In the 1930's and 40's, the duo of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone as hero and villain were almost a guarantee of box office gold and no more so than in The Sea Hawk, a lavishly produced swashbuckler that took all the best elements of other ocean adventures, a bit of Robin Hood and some real historical figures to give it a little dose of (rather false) period authenticity. Only two years after his hugely successful Oscar winning score for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was of course the perfect and obvious choice to pen the suitably flamboyant score.
The Main Title is a well known compilation staple, but as an heraldic fanfare to thrust the film goer and soundtrack listener into the action is as high impact as they come, but is naturally countered by a luscious string melody. For this type of film, Korngold's compositional style is very direct, there is little in the way of a dramatic grey area; the nasty Spanish get an ominous brass motif in the Spanish Galleass (whatever a galleass is), while Dona Maria receives a syrupy love theme and of course the main title fanfare accompanies anything heroic. In amongst the expected elements of a Korngold score are a few surprising interludes, particularly the daffy percussion of Thorpe's Pet Monkey. The almost jazz like rhythms and percussion of The Jungle March are quite unexpected, the lazily syncopated saxophone comes close to seeming out of place next to a quite stoic march.
Like Robin Hood, the action music has an amazing level of intricacy, even when the larger part of the orchestration doesn't seem that complex, the embellishments make up for it. These are usually short runs on xylophone, woodwind (a favourite Williams device) or harp, often not timed on the major beats of the bar which only adds to the tension. Korngold's well developed leitmotiv sensibility is much in evidence too, the Battle (after The Jungle March) is based on the main title fanfare, but is carefully amended to give it an element of threat and urgency. There are a few, brief vocal contributions, starting with Dona Maria's Song which is quite lovely and fits well into the mood of the music, certainly better than many songs, old or recent. Strike for the Shores of Dover twists the main theme into an enthusiastic, but short lived choral interlude, which is a little unexpected to the modern listener - choral music in scores tends to be wordless, certainly not in English - but is so striking that it can't fail to thrill, especially after the drama of Fight on Deck.
They really don't write scores like this any more. Even for more recently made period action films, the score is usually deliberately anachronistic (even though Korngold's is not at all meant to set the period) or a faux Korngold score. However, those falling into the latter category are invariably lumbering compared to the lithe grace of scores such as The Sea Hawk and for all their surface complexity are really little more than tributes to over orchestration and grand gesture. The original score runs another hour over the 45 minutes presented here, but as Korngold's son produced the album, his choices are surely astute. The Utah Symphony Orchestra perform superbly under Varujan Kojian, although the tempos are just a fraction under Korngold's original, but giving the music a little more space to breath is to its advantage. The liner notes feature an interview with the late Korngold Jnr. and are a nice, first hand background story to the score and film. A great presentation of first rate music.