Elmer Bernstein - The Hallelujah Trail

Elmer Bernstein - The Hallelujah Trail
Release Date:
Film Music, Soundtracks
The Hallelujah Trail

John Sturges' The Hallelujah Trail has such a dreadful reputation that Elmer Bernstein's score for the film has suffered in the bargain, even though it was one of the few elements in the movie -- an intermittently funny 166-minute comedy Western -- that worked. One of the late composer's most rousing bodies of music -- and that is saying a great deal, given an output that includes the music for The Magnificent Seven, The Comancheros, and The Sons of Katie Elder -- it has been little played or heard across the decades and, indeed, was only reissued on CD in June of 2005, almost 40 years after the movie was released. The fact that the music was any good at all is a tribute to Bernstein as a film music genius -- the conflicting needs of the score, to provide accompaniment to the vast, gorgeous Western vistas against which it was shot in New Mexico as well as leitmotifs for characters ranging from Burt Lancaster's gruff cavalry commander to Donald Pleasence's whiskey-deprived miner, all spread across the multi-channel playback available in Ultra-Panavision/Cinerama, would have daunted most composers. Instead, Bernstein succeeded admirably, even working in some traditional folk material into his 105 minutes of music, and it all sounded glorious in the hands of a 65-piece orchestra and a 40-member chorus. But it wasn't enough to save the movie, which died a miserable death at the box office and then, essentially, disappeared until the advent of high-end video (laserdisc and DVD), since television showings cropped up to half of its ultra-widescreen image.

The original soundtrack album contained only about 30 minutes of the music written by Bernstein, and was recorded by a reduced studio orchestra -- that material has been included on the CD re-release, along with two short instrumental pieces from the actual film score recordings themselves, the tapes of which were irreparably damaged in a 1994 earthquake. These constitute the only additions to the original LP's material, and one of them, designated "Whiskey, Love and Temperance," gives a good idea of the mix of delicacy and grandeur that Bernstein achieved on those original movie tracks -- the album material has been remastered in such a way as to closely match that track in depth.

The entire album is worth hearing for its mix of folk and period popular song and grand orchestral themes, which works despite their widely varying origins and sources. It's a tragedy that more of Bernstein's incidental music hasn't survived -- short of someone doing a full re-recording -- but what is here is more than welcome. "Hallelujah Trail" is one of the most rousing choral works to come out of movies in the 1960s, mixing the devout and the coarse, the romantic and the profane, with some surprisingly good, clever lyrics by Ernie Sheldon. "Overture" is its match, a superb piece of orchestral writing and some of the best work in that vein that Bernstein ever wrote -- and as rousing as the main, march-driven theme is, at 85 seconds in there comes a modulation to a second theme that is even better, a stirring hymn-like section that is developed in achingly beautiful terms for the next minute, before the piece resolves itself. The annotation by Jerry McCulley and Robert Townson gives as full an account of the movie and its music as has ever been assembled.

Hallelujah TrailElmer Bernstein
OvertureElmer Bernstein
Stand Up, We'll March to DenverElmer Bernstein
Stolen BoozeElmer Bernstein
The Bottle of Whiskey HillsElmer Bernstein
The Chase / Elmer BernsteinElmer Bernstein
Denver Free MilitiaElmer Bernstein
Whiskey, Love and TemperanceElmer Bernstein
We Will SaveElmer Bernstein
Which Way Did They GoElmer Bernstein
Down, Down, DownElmer Bernstein
Hallelujah TrailElmer Bernstein

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