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Michael McLennen on The Golden Compass Soundtrack pt. 2

Track-by-Track Analysis (Total running time: 74 mins 3 secs)

NOTE: This is a re-written version of my original soundtrack review, which appeared here. Having now seen the film, I felt it was worth re-considering the soundtrack with the film in mind. All questions are welcomed by PM

Warning: Spoilers aplenty lie ahead. I’ve tried also to minimise key spoilers from the narrative by referring to some plot issues elusively, but do be warned – you will know a lot more about the story if you read this than if you don’t.

1. ‘The Golden Compass’ (2:22)

– Intended for the film's narrated prologue where Serafina Pekkala introduces Pullman's core concepts (the multiple universes, Dust, daemons, the alethiometer, the Magisterium). Pullman’s ‘Dust’, and the mysteries of it, lie at the core of this universe as much as Tolkien’s classic rested on the ‘One Ring’, or Herbert’s Dune depended on ‘Spice’. (As far as these intangible proper nouns of fantasy literature go, George Lucas’s ‘Force’ is up there too.) So it is appropriate that Desplat’s main theme seems to stand for the confounding primeval substance.

It’s an understated overture. Out of a primordial texture of violin harmonics, electric cello glissandos and a Tuvan throat singer, a simple five-note motif slowly unfolds on a gong doubled with Tibetan singing bowl. It gives life to an ominous string counterline. This is the theme for Dust. The prologue music alludes to several ideas from the score – ‘Lyra’s Courage’ is foreshadowed in the horns and glistening soft percussion (we see hints of the diverse peoples of Lyra’s world – witches, armoured bears), followed by a hint of the solemn Magisterium melody accompanied by tolling bell (as we see the Magisterium). Lastly, a gentle string arrangement lays out the opening measure of Lyra’s theme, as the camera finds her by the riverbank in Oxford.

2. ‘The Sky Ferry’ (2:44)

–Written for Lyra’s journey to London, this cue is charged with a similar energy to Desplat’s ‘Driving in Geneva’ from Syriana. (Ironically, the Magisterium is located in Geneva in the novels, if I’m not mistaken. The film-makers posit that the Church’s Stalinist architecture finds a home on Thames in the middle of the London Naval College.) The main/travelling theme opens in an energetic arrangement, individual brass voices breaking off into excited fanfares. Gentle flutes and piano elegantly cascade over the splendour, giving way to the sombre Magisterium theme for oboe, strings and tubular bells as Mrs Coulter whitewashes the benevolent dictatorship to her charge.

Mrs Coulter’s theme is hinted at in the off-kilter solo violin line, counterpointed with Magisterium theme for solo trombone, as she remarks that there are ways of living with the repressive priesthood. It’s a musical compromise to describe the moral compromise Coulter entertains in her position. The main/travelling theme returns with energy as Lyra and Coulter head are driven to Coulter’s home in a car that seems to have escaped from the set of AI, Artificial Intelligence. As Lyra explores the house, multiple images dissolve over each other, including images of Svalbard and the bears, settling into a gentle foreshadowing of the Lyra/Iorek melody for flute, harp and cello. (Then again, the hint is so subtle as to possibly be unrelated material.)

3. ‘Letters from Bolvangar’ (2:33)

– One of Pullman’s best-written chapters concerns the abduction of children of all walks of life by ‘the Gobblers’, following one working class boy’s ensnarement by these kidnappers.* This cue’s title suggests that it covers that chapter’s content, though as it turns out the depiction of the kidnapping is somewhat more conventional than in the novel, and the letter-writing sequence is depicted well into the film once the children have been held at Bolvangar for some time.

The cue’s first half, for Billy and Roger’s attempt to write letters to their families, is a moving transformation of Billy’s sprightly theme, now performed for piano, with gentle accompaniment by harp and strings. The harp throughout this cue often appears with Mrs Coulter in the score. Billy’s theme gives way to a malevolent variation of the Magisterium theme for woodwind against cautious brass and strings as Fra Pavel confers with Mrs Coulter regarding Lyra’s significance. The final uncomfortable violin contortion of Coulter’s theme accompanies the arming of the ‘spy wasps’ (for want of a better word) that will hunt Lyra. Is this Coulter at her most ruthless, or is she genuinely concerned for Lyra’s wellbeing? An album highlight – calling to mind the imagery of the novel, and full of subtle hints of themes.

* Note: In the film, the depicted abduction is not of Tony Makarios, but someone closer to Lyra. (See the notes under track 14, ‘Riding Iorek’, below.)

4. ‘Lyra Roger and Billy’ (1:29)

– This is one of the film’s earliest cues, beginning almost the moment ‘The Golden Compass’ ends. It is a brief energetic cue accompanying the friendly scraps of Lyra, her friend Roger, and Gyptian child Billy. Buoyant flutes and a piccolo trumpet lead into a vibrant dance, featuring bouzouki with French horn and trumpet fanfares punctuating. The main melody here is Billy’s theme. The cue foreshadows Desplat’s thematic material for the Gyptian culture, and the general dance-like feel of his action scoring throughout the film. A high pitch brass timbre and a clarinet melody (for the Gyptians) closes the cue as Lyra and Billy face-off over a supernatural dare. Edited from the album version of the cue is most of the scoring of the dialogue between Lyra and Billy at the end of the chase, featuring developments of both Lyra and Billy’s themes.

5. ‘Mrs Coulter’ (5:20)

– This track is a continuous piece of music in the film, covering the section beginning with Coulter’s introduction to the story. The track begins with Mrs Coulter’s theme in a hypnotic arrangement. Airy harp, lush strings, and giddy runs for piano and xylophone characterise well what the book describes of her mysterious attraction. In this particular scene, the music very nicely establishes her instant dominance among the scholars of Oxford. Lyra’s theme is stated warmly for horn and celeste, then for flute and strings over gentle pizzicati as she revels in Coulter’s playful defiance of the Master of Jordan College. Mrs Coulter’s theme returns for bassoon and violins, bringing with it an angular piano motif, low brass and low strings for Ragnar Sturlusson that will recur when the story reaches Svalbard. (The reference to Ragnar’s theme comes as Coulter confides in Lyra a secret about the bear king.) After an elegant bridging passage for strings and harp wherein Lyra is further charmed by the female scientist and explorer, the Coulter theme returns as its namesake sets to work on getting what she wants from the Master, with stronger emphasis on the low bassoon and swooning violins than before.

Meanwhile Roger and Billy wait outside for Lyra, and Billy’s theme creeps in surreptitiously in the flute and mandolin, interweaving with the clarinet theme for the Gyptians. An urgent crescendo for orchestra shatters the moment as the two boys are captured by the Gobblers. The scene shifts to the Magisterium, where Saruman and Claudius debate the troubling work of Lord Asriel. Low strings and woodwinds explore the dark contours of the Magisterium theme. Mrs Coulter’s theme for flute and harp rises above the bleak male chorus as the council affirm the importance of her work.

6. ‘Lyra Escapes’ (3:44)

– This cue opens with an energetic passage for full ensemble as Lyra escapes Mrs Coulter. A strident dialogue for the high strings and timpani underscores Lyra’s scramble to reclaim the alethiometer from Coulter’s daemon. Desplat’s action music recalls Bernard Herrmann’s in some respects (e.g. the screaming flutes of Torn Curtain, the hunting horns), but there are definitely a few touches distinctly his own, such as the piano line that adds to the frenzy. (The cue is similar to ‘Pris a Preige’ from his Une Chance Sur Deux score.) A swift descending passage accompanies Lyra’s descent to the streets of London. The Magisterium theme weaves its way through the celli as Lyra searches for a place to hide. The sickly motif for the Gobblers builds from the flute into another Herrmannesque crescendo as hunting horns gather around Lyra. Col legno and timpani rumbles accompany her capture.

As Lyra is rescued by Ma Costa (one of the few Gyptians who could justifiably apply such generous eye make-up), the strings briefly rhapsodise. The quirky Gyptian war march starts up on taiko drums for Lyra’s journey down the Thames. Woodwinds play a odd motif slowly in their upper registers over a funky rhythm for unconventional percussion and bouzouki. A short passage for percussion and recorders leads into a reprise of the Gyptian clarinet melody.

7. ‘The Magisterium’ (1:58)

– Low register piano and low woodwinds return the drama Pullman’s controversial blend of radical Calvinism and the Roman Catholic church – the Magisterium. Violins scrape out the Gobblers motif from the previous track, with echoing figures in the brass for Fra Pavel’s scheming leaving no question who the villains of the film are! Their systematic regulation of Lyra’s world is nicely captured by this stark, melodic vacuum. Excluded from the opening of this track is the extravagant moment for choir (and what may have been an organ) from the film version of the cue.

Cascading piano and light percussion (heard in a more splendid form in ‘Sky Ferry’, 1:59-2:08) carry us to Coulter’s zeppelin, where Coulter is in some turmoil. A brief orchestral rumble underscores Coulter’s striking of her daemon (an interesting idea not in the books), and as she penitently appeases her soulmate afterwards, the strings reprise her off-kilter theme over chopping strings. The gathering string rhythm leads into a trumpet reprise of Mrs Coulter’s theme as she swears she will find Lyra.

8. ‘Dust’ (1:10)

– Lyra comes to gain familiarity with the alethiometer, explaining its workings to Pan. A slow reprise of the mysterious Dust theme for gong and Tibetan bowls, each shimmering note lingering over an ambiguous string motif. As the needle points of the alethiometer point Lyra to answer she doesn’t understand, the strings play light tremolos.

9. ‘Serafina Pekkala’ (1:50)

– Lyra’s Courage is given a quiet statement for French horn over arpeggiated harp as she meets Serafina Pekkala, one of the queens of the witches. Serafina asks Lyra a question that requires the alethiometer’s aid, and as the child works it, the Dust theme is reprised over shimmering light percussion and choir, climaxing with a haunting reading of the Gyptian clarinet melody as Lyra sees a younger Fader Coram in her mind. The ambiguous string motif heard in the previous track, and reprised later in the ‘Epilogue’ closes this cue as Serafina tells Lyra of the darkness over Bolvangar. This track segues to the next. A brief flourish of ‘Lyra’s Courage’ as Serafina leaves that accompanied the transition to the next scene (as the Gyptian boat makes port) was not included in the album cue, but the track doesn’t feel the lack.

10. ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’ (1:20)

– A beautiful passage for piano, strings and flute (later to be heard in the second half of ‘Epilogue’) leads into a full ensemble statement of ‘Lyra’s Courage’, the Dust theme softly counterpointing from the piano. ‘Lyra’s Courage’ swells into a powerful but ominous statement of the ascending portion of the main/travelling theme for trilling woodwinds and blaring brass. This cue did not appear in the film, and (if the title is correct) presumably accompanied a deleted scene where Lyra ascends in Lee Scoresby’s airship. (This would have occurred following the ‘Battle of the Tartars’. Once up in the air, Lyra would fall from the airship and be taken by bears to Svalbard.) Desplat’s style of writing for orchestra seems to particularly suit this unseen moment – capturing the rush involved for Lyra of flying, without making it seem a little too wonderful. A score highlight, and it’s unfortunate that it cannot be viewed in context.

It would be interesting to see whether Desplat utilised Lee Scoresby’s motif at all in the climax of this cue. Apparently Lee’s theme will be developed more in The Subtle Knife (where Scoresby is required to carry more scenes on his own), but it’s possible that the individual solo brass instruments in this section of the cue do partially develop Lee’s motif.

11. ‘Iorek Byrnison’ (5:28)

– Quizzical flute figures over strings and chorus as Lee Scoresby tells Lyra of Iorek Byrnison. This passage leads into solemn passage for percussion and horns, joined by a male chorus, as Lyra meets Iorek. The tempo is slow here – appropriate for the movements of one of Pullman’s most memorable creations, an armoured polar bear exiled from his own culture. One feels the meeting of creatures small and large in Desplat’s music as flute figures for Lyra prod the impressive mass of strings, woodwinds and brass that is Iorek. Scoresby’s motif returns a couple of times throughout the dialogue scene, despite the fact that he’s not on-screen at the time.

As the bear takes a shine to the girl that refers to him by his full name, the stiffness between them evaporates, and a theme for the Iorek/Lyra relationship - the closest thing to a romantic theme in this score – appears in the horn and flute over a glistening texture. Lyra consults the alethiometer about Iorek, and as she learns his history, Iorek’s theme is stated gently for cor anglais, harp and strings, and this is followed by a passage for boy choir and light percussion. Subtly dissonant brass and a racing string motif lead up to a reprisal of ‘Lyra’s Courage’ for French horn. Iorek learns from Lyra the location of his confiscated armour, and in a kinetic piece for orchestra, races through the town where he's held captive to recover it. Light percussion nervously waits for the bear to re-emerge from the Magisterium office.

12. ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’ (2:17)

– Over syncopated percussion, the clarinet melody for the Gyptians is reprised, leading into a martial statement of the ‘Gyptians at War’, the quirky theme last heard in ‘Lyra’s Escape’. (I like the little recorder puffs!) This martial piece accompanies John Faa’s speech about what they will do to ‘the Gobblers’ if they find their children have come to harm. The track rounds out in a more ominous vein with an earlier cue from the same scene. As Lyra sees in the alethiometer what is happening at Bolvangar, the Dust theme for piano counterpoints the Gobbler’s motif. (The variation of ideas Desplat offers up for the various alethiometer scenes are a nice layer of detail in the score.) A grainy string instrument (Mongolian cello?) closes the cue.

13. ‘The Golden Monkey’ (2:04)

– This cue comes after ‘Sky Ferry’ in the film, as Lyra tests Mrs Coulter’s patience. The track begins with a vague air of tension, with soft low percussion and a hint of electric cello. Harp and pizzicato play an ascending rhythmic idea, over which Mrs Coulter’s theme is played by bassoon and oboe. Lyra’s theme follows in its more playful form, for flute and oboe over sprightly rhythm for pizzicato and bowed strings. The celli hint at Coulter’s melody underneath Lyra’s theme as her patience is tested.

A grim roll of timpani and brass chords dispels the playful mood. A shrill solo violin serves as the short fuse for a violent outburst. Lyra’s daemon is physically abused by the Mrs Coulter’s Golden Monkey in a tense assault featuring (amongst other effects) shrill brass and strings against sharp col legno strokes. As Pantalaimon is released and shelters with Lyra, warm strings console them. The ascending harp idea that so often accompanies Coulter’s actions begins again as she insists on a kiss from Lyra. This track segues to the next, though the tracks are not connected in the film at all.

14. ‘Riding Iorek’ (4:38)

– The Lyra/Iorek theme opens this cue in jubilant fashion - brass triplets and all - as Lyra rides Iorek over the icy plains of the North. Disturbing choral voices (again, a boy choir) overtake the travellers, as Lyra sees the clans of witches in the skies above. Echoing brass sounds over boy choir follow as Lyra draws near to the house ‘haunted’ by the intercised Billy Costa*. The choral premonitions hint at, but don’t quite state, the Gobbler’s motif. A grave string motif builds as Lyra searches the abandoned house. A sad reminder of the clarinet theme for the Gyptians follows as Lyra finds Billy Costa. A short transition cue for gentle strings and choir takes the children back the camp of the Gyptians. The cue closes with a solemn reprise for oboe, strings and choir of Billy’s theme in one the album's most moving moments. As the Tartar soldiers draw launch their attack on the Gyptian camp, shrill ethnic flute and a Tuvan throat singer segue to the next cue.

* Note (spoiler): Billy Costa fills the shoes of Tony Makarios in the film, explaining why the Gyptian-associated woodwind mourns his suffering towards the end of this track. Billy fares better in the long run than poor Tony did in the novel, and the whole sequence is a pale shadow of the horror that Pullman delivered on the page. It's details like these that to me make adults (however young) the novel's most likely audience, those with a bit of context for the darker themes explored, and it's a shame to see those ambiguities softened. Also this raises a continuity question: will it be credible when another character dies at the novel's end when intercised from their daemon? Or perhaps that character will also escape their fate? (Hopefully not. If so, New Line's marketing need to toughen their selling act if there's to be any occupants of the Underworld when The Amber Spyglass film comes around!)

15. ‘Samoyed Attack’ (1:21)

– This is the album’s first real action setpiece. Desplat’s action music is refreshingly involved writing – each section active and distinct in the composition – a relief when so many composers on major films (by choice or compulsion) stray towards Hans Zimmer's effective-but-over-imitated style. I haven’t quite figured out the Samoyed motif, but if it appears anywhere in the score, this would seem to be the place. Sadly the fireworks last only a minute, after which Tuvan throat singer, ethnic female vocal, and another unsual texture accompany Lyra’s journey under Tartar custody to Svalbard.

16. ‘Lord Asriel’ (2:10)

– This cue accompanies Lord Asriel’s capture in the film. A full brass statement of the main/travelling theme over pounding percussion opens the cue powerfully over imagery of the icy deserts of ‘the North’. As Asriel approaches Svalbard, the piece collapses to a motif for multiple pianos against a grave string counterline – Ragnar’s theme. As Asriel is attacked by Tartars and their samoyed daemons, the brass screams out motifs, light percussion sets up a musical clock ticking effect, male chorus intones. The cue climaxes with a wild brass crescendo that might have come from the pen of Elliot Goldenthal, as Asriel scrambles to avoid falling off a cliff (and others fail to avoid same cliff). A grainy string instrument (perhaps the credited Mongolian cello?), shrill flutes and the throat singer gather as he is surrounded by the Tartars and their daemons.

17. ‘Ragnar Sturlusson’ (6:18)

– This track begins a series of three linked tracks that mark the highlight of the album for me. The opening of this cue, as Lyra meets her captor, is the album’s darkest material – deranged and stark, dominated by Ragnar’s theme. Male choir intone over celeste, punctuated with resonant low piano chords. Lyra begins to play upon Ragnar's vanity, and his desire to be regarded as equal by humans. Scampering pizzicato (very dry), snare-like percussion, and bursts of low brass depict Ragnar’s rage. As he is taken in by Lyra’s bluff, a giddy ascending piano run builds into an unhinged variation of Ragnar's theme – now featuring alto saxophone – almost giving the lurid feel of a carnival. The musical joke is two-fold from Desplat: (i) Lyra is performing for the Bear King, who is enthralled by her lies; (ii) the carnival feel is particularly apt, since Ragnar's desire to perform for human admiration makes him an an aspiring circus bear, despite the trappings of a proud warrior king. This variation of his theme mocks Ragnar’s pretensions above all else. The thought of absolute power goes to his head, and the choir ascend the scale to dangerous heights over tense violins.

The lowest register of the piano offers again the piano motif, the fading notes mingling with hints of the Dust theme and solo French horn melody, as Lyra consults the alethiometer. (The eerie presence of what sounds like a vibraphone nicely strengthens those resonant piano chords.) The main/travelling theme returns for orchestra and choir, swelling to a grand arrangement, with trilling brass fanfares as the alethiometer shows Iorek journeying to Svalbard. A powerful brass reading of Ragnar’s motif between iterations of the travelling theme is a particularly nice touch. (Though very much in his own style, this particular passage could be Desplat's answer to John Williams' podrace anthem from The Phantom Menace, or the chariot race march from Rozsa's Ben Hur. It’s more menacing than those pieces, and not as long, but brings them to mind nonetheless.)

Ragnar’s theme returns as he proudly taunts Iorek from a distance, and Desplat has the multiple pianos perform it subtly out of synchronisation to hint that the king’s eagerness is exceeding better judgement. As Lyra runs to Iorek and the two are reunited, the opening phrase of their theme briefly flourishes for French horn over an arpeggiated rhythm. A warm woodwind reprise of the Iorek/Lyra theme accompanies their brief conference before the battle, the strings swelling beautifully. Iorek’s theme is raised by the strings, and is answered by a series of trumpet calls based on the opening of Iorek’s theme. The cue segues directly into...

18. ‘Ice Bear Combat’ (2:15)

– … vigorous percussion stamping out an introduction to the score’s most intense action setpiece. The cue picks up very much were ‘Samoyeds Attack’ left off – Desplat reusing the frantic strings against brass counterpoint idea that worked so well in the opening cue of the Firewall album. The alternating fortunes of the two armoured bears is suggested through brass recapitulations of their motifs - Iorek's theme struggles to assert itself (0:30-0:45) against the rapid strokes of the strings, but it is beaten back. Piano creeps in as the bears size each other up before another rush, martial snares yielding briefly to another attempt to elevate Iorek’s theme (0:52-1:02), which is in turn beaten back by a forceful set of orchestral blows by Ragnar (1:05-1:16). When the battle appears to be all-but-over, a somewhat despairing trumpeter gives up on Iorek, and strings develop a despairing motif that seems to be based on the same intervals that open the Iorek/Lyra theme. (I imagine Desplat is concentrating on the possibility of death for Iorek and Lyra here, rather than the potential victory for the sinister Ragnar.) Lyra recognises Iorek’s strategy in time for the decisive blow that made jaws drop in the cinema. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

19. ‘Iorek’s Victory’ (1:26)

– The spasms of death takes hold of the orchestra as this cue opens, low brass, timpani and gran cassa consigning Ragnar to ignominious defeat. Iorek’s theme, resplendent with trilling flutes and trumpets, declares his victory. (The cue title gives it away, so I don’t have to feel so bad about letting that spoiler out of the bag.) The Lyra/Iorek theme is reprised for flute and strings as Iorek affirms his commitment to her quest, segueing to an urgent passage as the main/travelling theme is reprised, with two sets of brass voices developing the melody in a call-and-answer pattern. The choral use and energetic rhythm of grunting low brass and taiko percussion make this the most intense performance of the theme yet. I imagine in the original narrative order, this music accompanied not the race to Bolvangar, but the race to catch up with Lord Asriel, in which case the urgency was especially appropriate.

20. ‘The Ice Bridge’ (1:33)

– Solemn brass accompany Lyra’s parting with Iorek, and the subsequent journey across the Ice Bridge, giddy harp glissandi and flutes rendering the vertiginous heights. (Perhaps a nod to Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo?) Violins breathe out tense figures in their upper range, and a flitting trumpet with echo resonates in the space. A clustering of strings builds as the bridge gives way behind Lyra, a definitive brass chord separating her from Iorek’s help for now. It would be interesting to learn if this Ice Bridge sequence came later in earlier cuts of the film (as in the book), and whether this cue was originally devised for that scene. It sounds like the Gobblers motif is referenced in the strings at one point in the cue, which could be reading too much into things. (It doesn’t seem especially relevant in the scene.)

21. ‘Rescuing the Children’ (2:18)

– Scampering celeste, pizzicati and harp over a distant boy choir lead into a subtle statement of the main/travelling theme for choir and strings as Lyra sees the intercision machine. Tense violins and harp lead into a reprise of Lyra’s theme over gentle pizzicati for her reunion with Roger. Her furtive intent revealed with a furtive figure for celli and bassoon that builds until the end of the cue. Reminiscent of John Williams’ knack for light suspense pieces.

22. ‘Intercision’ (2:47)

– The Dust theme returns for gong and Tibetan bowl against string harmonics and electric cello. The melody is carried from gamelan to flute, and the string counterline from the main title adds weight to proceedings. A subtly dissonant texture of high-end woodwind, arpeggiated strings and solo brass introduces the Gobbler motif, the elemental Dust theme barely heard beneath. A pulsing electronic bass figure swells with an eerie synthetic texture, leading into a disturbing counterpoint of the Gobbler motif (emphasis on high strings) with the Dust theme. A boy choir adds to the tension as Lyra and her daemon come under the threat of intercision. A rumble of timpani leads into a truly eerie motif for electric cello (possibly a variation on Coulter’s theme, though it also sounds a little like ‘Lyra/Iorek’ as well). Easing violins carry this cue into the next.

23. ‘Mother’ (3:35)

– A key revelation regarding Lyra’s parentage is left until quite late in the film compared to the book, and is accompanied by this cue. It’s a gentle dramatic piece for strings, harp, mandolin, celeste, electric cello, and piano. Some of Desplat’s themes are alluded to, mostly clearly the Dust theme for xylophone. Unsettling celli figures start up as Lyra is indirectly told of the relationship between Dust and the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, with high-end piano and gentle mandolin plucking. The intrigue deepens with piano reading of Dust theme against a nervous counterpoint of cello, strings and harp. The cue resolves into a soft string and mandolin statement of (SPOILER) Mrs Coulter’s theme (END SPOILER). Slightly unsettling harmonies throughout the cue nicely compromise any tenderness that might be felt from Lyra’s reunion with her mother.

This is a wonderful piece of film music – a reminder of how much Desplat can do for dialogue scenes when the stakes are dramatic, but require subtle expression. There's a lightness of touch that Williams brought to the 'Birth of the Twins' cue from his Revenge of the Sith score that this cue brings to mind. If Darth Vader had revealed Luke's parentage over a tense cup of tea on the Pinewood set, instead of at the height of a light-sabre battle, the modern John Williams might have written something a little like this.

24. ‘Battle of the Tartars’ (4:31)

– This is actually an edited version of the film version of the same cue, about one minute shorter at the very most. (Or possibly the scene was originally a shorter length, and this is from an earlier edit.) The score’s climactic action piece is rich with thematic ideas, reminiscent over the three-minute action portion of Gabriel Yared’s unused musical parrying for Troy (more in the sense that Desplat, like Yared, writes with a similar concern for form – both could be accused of writing action music that sounds like it could accompanied a ballet). The cue opens with a Iorek’s theme expressed as a call to war as the bear intervenes to rescue Lyra from the Tartars. Strings and light percussion strike up a fast metre as the children scatter this way and that. Brass reprise the Magisterium theme in quick bursts between cymbal clashes. Danger draws near to Lyra with threatening col legno, but she is spared by Serafina. As witches bear down from the sky to rescue the children, ‘Lyra’s Courage’ over cascading piano sounds in a beautiful moment. A martial ostinato (heard earlier in the ‘Samoyed Attack’ cue) swings the battle back in favour of the Tartars, the French horns raising Iorek’s theme in counterpoint as the bear is tied down. The action intensifies as the ostinato rises the scale, the violins further raising the excitement with a short arpeggiated idea. Male choir add a dire hue to the struggle, but the brass and cymbals escape, ascending to a brief moment of pause. Individual brass voices successively raise up the first phrase of ‘Lyra’s Courage’ over the Gyptian taiko drums as the nomads and Scoresby join the fray. A full grand reprise of ‘Lyra’s Courage’ follows, joined by brass and choir to sweep away what remains of the Tartar forces, the battle ending in a final shimmering doubling of keyboard and brass.

A lone flute over strings brings back Lyra’s innocent theme as she wanders through the debris and is reunited with Roger and the Gyptians. A gentle passage of pizzicato against a violin melody follows, leading into Desplat's trademark string arpeggiations. A final reading of Lyra’s theme closes the cue.

25. ‘Epilogue’ (3:33)

– This track brings the score portion of the album to a close, as the company journey to Svalbard to reunite Lyra with Lord Asriel. A gentle string reprisal of the travelling theme opens, leading into an elegant contrapuntal passage for solo trumpet and strings, as Lee and Serafina discuss the coming war against the Magisterium and Lyra’s significance in it. It’s a concise summation of the main ideas of Desplat’s score, ending the work on an optimistic note. Meanwhile, Lyra consults the alethiometer and the Dust theme unfolds, aglow with soft percussion and gentle chorus. The ambigious motif heard earlier in 'Serafina Pekkala' is reprised briefly, as she says to Roger that she is taking Lord Asriel ‘what he needs’, unaware of the irony of her words. A gentle passage for flute and piano (heard earlier in ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’) leads into Lyra’s theme, as she waxes lyrical to Roger of how they will set things aright in the world. Against the image of Lee Scoresby’s airship heading off towards a sky ablaze with the aurora borealis, a final variation of her theme with regal brass rounds out the cue.

A Thought: An ‘Epilogue’, Rather than An Ending

I can’t help but shake the feeling that there’s a missing climax here. As anyone who has followed the production of the film knows, the novel’s final three chapters, though filmed – and hinted at in all but the latest trailers – were held back for the adaptation of the sequel, The Subtle Knife. While I can appreciate that the studio was possibly concerned, partly about length, but also about such a dark ending (will the children come back for more, or their parents?), I can’t see how removing the final twist will help serve the series, or the film, dramatically. The liberation of Bolvangar, much like Iorek's victory at Svalbard, is a subplot. It is a false resolution of Lyra's quest, as all escape from Bolvangar seemingly unharmed. It seems too good to be true, and as readers of the novel know, it is.

Just for the purpose of comparison – removing the final three chapters of Northern Lights would have been like Peter Jackson ending his Fellowship of the Ring adaptation as the Fellowship set out in boats from Lothlorien. Or comparably, it would have been like ending The Sixth Sense five minutes earlier than Shyamalan chose to. We’re talking about narrative content so fundamental to the story, that it hardly feels like the story makes its point without it. This late post-production narrative truncation will unfortunately throw the film off-balance with an artificial sense of triumph that the opening of the second film will swiftly undo. (Never mind the fact that Lord Asriel is reduced to a very minor figure without those scenes, nor that The Subtle Knife's disorienting opening in a new world can now no longer be the ope+ning of that story.)

Strangely enough, I feel this artificial sense of triumph in the soundtrack. ‘Battle of the Tartars’ doesn’t feel like the true climax of the musical story, particularly coming after the Svalbard episode in the restructured narrative, and I can’t help but feel that Desplat might have designed his score differently if he’d originally intended it to come to a conclusion here. Consider for example the score of Birth, which closes with a devastating slow exploration for string orchestra of the waltz for Anna (Nicole Kidman again) introduced in that film’s prologue. Or even take The Painted Veil, where ‘Kitty’s Theme’ develops along with its namesake until the character’s grief stricken closing scene. (Though sadly the final stage of that musical journey went unheard in the film.)

Similarly, I feel that the theme for Dust that he etches out in the opening measures of ‘The Golden Compass’ (and develops later in ‘Dust’, 'Intercision' and 'Epilogue') was designed for a far more forceful presentation at the climax of the film he set out to score. It’s not hard to imagine the Dust theme performed by a raging full ensemble, with screaming trumpets playing the travelling theme in counterpoint, to the imagery of a door to another world amidst the aurora borealis. On the page, Pullman’s universe is one of continually unfolding mysteries – it opens in mystery, and ends with an answer that opens up even greater mysteries, and it’s unfortunate that this album ends in a rather pat fashion that doesn't communicate that feeling. Of course, this is all fairly speculative, however I feel it’s an indication that the studio’s push for a shorter film was a miscalculation. (Unless of course they were having serious doubts about making the rest of the trilogy and trying to rule out a potentially embarrassing unresolved cliffhanger, but in that case they weren’t the right studio to back this enterprise in the first place.)

26. 'Lyra' (3:19)

- What to say about ‘Lyra’, the song performed by Kate Bush that closes the album? It’s sweet enough, featuring the singer against a gentle backing of synthetic choir and strings, and refreshingly avoids clear verse/chorus demarcation. The music doesn't reference the score. The lyrics include a few subtle in-jokes for the Pullman reader: ‘Lyra, two worlds collide around her', could refer both to the multiverse science of the trilogy, and her tumultuous parentage. It’s not my idea of how this sort of musical journey should end, but I can see New Line making a play for the kind of success they experienced with the songs that accompanied Lord of the Rings. (Of those, this is closest to Enya’s ‘May it Be’ – also from the first film in a trilogy.) Perhaps we can look forward to Chris Martin singing ‘Will’ for the end credits of The Subtle Knife? Or Josh Groban crooning 'The Metatron ' or 'Mary Malone and the Mulefa' for The Amber Spyglass? But I jest... this is a nice, but uncharismatic song. I don't know the artist at all, but I simply tend to find these songs something of an unfortunate shift in tone when they don't grow out of the underscore in some way.

Endnote: Chronological Tracklisting

To program the track listing in the order that the cues appear in the film: 1, 4, 5, 2, 13, 6, 8, 3, 16, 12, 7, 9, 11, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. (Track 10 does not appear.)

To program the track listing in the order of the book: 1, 4, 5, 2, 13, 6, 8, 3, 16, 12, 7, 9, 11, 14, 15, 21, 22, 23, 24, 10, 17, 18, 19, 20. (Album segues don’t always permit an smooth programming along these lines, but I suspect when the score was originally planned, the structure of the film was still fairly close to this. Track 25 would probably have appeared in some form between tracks 10 and 17, but would not have finished with such a positive statement of ‘Lyra’s theme’, since dark times with Lord Asriel are not far around the corner. The second half of track 20 would have accompanied a scene of Iorek and Lyra rushing to get somewhere – except this time they would have been pursuing Lord Asriel, rather than racing to Bolvangar. The ‘Ice Bridge’ led not to Bolvangar, but to Asriel’s own experimental site.)

Comments (3) — Add Yours

This has to be the most in-depth review of a music score I have ever read.  You spent a lot of time reviewing this CD.

# Posted by Katiin on 23:36, 21 February 2008

It’s an absolute joy to read this part of your review as I listen to the soundtrack - you have done an absolutely stellar job with this review!

# Posted by ArcT on 12:22, 22 February 2008

ArcT's avatar

Thanks guys for your thoughts!

# Posted by franz_conrad on 22:53, 26 February 2008


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