After a series of very successful James Bond scores in the sixties, John Barry had ensured his place in the hall of fame of film music composers, as well as with the music public at large. The Bond scores immediately struck the chord with a large public, with their contemporary style. And then, in 1968, Barry scored the medieval drama The Lion in Winter, and the large public that had loved his Bond music and his more contemporary scores of the sixties was quite surprised by this dark, brooding, majestic score. However, that did not stop it from becoming a very loved score, and it caught the attention of the Academy that year, and Barry got his second score Oscar. Barry himself says in the liner notes that he believes he got the Oscar because The Lion in Winter was so different from his previous works, such a departure from the Bond scores. But he adds that really the Bond movies were the departure from his way of composing, not The Lion in Winter.
It is necessary to be on the clear from the beginning that The Lion in Winter is not an easy score. This is not the highly romantic Barry of later scores like Out of Africa or Dances with Wolves, and not the swingin’ Barry of the Bond scores. This is Barry at his most serious, The Lion in Winter being one of his darkest scores, heavy on low brass and strings, relying much more on textures than themes. And then the chorus of course – singing both lyrics in Latin, English and French as well as wordless chants – it is used to great effect, and sings both a capella and together with the orchestra. Basically, the chorus is what drives this score, even if the orchestral writing, especially the “dark” use of brass and strings, is quite extraordinary as well.
The main title really sets the tone for the rest of the score, introducing the score’s main theme, a quite harsh theme opening the cue on trumpet and high strings. The theme is developed further in the main title in the brass section, over a steady piano and timpani bass pulse, before the chorus powerfully enters the scene. Definitely one of the best tracks on the album with its exquisite dark power.
This main theme returns in a number of variations, mostly fragmentarily, in a couple of places. Otherwise, there is not much of melodic work in The Lion in Winter; at least, not of the hummable kind. Barry instead works a lot with different motivic cells, which he alters throughout the score in numerous ways. It can be heard when listening closely that there is a thematic unity in much of the music in this score, but it is nothing that will strike you as big themes, aside from the main theme, which is quite memorable. There is a very strong stylistic unity in the score though, which helps make it the very coherent work it in fact is.
While the choral work certainly is the main attraction of the score, the orchestral writing is worthy of a mention as well. Brass and strings are highly favoured throughout, while woodwinds mostly are absent. “God Damn You” is a great example of Barry’s string writing, which is quite elaborate, and deserves a close listen. The brass is used much to accentuate rhythms as well as bass lines, but there are also some thematic interplay inside the brass section, most notably in “To Rome”, where the brass really gets a workout, with the chorus’ soft chanting as background. The brass creates wonderful textures in these cues, and adds much to the drama of the music.
Because essentially, The Lion in Winter is dramatic underscore. Aside from the first two and the last track, the score is a dark, in turns both sombre and quite harsh, exquisitely dramatic exercise in underscore. And what really makes this shine is the chorus.
The best part of the choral work is definitely the wordless chanting utilised in most of the tracks (actually the chorus is present in all of the album’s tracks, so this can really be called a choral score). A highlight of this is “The Herb Garden”, opened by church bells, followed by a wonderful hushed polyphonic plainchant, almost otherworldly in character. All over, this chanting gives the score a rather religious feel, which also was what Barry wanted, according to the liner notes. There are also three “period” songs on the album, which all are decent songs, but nothing spectacular. They have a little too “cheery” feel to really merge with the score, and personally, they just don’t do anything for me. Moreover, the chorus is used to sing Latin text with the orchestra – this is very well used in the second track, “Chinon/Elanor’s Arrival”, a very beautiful track and quite different from the rest of the score. Here there are some thematic oboe and trumpet solos and a wonderful interplay between female and male chorus. Finally, the last tracks needs a mention too – a real highlight. This final cue is much lighter than the main body of the score, introducing a wonderful string melody, before knightly horns enter, heralding the entrance of the chorus which concludes the score triumphantly.
But, in the end, what lowers the rating of The Lion in Winter is after all the overall dark and harsh character of the score which makes it bit hard to digest, and to a lesser extent its lack of strong thematic work. If you are a real fan of dark choral underscore it can admittedly not get much better than this; but it nevertheless still lacks that ability to instantly enchant you, which would make it a real masterpiece. The Lion in Winter may, at first listen, even turn you away from it – it can seem both boring and rather uninteresting, being rather much similar from start to finish. It is however a very good score, and at the low price this original recording is sold at, I see no real reason not picking it up. But be warned: this is not an easily accessible score – it will take many listens before it sinks in and really grows on you. But, if you give it its time, I am perfectly sure that you will find the greatness of this dark score. It has a lot of personality, essentially being a very unique piece of work.