When John Barry scored the stage story of The Lion in Winter in 1968, he was at the height of his James Bond popularity, with the world knowing him only for his sassy Bond scores (or maybe for his jazz band recordings --who could ever forget Beat Girl?). Only serious film score collectors were aware of the true merits that Barry displayed in his earlier 1960's score such as Zulu and Born Free. Upon glancing at the script and cast for The Lion in Winter, one would not have associated Barry with the project even at that time, but his friendship with the director of the film allowed Barry the opportunity to create a score that would change the public's impression of him forever. What's important to understand about the score to this film is the simple fact that it wasn't necessary for Barry to create such an "over the top" score. The wickedly brilliant script, performed by the outstanding Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn at the heights of their careers, would have made this film a classic alone. Throw in additionally powerful performances by young actors Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, and you get a film for which a score could have been an easy afterthought. In the end, however, it would be John Barry standing on the stage alongside Hepburn and screenwriter James Goldman and accepting an Academy Award for The Lion in Winter.
The fact that the grandiose style of Barry's score was unnecessary in the first place is what makes it a classic. Left by the director and producer to compose whatever would be appropriate for the film, Barry decided write a dark, menacing, gothic score... a style which cannot be classified with either his early jazzy works or his later lush romances. He masterfully captured the brutal sounds of the Middle Ages, while still adhering to the domination of the Catholic Church. In the story, the tumultuous family bickering that occupies the entirety of the film is governed by the overarching guidance of the Church in Rome, so even as the members of the Royal Family are on the verge of killing each other, they continuously threaten to go to Rome and seek permission to have the others struck down. Despite the nearly pagan practices of the characters, not excluding the banishment, adultery, and homosexual tensions, there is a faintly angelic feeling to the whole film. Barry responds by including a few original songs of his own, religious is stature, as well as the use of Church bells in several cues. While the bells can only be seen in a handful of scenes, the stomping and arguing that continues between the Royal Family in the bowels of their dirty castle is always highlighted by Church bells. Sometimes they are tolling in the distance, a grim accompaniment to the trumpet solos throughout, and sometimes they chime in with full mass. When the hardened producer of the film first heard Barry's approach to the film, he was reduced to tears of joy.
The more memorable half of Barry's work for The Lion in Winter, however, is that which gained him the Oscar for his efforts: the brooding representation of the Middle Ages. This score is often classified as a choral soundtrack, and rightfully so, but there are two distinct uses of the chorus. When The Voices of The Accademia Monteverdiana perform, they are either reciting Latin lyrics written specifically for the film, or they are providing wordless accompaniment to the full orchestra. The songs with Latin lyrics can often become shrill in tone, but putting them aside, Barry's melding of the pounding orchestra and the Latin and wordess chants is nothing short of stunning. The opening titles, compensating for a unremarkable series of visuals of gargoyles and other nasty stone works, is among the best opening statements of theme of all time. The relentless timpani, alternating piano in the bass, and noble, but disturbing brass --together with the magnificant chants-- perfectly prepares the audience for the pure evil they are about to witness. The chants are so menacing and simplistic that they have been compared in their ability to frighten to Goldsmith's The Omen. Barry continues to use the bass heavy orchestral bombast to accentuate the disgusting depths of the castle in which the story moves around. There are several scenes in which a character has made a major decision, and then decides to stomp around the castle; these scenes were a feast for Barry, who used every opportunity to let loose on the brass and the chorus. Finally, the music meant specifically for the banished, wicked Queen is superb, with a false major key theme of elegance marking her entrance and exit, interrupted by ominous bursts from the male chorus.