The Agony and the Ecstasy

Film is the ideal medium to showcase the visual arts. The lives and work of Frida Kallo (FRIDA), Van Gogh (LUST FOR LIFE) and Jackson Pollock (POLLOCK) have all had varying success in film. While not every painter’s life is necessarily worth exploring, there is something indefinable and inspirational about the visual creation of a work of art that makes their stories compelling. THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965) tackles one of the giants—Michelangelo.

Based on Irving Stone’s bestseller, the film paints the tensions, trials, and tribulations between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) over the creation of the fresco for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The film is not perfect but Heston and Harrison manage to convey the tug-of-war between art and religion with genuine feeling and fervor. Inspired by Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Alex North’s score matches the grandeur of the work stroke for stroke.

North wrote a completely modal score using the Dorian and Lydian modes, two authentic modes adopted for church use in the 5th century. The modes provide a religious tone, with organ chords, harpsichord embellishments, and pealing bells supplying a sense of time, place, and atmosphere. North also employed unusual instruments, such as alto flute, E-flat contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, and Heckelphone (bass oboe), particularly in the scenes conveying Michelangelo’s doubts about the project and agony while painting the ceiling.

Most of the music is in strict 4/4 time, regal and majestic. North researched the music of Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, and North’s use of antiphonal brass perfectly conveys warring factions, whether it be the Church and its enemies or Michelangelo and the Pope (who was known as “The Warrior Pope”). Though the score suggests the Renaissance period, it is always firmly rooted in North’s distinctive, 20th century sensibilities.

[audio:agonyecstasy.mp3]

In addition to North’s score, period cues were supplied by Alexander Courage and the choral work was done by Franco Poltenza. After the completion of the film, a twelve-minute documentary was added as a prologue to give audiences a background of Michelangeo’s life and work, primarily as a sculptor. For this project, North generously brought aboard his friend, Jerry Goldsmith, to compose the score.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is ultimately an intimate film about an epic work. Heston and Harrison are excellent, and the process of creating a masterpiece is fascinating. Alex North’s score gives heart and humanity to divine inspiration.

7 comments

  1. Alex North’s great score perfectly captured the artist’s grand work and, in what was North’s strength, can at the same time express wonderful tenderness. He accomplished the same delicate balance for another completely different film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Now, at the risk of getting into trouble, I would say that Rozsa did not succeed as well in Lust for Life. Not as bad as Spellbound, but same idea.

    Ok, a gratuitous slam at Rozsa. Let me have it.

    1. Also love North’s score for VIRGINIA WOOLF.

      As for LUST FOR LIFE, I actually like the score by itself quite a bit. But I agree that it’s not as successful in the film. It’s a bit heavy-handed.

      1. Yes, I enjoy the score on its own as well. Actually, it was my wife who noticed it was a bit heavy handed for the movie when we saw it recently. Although I wonder how much of the effect is not being in the theater, allowing one to focus on the negative.

  2. I love North’s work for this film Jim. HIs sound was unique.

    For me his music in this and in many of his films is muscular, almost viscerally emotional.

    As you mention he and Goldsmith were friends and Jerry did a wonderful job with the prologue. I sometime wish Jerry had been given more A type epics like this to score as well instead of all the schlock he wound up doing.

    I never did hear the re-recording Goldsmith did for this score. Have you?

    1. I have, or used to have, the re-recording. Haven’t heard it in years though, probably not since the complete soundtrack came out. As I remember it was quite good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *