I’ll never forget the day my aging brain finally made the obvious deduction that Elmer Bernstein had written the National Geographic theme — about 20 years after I should have figured it out. Since its inception in 1967, you could put this rousing, staccato melody on a short list of the most instantly recognizable main title themes ever written for television. Unfortunately, despite a baker’s dozen compilations of TV tunes in the past decade or so no one has produced a decent rendition of this iconic theme — until now.
Frankly, a CD that only contains a few takes of Bernstein’s National Geographic theme would be worth full price on its own, but Intrada has really outdone itself by presenting two full National Geographic episode scores here for a full hour of music.
The album presents two masters of Americana — Bernstein and composer Jerome Moross — at the top of their form and working in a medium that allowed for a full range of musical expression despite the fact that it all had to play under narration. Bernstein’s “Yankee Sails Across Europe” is a nautical adventure brimming with hummable melodies, ranging from playful to exciting and surprisingly romantic. The album opens with the Geographic’s brief “play on” stinger before introducing the first few minutes of Bernstein’s score (they used to call this a teaser) before the familiar tympani roll segue into the energetic and arresting National Geographic theme.
“Yankee Sails Across Europe” is consistently infectious as Bernstein musically illustrates the North Seas and the optimism of a married couple piloting a small yacht in this groundbreaking travelogue. Jerome Moross’ “Grizzly!” is another lost treasure from a composer whose voice is as distinctive as Bernstein’s — “Grizzly” often recalls Moross’s score to the James Stewart aviation adventure The Mountain Road, with a broad, heroic Americana theme and Moross’ trademark shifting, sidestepping motives. The documentary form allows for a great deal of development, character and atmosphere, and that and the whole gripping style of 1960s television writing makes this album a real treasure.
It’s probably too much to hope that we’ll see more Geographic scores from Intrada, but some wonderful composers worked on this series over the years and in its way it boasts a musical legacy as rich as any of the other Sixties TV shows collectors yearn for. — Jeff Bond