By Jonathan Broxton
Penny Dreadful is a Gothic horror/drama series on the American Showtime network, set in Victorian London at the turn of the 19th century. Taking inspiration from the classic writings of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde and others, as well as the “penny dreadful” magazines which told lurid tales of serial killers, highwaymen and cowboys, creator John Logan re-imagined these classic characters in a new setting, interacting with each other, and working together to defeat an ancient evil. The story follows Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a charming American gunslinger sojourning in the motherland, who is recruited by the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to help Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a famed African explorer, rescue his daughter Mina, who he believes has been kidnapped by a vampire-like creature. Needing help of a medical nature, Sir Malcolm also obtains the help of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a brilliant young surgeon, who has a problem of his own: unknown to the others, Frankenstein has been conducting experiments involving death and resurrection, and one of his creations, the fearsome Caliban (Rory Kinnear) has come looking for his father…
The world is in a Golden Age of television at the moment. With massively popular shows such as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Downton Abbey, True Detective, Homeland, Fargo and others airing to enormous critical acclaim, it is currently de rigeur for major movie stars to feature in episodic series where, before, working in TV was considered ‘slumming it’, a step down from theatrical motion pictures. Similarly, television music is undergoing a renaissance of its own, with composers like Bear McCreary, Ramin Djawadi, John Lunn, Nathan Barr and Jeff Beal re-defining the quality of TV scores, and in many cases rivaling the best film music in the 2010s. Now you can add Abel Korzeniowski’s sumptuous music for Penny Dreadful to that list. Korzeniowski has slowly but surely been making a name for himself over the past few years as a composer to be reckoned with, him having received Golden Globe nominations for his scores for A Single Man and W.E. in 2009 and 2011 respectively, and having been the recipient of significant critical acclaim for his work on Romeo & Juliet and Escape from Tomorrow last year.
Written for a full symphony orchestra, conducted and orchestrated by the composer himself, Penny Dreadful is a grand, Gothic delight, dripping with atmosphere, and filled to the brim with a combination of dark romance and lurking horror. Strings dominate the proceedings from the outset, with a choppy ostinato ushering in the main title, “Demimonde”, before eventually melting into a gorgeous violin lament in the piece’s second half. This is the lush, velvety, oppressively erotic sound at which Polish composers seem to excel; anyone who fell in love with the similarly-textured Bram Stoker’s Dracula by the great Wojciech Kilar will find much to their liking here.
Unlike some other recent TV scores, Penny Dreadful is not really leitmotivic in the sense that each character has an obvious theme; instead, Korzeniowski uses recurring textures and performance ideas to bring concepts together. Some of the textures are utterly sublime, making use of the full sweep of the symphony, and filling the room with vibrato, while others – quite intentionally – overwhelm with a palpable sense of dread.
Cues like “Dorian Gray” and “Secret Room”, most of which have to do with the debauched life of the handsome eponymous playboy, envelop the listener in a cloak of tragic beauty, a cascade of swooning strings and unrequited love. Elsewhere, “Street Horse Smell Candle” features a rhapsodic piano part underneath a warm, inquisitive violin line, sharing in the delight and innocence of one character’s introduction to the wonders of the world. Similarly, “Welcome to the Grand Guignol” has a touch of flamboyant theatricality and warm nostalgia to it, presenting a rich variation on the theme heard in the second half of the main title. “Allegiance” is possibly the most traditionally Kilar-esque piece, pitting stark and deeply sonorous piano chords against a string sustain and a deconstructed variation on the main theme ostinato.
Other cues are tragically beautiful in a different way; “Modern Age”, “Everyone Likes Oranges”, “Let Me Die” and “In Peace”, for example, combine violins with cellos and pianos in a series of haunting laments for Brona, the consumptive Irish hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold to whom Ethan takes a shine. Later, “To Be Beautiful Is To Be Almost Dead” features a touching soliloquy for piano and solo violin that has a solemn, almost funereal air to it, while the introduction of an angelic choir in “Back Hand of God” makes it one the album’s standout cues. Furthermore, “Never Say No” restates the sweeping theme from the second half of the main title to glorious effect, one of the few times it is repeated verbatim during the meat of the score.
The moments of pure terror, such as “First Blood”, “Transgression”, “Asylum”, ‘Too Many Monsters”, “Mother of Evil” and the first half of “Back Hand of God”, are creative enough to remain musically interesting while simultaneously chilling your spine. Parts of “First Blood” almost have a hint of John Williams’s Jaws about them, the musical depiction of an inescapable nightmare, while “Transgression” builds to an enormous climax of passion and horror, with a soft male voice choir adding a new aspect to the proceedings. Pounding low end piano clusters, buzzing string sustains, skittering pizzicato effects, and brutal outbursts from the brass section are the usual order of the day in the rest of these cues; they mark one of the first times Korzeniowski has written out-and-out horror music like this, and they show him to be very good at it.
Penny Dreadful is an excellent score by one of film music’s rising stars. The clarity and precision of the writing, the perfectly judged Gothic atmosphere, and the interesting instrumental choices are all first class, and the whole thing contains the familiar sense of elegance and classicism that Korzeniowski has brought to every project in his career thus far. As I mentioned at the top of this review, we’re in a sustained period of high quality television music right now, and Penny Dreadful is another sterling example of the best of this gilded age.
Buy the Penny Dreadful soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Demimonde (Main Title) (1:36)
- First Blood (3:22)
- Right Behind You (2:15)
- Modern Age (2:10)
- Street. Horse. Smell. Candle. (2:25)
- There Is a Place (2:05)
- Welcome to the Grand Guignol (2:21)
- Everyone Likes Oranges (1:45)
- Abomination (1:13)
- Pull the Trigger (2:03)
- Mina (2:34)
- Allegiance (3:39)
- Dorian Gray (1:37)
- Never Say No (2:40)
- Where Do They Go? (2:23)
- Transgression (3:36)
- Asylum (3:41)
- Closer Than Sisters (3:16)
- Too Many Monsters (3:25)
- Mother of Evil (2:46)
- Secret Room (1:43)
- I’m Not Myself (2:00)
- Let Me Die (2:31)
- To Be Beautiful Is To Be Almost Dead (2:49)
- The Last Rites (2:48)
- Back Hand of God (2:23)
- In Peace (1:33)
- I Was Never Going to Go to Africa (3:04)
- Reborn (3:09)
Running Time: 73 minutes 07 seconds
Varese Sarabande 302-067-298-8 (2014)
Music composed and conducted by Abel Korzeniowski. Orchestrations by Abel Korzeniowski. Recorded and mixed by James T. Hill, Damon Tedesco and Phil McGowan. Album produced by Abel Korzeniowski, Mina Korzeniowska and Seth Kaplan
Source: Movie Music UK