Darkly mysterious in his long black cape, Bela Lugosi stands on the staircase and cocks his head slightly. “Listen to them — the children of the night,” he says with a smile playing on his lips. “What music they make!”
The trouble is that in the original “Dracula” those children don’t make too much music. Released in 1931, the classic horror film coincided with the industry transition from silent pictures to talkies, which meant that it had to be available as both. As a consequence, the movie was never presented with a full score. When Universal decided to re-release “Dracula” on video, the studio approached avant-garde composer Philip Glass to write a new accompanying score. Glass is, of course, a sought-after composer for film. His work has appeared in several movies, including the Stephen Hawking documentary “A Brief History of Time” and Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun.” But in the past, the movies Glass has written for have been almost exclusively contemporary. “Dracula” is different because — on paper, at least — it places Glass’ modern minimalist modulations against the high romanticism of an early black-and-white classic. After all, the tiny amount of music that managed to work its way into the original score — “Swan Lake” and the overture to “Die Meistersinger” — couldn’t be more sweeping in orchestration.
But while there’s none of the lush lyricism of Tchaikovsky or Wagner in the new score, it is far more romantic than most of Glass’ work. The composer said that he chose to write the music for string quartet because he “felt the score needed to evoke the feeling of the world of the 19th century.” Indeed there are some moments so richly steeped in Eastern European romanticism that they recall Dvorak. The Kronos Quartet, having worked with Glass several times before, executes the composer’s uncharacteristically warm compositions with expert performances. With the quartet’s help, the music is so expressive that the score alone evokes the familiar scenes between Harker and the Count.
That said, a fine film score does not necessarily make for a fine CD. While undoubtedly effective when presented together with the movie, “Dracula” as a purely aural experience features too many disjointed-sounding pieces to stand on its own. Instead of buying the CD, try to see the updated movie. Then you’ll understand exactly what Lugosi was talking about.
Stacey Kors is a freelance classical music writer in San Francisco.More Stacey Kors.