Samuel Bronston’s THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE belongs to cinema of a different era. In today’s world of bloated CGI, the 1964 film is impressive if for nothing else than the detailed sets and hordes of extras that flank the various battlefields. The acting and love story between Stephen Boyd’s Livius and Sophia Loren’s Lucia leave much to be desired, but the film is worthwhile in no small part due to Christopher Plummer’s scheming Commodus and other heavy hitters such as Alec Guinness and James Mason. Despite the film’s faults, probably no empire ever fell to such gorgeous music as that of Dimitri Tiomkin.
In the past, fans of Tiomkin’s Oscar-nominated score had to purchase not only the original album (a rerecording later released on Varese Sarabande), but also a More Music From… album (with some of the same cues and less than stellar sound quality) to get close to a complete representation of the score. Time to retire those overpriced eBay items. Prometheus Records’s new, complete recording of Tiomkin’s brilliant score supplants all the previous issues.
Tiomkin, who penned Bronston’s earlier 55 DAYS AT PEKING and CIRCUS WORLD, never intended the score to be an academic interpretation of the music of ancient Rome. Focusing instead on the inherent drama in the story (and perhaps inspired by the over-the-top visual splendor), Tiomkin used whatever musical means necessary to achieve his ends, employing unorthodox instrumentation such as Novachord, harpsichord and mandolin, and incorporating fanciful musical forms such as the tarantella. In lesser hands, the music could have sounded chaotic and anachronistic. Instead, Tiomkin’s distinctive musical voice bring down an empire with 140 minutes of musical grandeur.
The power of the recording is evident from the opening fanfares. The brass are crisp and penetrating, while the depth of resonance in the organ during the “Prelude” is enough to shake the windowpanes. The haunting minor-key primary theme, “The Fall of Love,” whether later voiced in strings, chorus, or full orchestral splendor, is one of Tiomkin’s finest.
Musical set pieces such as the glorious “Pax Romana” march are performed with glorious orchestral luster. The funereal “Profundo” treads heavily, while chromatic strings and brass swoon their way through “The Dawn of Love/Drinking Companions.”
As with many Tiomkin scores, ROMAN EMPIRE offers the orchestral elements an intense workout. Barbaric percussion get their chance to shine in the raucous “Barbarian Attack.” Tiomkin often changes musical moods at the drop of a hat, and the recording doesn’t disappoint in making each seemingly random change crystal clear. The musicians are every bit the match for the cacophonous musical moods of the “Persian Battle” and the swirling bacchanal of the “Tarantella,” while the final “Fall of Rome” calls for music that is every bit as grand and dramatic as the scene calls for.
Nic Raine and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra once again prove themselves masters of Tiomkin’s difficult music, capturing every nuance and instrumental detail of the score, from every soaring string line to each growling, flutter-tongued brass lick. The sparingly-used chorus lends harmonic gravitas to Rome’s imminent demise. Producer James Fitzpatrick records with his typically clean sonic landscape and, as always, Frank K. DeWald’s liner notes provide an entertaining, detailed discussion of the film and a track-by-track analysis of the score.
If ever there was a film that called for Tiomkin’s talents, then THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE is it. His Slavic sensibilities combined with a knack for melody and his distinctive sound make this one of the more enjoyable Tiomkin scores. For those willing to delve deeper into the details, revel in the subtlties and forgive the characteristic excesses will be richly rewarded.
With each successive recording, Fitzpatrick, Raine and the Prague musicians continue to top themselves. That this Tadlow release is on another label in no way affects the quality of the production. THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE is one of Tiomkin’s towering achievements and film music fans should celebrate. Rome, it seems, has risen once again.