Love Theme from Spartacus
Written my Alex North for the film Spartacus
Memory by John Fraim
Tonight on Bay Area jazz radio KCSM, they played jazz saxophist Regina Carter’s interpretation of “Love Theme from Spartacus.” In my mind, it is one of the most gorgeous theme songs ever attached to a Hollywood movie. The piece was written by Alex North for the 1960 epic about the historical figure Spartacus. The film came from the 1951 book Spartacus by novelist Howard Fast. It was inspired by the real-life story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity and the events of the Third Servile War. The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick and starred Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Laurence Olivier as the Roman general and politician, John Gavin as Julius Caesar and Jean Simmons as Varinia. The film won four Academy Awards in all.
Spartacus, a Thracian slave, refuses to allow himself to become the animal the Roman civilization would have him be. His love for Varinia, a slave girl, coupled with his revulsion at the crushing treatment and callous murders of his fellow slaves, ignite in his breast a passion for freedom. They escape and are joined by more runaways. Their ranks swell to become a vast army. Contrasted with their impassioned plans for open rebellion, are the cool, calculating minds of their Roman adversaries Crassus, Grachus.
As a powerful force in making Spartacus, Kirk Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo to write the script, despite Trumbo’s status as a blacklisted writer. Trumbo had written several scripts under various pseudonyms since Joseph McCarthy went after him, but Douglas insisted that he be credited under his real name, signalling an end to one of Hollywood’s most shameful acts of capitulation. The film marked a milestone in the life and career of Kirk Douglas and he wrote about it in his 2012 book I Am Spartacus. It was more than a little ironic that Douglas really released writer Trumbo from the slavery of the Hollywood system by giving credit to Dalton Trumbo for his work on the film.
The original score for Spartacus was composed and conducted by six-time Academy Award nominee Alex North and was nominated by the American Film Institute for their list of greatest film scores. It offers a textbook example of how modernist compositional styles can be adapted to the Hollywood leitmotif. North’s score is epic, as befits the scale of the film. After extensive research of music of that period, North gathered a collection of antique instruments that, while not authentically Roman, provided a strong dramatic effect. These instruments included a sarrusophone, Israeli recorder, Chinese oboe, lute, mandolin, Yugoslav flute, kythara, dulcimer and bagpipes. North’s prize instrument was the ondioline, similar to an earlier version of the electronic synthesizer which had never been used in film before. Much of the music is written without a tonal center and flirts with tonality in ways that most film composers would not risk. One theme is used to represent both slavery and freedom, but is given different values in different scenes, so that it sounds like different themes. The love theme for Spartacus and Varinia is the most accessible theme in the film, and there is a harsh trumpet figure for Crassus. The soundtrack for the album runs about 45 minutes but is not very representative of the film. In 2010, the soundtrack was re-released as part of a set featuring 6 CDs, 1 DVD and a 168-page booklet in a limited edition of 5,000 copies.
But the film is largely forgotten today. At over three hours in length, its “epic” length makes it difficult to our modern world of short-order media, click bait and instant messaging. Yet the music of the film has lived on through the years in various interpretations by leading musicians. It seems to be a timeless piece of music, open to various interpretations all within the elegance of this piece of music. The film contains one of Hollywood’s most powerful themes: one person’s escape from slavery to freedom. But the song more than rises to match the importance of its’ theme, a theme certainly relevant to modern America and the struggle for freedom in the era of a pandemic.
Below is a few interpretatons of the “Love Theme” by some jazz legends: Yusef Lateef, Bill Evans and Regina Carter. Like John Coltrane did with the film piece “My Favorite Things,” Lateef brings a middle eastern chant interpretation of the song that provides one of the highlights of his career. Lateef’s “Love Theme from Spartacus” is on his Eastern Sounds album recorded just a year after the film in 1961. There is the middle eastern, snake charmer chant-like sound from Yateef’s horn that pushes the song to a new level and perspective. Bill Evans provides another brilliant re-imagining of the song in Evans’ unique, personal style from his 1963 album Conversations with Myself. Finally, there is the interpretation of “Love Theme” by Regina Carter off her 2000 Motor Ciy Moments album provides an interpretation by a rising star of jazz in the early part of the new century.
These three are just a handful of the versions of the theme song. It lives on beyond the brilliant, epic but almost forgotten film. It served to express the struggles of a period long ago in history. Yet it was relevant to the struggles for freedom in the early 1960s and in the years since. Especially today.
A Few Interpretations of Love Theme from Spartacus
Yusef Lateef – On the 1962 Eastern Sounds album.
Bill Evans – On the 1963 album Conversations with Myself.
Regina Carter – On the 2000 Motor City Moments album.