Music

The Storyteller: 30th anniversary soundtrack review

Baz Greenland journeys back in time to revisit the rich tales of his childhood through the music of Jim Henson's The Storyteller.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller is one of the most precious memories of my childhood. Full of evocative narration, gripping characters, rich animation and puppetry and a mesmerising performance by the late, great John Hurt, each week would bring audiences another fantastical story from the edges of folk-lore and mythology. This wasn’t the usual mix of classical stories you would see adapted by Disney; this was something darker and more vivid.

The second series, Greek Myths, followed a couple of years later bringing to life the dramatic stories of Theseus, Perseus, Orpheus & Eurydice and Daedalus & Icarus, and creating with vivid imagination the horrors of the fabled minotaur and Gorgon. It lasted four episodes compared to The Storyteller‘s nine, with Michael Gambon taking on the role of the show’s narrator.

I recently had the pleasure to revisit the John Hurt stories last year with my own children, and they were as much a joy to watch today as they were in my own childhood (the Greek Myths are sadly much harder to come by. So I jumped at the opportunity to review the 30th anniversary of music from The Storyteller (set over two disks) and the Greek Myths (on the third

The soundtrack by Rachel Portman has been brought to life for the first time by Varèse Sarabande as a limited-edition box set, the music to each story spread across two suites, with all the intro and credit themes intact. The set contains a 32-page booklet of exclusive interviews with the producers of the series and Portman herself, and a collection of behind-the-scenes photographs.

In the booklet, composer Rachel Portman talks about being brought on by director Steve Barron to work on the pilot.

“Steve and I talked about each film having a special sound and a special voice, and some special instrument that would be part of it. I chose very carefully a different coloration for each story, what the main instrument was going to be—because I wasn’t able to have very many instruments, and I wanted it to be orchestral.

I felt I had real freedom to go as dark as I wanted, musically. I didn’t shy away from being really sad, or really dark, or really happy. I think that really matched the way the whole series was done, and the scripts. It always kind of ends in minor. I don’t know why. They all come back to a sad chord at the end.”

The 3-CD box set was released by Varèse Sarabande on the 27th April.


The Review

The soundtrack to The Storyteller  is a rich and vibrant affair, packed full of atmosphere, emotion and tension; Rachel Portman makes excellent use of a limited orchestra and unusual instruments to bring these worlds to life.

The booklet includes discussions with Portman about how she approached the music to The Storyteller, offering insights into how she put together each story suite, which I’ve shared throughout the review.

Disk 1

Main Title (Extended Version)

“That came out of the John Amiel episode, ‘The Luck Child’. There was a piece of music that I wrote, a travelling piece, and that became the basis of the opening. By the time I did that score, it was quite a well-oiled machine. And there was one particular cue that suddenly became yeah, that would go really well as the front title.”

This piece brings back fond childhood memories. There is a great use of flute to create something eerie and haunting, while the slow strings and playful horn add a sense of charm to the title sequence.

Hans My Hedgehog

“The fact that the hedgehog is a rather strange animal, and sort of otherworldly, I used a soprano sax but played straight –  so classical soprano sax but played rather softly. The reasoning behind this is that it can sound a bit wild if it’s played up high. And also, like most of these stories, there’s a lot of emotion and sadness, so there’s a lot of pain that’s felt. That’s why I used a soprano sax. That score also had an unusual English bagpipe (Northumbrian Small-pipes). It was performed by Kathryn Tickell, who’s quite well known as a folk piper now.

The opening two-part suite to ‘Hans My Hedgehog’ is a sweet, gentle and melancholy piece. Portman delivers a beautiful repeating string movement, mixing in that deep rich sax and elegant harp to create shades of light and dark in the score.

The second suite builds on that beauty, the slow strings packed with emotion, the gorgeous harp and flute solo full of hope. She even throws in a merry fiddle for a little jig before ending with that sad, ethereal combination of sax, small pipes,harp, flute and string, which is quite stunning to listen too. The ‘Hans My Hedgehog’ suites are a thing of magic themselves.

A Short Story

“That was based on the end titles theme, so the bass clarinet is featured a lot and I used the celesta for the magic. Celestas are so unreliable that, now, you have to get a keyboard in because you can get such good samples – which is a shame. This was a real Celesta.”

The score to ‘A Short Story is darker and more insidious; there is a real sense of Portman making use of the title sequence and end theme, using the brass clarinet to create something rather morose. The repeating playful moments lighten the mood and lead into something ethereal and romantic but with a melancholy edge.

This continues in earnest in the dark suite B; the slowed down clarinet add darkness and dread mixed with the strings and harp. Portman builds the momentum into a faster paced play on the main theme, mixing in a gorgeous, hopeful string movement before ending in the darker, sorrowful clarinet solo. These suites have atmosphere in spades.

Fearnot

“I used a real Ondes Martenot, and really, really well played – and a lot of tremelo strings depicting fear.”

The first suite to ‘Fearnot’ opens with an eerie flute solo while the ominous strings and mournful violin solo has a Celtic vibe. This is full of atmosphere, both beautiful and unsettling in equal measure.

The second suite delivers a sad sweeping violin solo but it is the use of the Ondes Martenot with its offbeat sounds similar to a theremin that make this score particularly creepy. The intense tremelo strings create a sense of rising tension and darkness too, broken by a merry Celtic jig. This is one of the most unsettling tracks on the soundtrack, not one to be listened to alone at night!

The Luck Child

It’s a really scary story. There’s a lot of evil, and I used a contrabassoon for that. I used a flautist who used an ethnic flute – a simple little wooden, one octave flute – as well as a bass flute.

This is another atmospheric track, plenty of rising tension in the string movement, the warm, hopeful flute rising beautifully over the orchestra. Portman builds everything into a dramatic, mysterious piece; there is a real sense of hope fighting against the grim darkness in both suites. It wasn’t a track that stuck with me as much as others, but they served their purpose well. That sense of evil is apparent throughout.

The Heartless Giant

I used very heavy basses for his footprints. The theme was very much based on clomping around, with a trombone melody to be giant-like.

The two suites that make up the score the ‘The Heartless Giant’ are very sombre, low and atmospheric. The heavy brass of the trombone creates a very earthy tone to the piece while being brassy and bold too. The flute sequence in suite A is beautiful, almost  ethereal, making this a very romantic piece.

The playful flute and strings add a dreamlike quality to suite B mixed the heavy sombre bass to create the magic of the piece. These suites were distinctly different to some of the other tracks, that heavy, fantastical tone with a real ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ vibe that added grandeur and majesty.

The first disk ends with the ‘End Title’, with its fast paced mix of strings and horns that make for a short but rich finale.


Disk 2

The second disk starts with the same gorgeous ‘Main Title’, but with the addition pf John Hurt’s rich narration.

The Soldier And Death

I used a bass flute for Death and an oboe for sadness. Anthony Minghella wrote that when the soldier whistled, it sounded like rubies – which was great, except that of course I had to make that happen. So we tried various famous whistlers to come along. Everyone thinks they can whistle, it’s hilarious. It just sounded like normal whistling – it didn’t sound like a ruby whistle, ever. I remember this one night – it was in 1987, because it was the same night as a really big hurricane that tore down a lot of trees – we were in the studio really late at night, working on the music.

This was one that Jim was doing, and he said “I’ll have a go.” So he was whistling away, hilariously – no more ruby whistling than anyone else, but he had to have a go, too. It was so sweet. We came out at about one o’clock in the morning, and just found London completely devastated with all these trees down. In the end we got a wonderful guy, whose name I can’t remember, a singer. This was before technology was as it is now, so it was harder for us to try things out, without clicks and stuff. But he whistled everything down an octave at half the pace, and then we sped it up an octave, and it turned into a really beautiful ruby whistle.

The first suite to ‘The Soldier and Death’ has a lovely, hopeful beginning and Portman adds a slowed down flute and violin to create a more offbeat effect. This piece is fantastic, the building drama of the orchestra, the horn adding a heavier, darker feel but always retaining an enchanting nature. The playful oboe rises with orchestra, the feathering, rising strings and distant oboe adding tension.

Suite B takes a more emotive, darker turn, more  mournful and slower too with Portman bringing in a gorgeous harp and wind instruments. The organ chords add a truly gothic touch to the track before ending on its beautiful, ethereal themes of string and flute. This is one of the most eerie, sinister suites on the album and one of the most magical too.

The True Bride

I used a French horn for the lion, which seemed to be about good and wisdom and comfort. There is a celesta theme for the jewels. Obviously I used a celesta quite a lot.

What stands out in the two suites for ‘The True Bride’ compared to others on this collection is its simplicity. The heavy oboe and strings add menace, but generally it is a softer, gentler track with beautiful flute and strings, only really gaining some momentum towards the end with a beautiful harp accompanying the orchestra.

The second suite is light, gentle and romantic, Portman using wind instruments and the twinkling of the celesta to add a sense of magic, making this a true fairytale piece.

The Three Ravens

It was one of the darkest of them all. It was frightening, and I wrote a twisty little theme to depict evil. There’s more dissonance than quite a lot of the other music. Again I used a celesta. And I used a cor anglais, which can be very good for evil.

The opening suite to ‘The Three Ravens’ is really melancholy, slow and ominous. The use of the cor anglais, mixed with the sinister, heavy strings builds a sense of danger; the dramatic horns and clanging beat leaves this suite on an unsettling tone.

These themes continue in suite B, with a similar beautiful flute motif and ominous cor anglais and strings, Portman create an eerie and haunting repeating motif, with a quasi-Celtic vibe. These two tracks certainly conjure up the sense of darkness that Portman was going for.

Sapsorrow

She was a sort of a beast of an animal, and so, again, soprano sax seemed like a good colour to depict her, as a kind of wildness. The other thing in that was a very romantic, longing waltz, which is the kind of Cinderella thing on piano. I allowed it to be very romantic, , and lots of flute – which is not something that I normally do. But I think it really needed it, in its simplicity, because it’s such a romantic story.

The two suites to ‘Sapsarrow’ have a gorgeous, emotive fairytale throughout, capturing that romantic feel Portman talks about above. The first suite opens with a blend of harp and flute, evocative of a royal court, while the waltz theme on piano continues to enhance the romantic feel, making it different from other tracks.

The second suite has a delightful string quartet and a breathtaking use of piano, strings and flute, while the sax adds a sadder element to this magical, fairytale piece.

Disk two ends with a shortened version of the main titles for The Storyteller.


Disk 3

This disk moves on to the four stories from the later Greek Myths series. While Portman doesn’t provide a description of her work on these suites, each installment bears the same evocative work as that on The Storyteller series.

The disk opens with the ‘The Storyteller Greek Myths Main Titles’, which has the same enchanting feels as the original series titles but with a bolder, brassy conclusion that suits the more epic tone of these tales.

Theseus & The Minotaur

This is a gorgeous atmospheric track. Portman makes excellent use of repeating string movements, eerie wind instruments and rumbling percussion to deliver a suite that drips with tension and menace, the heroic horn rising through the darkness is bold and hopeful.

This continues in suite B, as the ethereal flute and harp battle against the ominous, menacing string repetition, becoming more prominent. The brassy, heroic horn and purity of the flute battles Portman’s more menacing orchestral themes, while the addition of tradition Greek playful wind instruments creates a lighter, jubilant feel. The  soaring sweep of strings and flute and a return to the atmospheric themes of suite A are stunning, rising in tension and dread, the bold horn blazing through and ending the piece in an unsettling finish.

Perseus & The Gorgon

The opening to suite A has a much slower ominous feel, opening use of sax and oboe used to create a sense of dread while the flute feels innocent and hopeful. There is also a sense of Portman returning to the familiar themes of The Storyteller in this piece. She was clearly able to capture that sense of battling forces – beautiful piano versus the darker heavier strings and oboe.

That sense of hope and sadness is apparent in suite B too, the gentle flute and heavier strings and wind instruments building and building, while the frantic strings have a real horror movie vibe.

Daedalus & Icarus

These two suites are gentler and sweeter than the other Greek Myths pieces, packed full of passion and melancholy. Portman creates a slighter ominous undertone – sax and flute and piano are intertwined, the swirling, repeating motion create an undercurrent of unease and tension.

The second sweet is more sad but captures a sense of beauty too and there is great drama in those swirling motifs.The suites to ‘Daedalus & Icarus’ are packed full of emotion and a joy to listen to.

Orpheus & Eurydice

There is just one suite this time. Portman uses Greek pipes and percussion beat to really capture the mood and location of the piece; it is light, dainty and passionate, the pipes full of sadness, rising with strings into a gorgeous, emotional sequence.There are great shades of light and darkness – apparent across the final disk, from the feather strings to create tension to the ethereal, sad flute and slow, grim beat. This is a gorgeous piece to end on.


Some final thoughts…

The three disk soundtrack to The Storyteller truly is magical; it will take you back to your childhood, and through the use of various, unusual instruments,composer Rachel Portman takes you on a journey through light and dark. Together with the booklet looking in detail at the making of the series, this really is a gift from Varèse Sarabande and well worth treating yourself to.

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