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This love story is another classic. The passion begins as Cleopatra and Caesar meet, become lovers, and have a child together. To help secure his power in Egypt, Caesar places Cleopatra on the throne. They return together to Rome. Many conservative Romans are offended when he establishes Cleopatra in his home and openly announces their son, Caesarion. Many became concerned that Caesar is planning to marry Cleopatra, regardless of the laws against bigamy (he was already married) and marriages to foreigners. (Needless to say, this contributed mightily to his downfall.) Not long after Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra and Anthony become lovers; Anthony abandons his wife and he and Cleopatra have three children together. Later, after hearing a false report that she has been killed in defeat at Actium, Anthony kills himself. After Anthony’s death, Cleopatra hears that Octavius plans to exhibit her triumphantly in Rome; she too commits suicide by applying a poisonous asp to her breast.
For many years, the 20th Century Fox-produced Cleopatra was the most expensive and biggest flop of a movie ever made; the studio almost went out of business as a result of it. Nevertheless, it has become a cult classic and an icon of its day, its reputation fueled by its extravagance and by the story of the notorious off-screen affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Composer Alex North was born in Pennsylvania and studied at the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, and the Moscow Conservatory. The son of Russian immigrants, his true love was jazz, and he brought that love to his historic score for the film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, North found little work until he was given the assignment to compose the music for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, followed by this score for Cleopatra in 1963.
Though many reviewers disparage the drama and the production, most agree that Cleopatra’s score is masterful. “It is one of the most important [scores] ever composed for Hollywood films,” says Mauceri of North’s efforts. “His collaborators were the legendary Edward Powell and the pioneering avant-garde composer, Henry Brant. The mixture of jazz, nontraditional elements (the assassination of Caesar uses ‘quarter tones,’ for example), and the instruments from Africa and Asia make it one of the most interesting achievements in film scoring.”
The music definitely captures a charming exoticism only Hollywood could produce. The orchestra for the film score was huge and included such instruments as the contrabass saxophone, among many other rarely-used instruments including four alto flutes and baritone oboe, and unusual percussion such as boobams (tunable drums with deep bamboo resonators, hence the name boobam), and the many strange bells heard in the opening section of the Main Title. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand,” is one of the few works which is similar in its orchestral proportions.
Mauceri has created a two-movement “symphonic portrait” of Cleopatra and her two lovers, Caesar and Anthony. Tonight we here the first movement: “Caesar and Cleopatra.” The work, which had its world premiere with Mauceri and the Detroit Symphony two seasons ago, receives its West Coast premiere tonight.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He also is a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.