Dracula

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 30, 2005
Score adds classic depth

There was a colourization craze a few years back when early classics were stripped of their black-and-white image and “tarted up” with the full rainbow. (Does anyone remember James Cagney with a pink head in the “improved” Yankee Doodle Dandy, or—looking like he’d had a bad Max Factor day—a mauve-faced Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon?) But like the end of vinyl due to the emergence of “forever-lasting” digital recordings (“they will never skip,” wink, wink; nudge, nudge), the modern improvement lacks the mood and special feel of the original. What fun, then, that—recently—several films use bits of black-and-white (e.g., Christopher Nolan’s Memento) as a special effect.

In 1999, Philip Glass composed a new score for the 1931 classic Dracula. The evidence of his considerable genius being the decisions to (a) use only a string quartet (b) engage the services of Kronos Quartet to bring the music to life even as so many on the screen lose theirs (not all permanently, however). The result gives new meaning to “Death and the Maiden” and provides considerable pleasure to movie lover and concertgoer alike.

Glass opts for colours rather than themes in this post-modern melodramatic rendering, chock-a-block full of Alberti basses. Arpeggios signal the entry of the living dead; the horse drawn carriage gallops across the screen with an undercurrent of syncopation that harkens back to Mozart’s first G minor symphony (No. 25, K. 183); the sinister viola helps the weary traveler, Renfield (played with a very fine madness by Dwight Frye), goes up the Transylvanian steps even as his host declaims “The children of the night [wolves howling], what music they make!” All of which contributes to Tod Browning’s marvellous tone of restrained horror and stylish after-life.

The passage to England, with its charming toy-ship-in-the-barrel storm effect, features dissonance in the hatches and the constant glow of Dracula’s penetrating glance. Not surprisingly, the Count fits in easily at the London Symphony concert (Bela Lugosi’s white tie and cape rings true with any musician that has come under the tyranny of a relentless “Master”). The orchestra plugs its way through Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (nice touch) as Dracula tricks Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) into leaving his box—the first step towards a drink at his daughter, Mina’s neck (Helen Chandler, swooning with conviction).

The ensuing sanitarium follies, where the aforementioned doctor is teamed up with Prof. Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, who revels in the misfortune of others and drives the stake home with zeal), is effectively enhanced by pizzicati and repetitive scales underscoring the telling line “When was the last time you saw Lucy after she died?” The music never intrudes on the story, but adds considerable depth to its spellbinding thrust, parry and flow.

For its part, Kronos Quartet delivers the eerie soundscape with conviction and pizzazz—only an occasional excursion to the dark side of intonation causing any concern. In some films that are dialogue-challenged or musically troubled, the result can be greatly improved if the sound is switched off. With Dracula, the opposite is true—thank goodness the Glass score is also available on Nonesuch (79542). Be sure to place one in your crypt today; save it for your next dark and stormy night. JWR

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