Pipe Organs of Crom! The Conan Soundtrack Lives Again...

Basil Poledouris' score for the classic (well, it might not be a masterpiece, but it has attained classic status) 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is one of the great fantasy film scores of all time. Without a blush, I would rank it alongside the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings films, and (to move into science fiction), Horner and Goldsmith's Star Trek scores. Watch the film again sometime and notice how symphonic the movie is: it's almost all music, with hardly any dialogue, or little more than a page here and there.  It's almost a silent film in this regard, though a silent film with a score--making what could be a very stupid movie incredibly beautiful throughout. Certain moments even come close to ballet, such as the famous "Orgy" scene, where Conan and his companions sneak into the palace smeared with white and black paint to blend into the background. Watch how the worshippers sway to the slyly seductive music, while the thieves clamber about the set, always in time with the music. It's stunning stuff--but would mean absolutely nothing without the music.  

The score, of course, is a classic and makes much of the full resources of the symphony orchestra, as well as a thundering supporting chorus (singing in Latin, no less). The choral scene that opens the movie, when the evil riders bear down on Conan's village, is a forerunner of the scene in Gladiator when the Roman soldiers meet the Germanic tribes (yet the music is even better in Conan, IMHO). So how would such a symphonic, pull-out-all-the-stops score be transcribed for a single instrument? Terribly, of course, unless that instrument was...a pipe organ! Surprisingly, the classical music label Naxos released one of the most unique discs in years, an organ transcription of the entire score by the organist Philip Pelster. When I first came across this, I laughed, thinking it was an eccentric curiosity: yet when I actually sat down and listened to it, I realized that however eccentric it was, it also made sense. In fact, I almost prefer it to the original score! 

Granted, this is not "great" music in the sense of Beethoven, or Bruckner, or even Shostakovich. It is inspired film music, well-conceived and orchestrated by a film music master. In the early 80's, however, film music was largely confined to the ghetto of serious music, and fantasy film music even more so (though John Williams was swiftly changing this). The original recording is very well done, and the San Cecilia Orchestra & Radio Symphony of Rome plays beautifully. Of course, the sound can be a little coarse in spots and can sound, for lack of a better word, somewhat crass. I feel like the engineers wanted it to sound loud and cheap, as if this was music for a spaghetti western rather than an expansive fantasy epic. Compare it to Shore's scores for The Lord of the Rings, which are spacious and serene: you can hear a pin drop in this music, and when the music does let out a yelp, it sounds all the more exciting for the contrast. In Conan, however, everything is shrill and loud. Don't get me wrong, it's also quite thrilling, but it can tire after a time and lose the more sensitive moments. For all its visceral thrill, the music remains quite Romantic with classic Wagnerian lietmotifs, and more sensitive engineering/recording might have picked this up.

So enter the organ transcription: here we have spaciousness and sensitivity. It also adds a sense of Elgarian nobility, as if we're listening to a grand tragedy, and not just a film realization of a 30's pulp novel. The opening piece, "The Anvil of Crom," sounds like a shamanistic invocation--the organ pulsing, then softly belting out an anguished hymn. When the main theme blazes forth, it's like the sun bursting through a towering storm cloud. From here the transcription goes from strength to strength, nowhere more tellingly than in the second movement "Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom." In the original, this piece uses the chorus in a way reminiscent of Alexander Nevsky or Carmina Burana. It's thrilling stuff, and one can scarcely imagine it having any effect without choral support. Yet the organ makes up for the human voice amazingly well, the various sounds conjuring up a hundred riders in your speakers and easily evoking a doomsday chant. Honestly, I barely missed the Latin words--or perhaps continue to hear them in the pounding bass of the instrument.  

Other movements, such as the tender "Wiefing," the pompous "Mountain of Power," and the seductive "Orgy" excel in this format: I almost have trouble remembering the orchestral originals. While the orchestrated version of "Orgy" can sound a little gimmicky, and perhaps rooted in 70's/80's Orientalia, here it sounds completely musical and coherent. Indeed, much of this score sounds like something that might have tumbled out of Richard Strauss, particularly a work like the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. A few pieces, such as "Atlantean Sword" and "Orphans of Doom" lose a little in the transcription since they are predominately soft and the final piece needs the chorus to bring out the pathos of the ending. However, this aside, the organ version is as thrilling as the most exciting soundtrack, and better yet, makes you appreciate Conan the Barbarian anew. You hear notes and phrases you've never heard before, and the melodies seem sharper, better composed, and tied to a grander symphonic tradition. I wish Poledouris could have heard this album, if only to hear how durable his music truly is, and how easily it outlived the film itself (which, for all its glories, is only a pale reflection of the music). You can find the album here on Amazon, though it's a bit cheaper on Google Play: http://www.amazon.com/Conan-Barbarian-Arr-P-Pelster/dp/B011AXUM6C/ref=sr_1_2?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1440993898&sr=1-2&keywords=conan+the+barbarian