the other many things that you have to do… Who do you suggest for the job? I have been thinking both of Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann. I actually favor Waxman for this particular assignment…I believe that Waxman also has a record with us of being reasonably fast." In an 19 April 1954 reply, Newman wrote to Zanuck: "It is needless to tell you that for sentimental reasons I would have liked writing the score for your personal production, but in the best interests of the Company I should do Show Business, especially since it is our first musical in Cinemascope with Stereophonic sound." Because of his loyalty to Zanuck, Alfred Newman assigned his brother Lionel to help with the musical chores on There's No Business Like Show Business so he could clear his slate and start developing thematic material for The Egyptian. Despite this effort, and because the film had a fixed commitment for the world première, Newman brought staff colleague Bernard Herrmann aboard as primary composer after he had developed some of the thematic material for the film, hence some of the Herrmann-composed cues have the notation: "Music developed by Bernard Herrmann from themes composed by Alfred Newman." When the première date was moved ahead again and since Newman was free of There's No Business Like Show Business, Herrmann, never the easiest artist to work with, suggested they collaborate on the score – a testament of the rare respect Herrmann allotted Newman. Edward Powell provided the original orchestrations for the Newman-composed material, while Herrmann, as was his custom, did his own orchestrations. Although Herrmann rarely used a click track, he did utilize one for two of his cues in this film: The Chariot Ride and Pursuit.
One of our biggest challenges was to decide which of the complex recording requirements indicated in the music, but often dictated by filmic reasons, would be implemented. Her Name Was Merit starts out with alto flute and oboe d'amore playing the melody in unison, but the alto flute is asked to sit 30 feet behind the oboist. We honored indications such as the former, as they were done expressly for musical purposes. However, in the cue The Harp and Couch, Herrmann prerecorded the harp part to picture and later had the bass clarinets and violins play their parts while listening to the harp through headphones. Since this was done solely to synchronize the harp to picture, we recorded everyone together. Also, Herrmann asked for the cue The Holy War to be recorded "long pick-up only (distant effect needed)." Analyzing the scene and music in the film itself, it was clear that Herrmann was "playing" the dramatics of an off-camera battle and wanted the music to be heard as if it was coming from the next county, but still played with loud attacks, rather than just dubbed down to a low volume after the fact. We opted to play and record this music normally so the dynamics of the music would be heard for the first time.
The orchestra used for The Egyptian is a large one: three flutes, all doubling on alto flutes and piccolos; three oboes, all three doubling on English horns and one also doubling on oboe d'amore and bass oboe; five clarinets, with two playing bass clarinet; and three bassoons, with the third bassoon doubling on the contra bassoon. The brass group is fairly standard with four horns, three trumpets in C, three trombones, and tuba. Percussion required five players and, in addition to the standard battery, exotic instruments such as tambourines, finger cymbals, sistrums, and castanets. Two harps, celeste, organ pedal, piano, and strings fill out the orchestra. Finally, various groupings of voices were needed for several cues. Although Newman had used chorus in many of his film scores, Herrmann rarely dealt with films that required this particular color (with the notable exception of his 1975 score Obsession ). Newman always preferred recording everything "live," but for reasons of balance and stereo positioning, all the choir sections for The Egyptian were overdubbed after the orchestra parts were recorded. For our recording we employed a slightly larger chorus, which afforded us the opportunity of recording everything simultaneously.
Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman shared conducting duties in the original recording sessions, with each conducting his own music. They each had their own emphasis and conducting styles to bring to the music: Newman insisted on precision, smoothness, and absolute beauty of tone, while Herrmann stressed energy and in-your-face dynamics, which resulted in a certain barbaric roughness to his performance. I am particularly pleased that conductor Bill Stromberg was able to bring these disparate conducting styles into his own interpretation of the music.
I am delighted that John suggested we record music from The Egyptian. I have loved this poignant score since I was a kid, and was always intrigued that two of my favorite film composers, with such different styles, could come together and write such a cohesive score. From a conductor's perspective, this score presented some interesting challenges. Since both composers conducted their own cues on the original soundtrack and both had their own unique styles of conducting, it was a challenge for me to recreate their respective styles. Newman is known for his rich, lush, note-perfect string writing, and Herrmann is known for his "in your face" aggressive wind writing. Of course, I kept this in mind at all times while we were recording. However, it is interesting to note how keenly aware Herrmann must have been of Newman's composing style, as he seems to have written some of his most lyrical music ever including the Prelude, which I had always credited to Newman. All of this, and the fact that Newman came up with the main thematic material, help to give the score its cohesion. Conducting this music was very rewarding for me and I hope you feel we have captured the complete scope of this great score.
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HERRMANN / NEWMAN: Egyptian (The)