ABC Classics 481 1819
Reviewed by Michael Hannan, December 1st, 2015
The orchestral score composed by Nigel Westlake for the highly acclaimed Australian feature film, Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995), is a delight. It is full of attractive melodies supported by scintillating orchestrations. When Westlake scored Babe, he had only a few screen music credits under his belt, and it is fair to say that the project firmly consolidated his screen composition credentials. But it may not have been so, since the first contract for the score of Babe was given to one of the great 20th Century Hollywood composers, Jerry Goldsmith. When Goldsmith completed his score (the manuscript of which is now in the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverley Hills, California), it was rejected by the filmmakers. Then the relatively inexperienced Westlake was given the opportunity to compose a replacement score.
Apart from a farmer and his wife, the main characters in Babe are farm animals who are able to talk to each other, unbeknown to the human characters. There is a dark allegorical message in the narrative with resonances of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but Babe is essentially a comedy. Thus the musical underscoring needs to support a wide range of actions, attitudes and emotions. The functions of music in screen genres are diverse including underscoring dialogue, linking scenes, emphasising (or de-emphasising) action or moods, providing subtext and creating links between different parts of the narrative. Thus, separated from the vision and dialogue in a soundtrack album, screen cues can often appear to be musically rather disjointed.
Westlake’s score for Babe includes many cues that chop and change as they follow the edits and moods of the scenes they are associated with. However for the most part they come across as effective self-sufficient musical pieces. Their coherence is aided by a rather pervasive use of a particular theme in many of the tracks. Towards the end of the film the farmer (Arthur Hoggett) revives his sick and dispirited piglet (Babe) by singing a song “If I had words” and then dancing a jig. The song, which had been a 1978 reggae-infused UK hit by vocal duettists Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley, is based on the main chorale theme and chords of the Maestoso section of Saint-Saêns’ Symphony No. 3 (avec orgue). It is common in screen projects for the melody of song that is used as a key part of the narrative to be then adopted as the main theme used in the underscore. Other appropriated musical works are also used effectively by Westlake. The melody of “Jingle Bells”, for example, is given a suitably macabre treatment to accompany the discourse around which farm animal will be slaughtered for the Christmas table.
In the booklet notes Westlake reveals nostalgically that many of the musicians used on the original recordings of the film’s cues were members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The current MSO, conducted by the composer, gives a virtuosic rendition of the score for this new recording.