“Not With the Eyes, but With the Ears”: Scores from Shakespeare Films, Act I – The Comedies

First published in Film Score Monthly, November/December 2005

The first in a series (with most humble apologies to Will)


CHORUS, a forty-something Shakespearean bachelor and likely to remain so


Students expos’d to Shakespeare in school,
   On a diet rich with thee, thou, and thy,
May be excus’d to suffer fools gladly
   And their “well-rounded education” cry.
Come, musicians, play and ply your music.
   Show us what wealth in Shakespeare doth await.
Lessons of life and love hath eluded
   Us in our attempts to articulate.
The muse of Shakespeare is heard through the years,
   Forsooth, not with the eyes, but with the ears.

The palace and a wood near Athens.

German director Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream broke the Shakespearean sound barrier. Justly lionized as the first full-length Shakespeare film, today it’s best remembered for its impressive sets, Oscar-winning cinematography (the only award to be given to a write-in candidate), and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Reinhardt had wisely hired Korngold, European classical music’s wünderkind, to “underpaint” the visual style of the film by adapting Felix Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music.

The Overture, written in 1826 when Mendelssohn was seventeen, precedes the incidental music for the play by seventeen years, for which many of the themes found in the Overture are incorporated. Since the incidental music doesn’t even begin until after the Act II Entr’acte with the famous Scherzo, it was clear more music would be needed, especially for transitions between scenes and for the ballets. Instead of padding the score with the same themes from the play’s music over and over, Korngold borrowed from Mendelssohn’s symphonies, chamber works, and lieder, such as the Third Symphony (“Scottish”) and the Songs Without Words.

While much of Mendelssohn’s orchestrations are left intact, Korngold enhanced them with a wordless chorus for the Fairies, and extra instruments such as saxophones, piano, guitar, harp, and vibraphone to complement the special effects used in the film. The textures are also thickened in the lower strings to make up for the limitations of the monaural sound recording. “All Shakespearian devotees will be pleased at the soothing treatment given to the Mendelssohn score,” said Variety. For Mendelssohn purists, Korngold’s orchestrations, use of chorus, and brisk tempi may seem suspect, but the payoffs are many.

* * *

In the late ’60s, esteemed British director Peter Hall helmed his take on the material with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s cast of formidable British actors, including Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, Ian Holm, and David Warner. Fraught by choppy editing, green fairy makeup, distracting hand-held camerawork, and “groovy” lighting effects, the result is akin to a bad acid trip.
As resident composer of the RSC at the time (with over 150 productions to his credit), Guy Woolfenden was the natural choice to score the film. Orchestrated for only a small quintet of performers, the score consists of two brass quintets that bracket the film, and one lullaby sequence “sung” by Titania’s (Dench) fairy train. Circumstance apparently didn’t call for much music, if music this be.

* * *

In 1996, artistic director Adrian Noble filmed his RSC stage production. The concept is nothing if not stylized, utilizing Anthony Ward’s primary color costumes and minimal scenic design, and the inventive lighting of Chris Parry. This time, the concept is the dream of a young boy who roams throughout the production witnessing the events. What may have appeared full of magic and mirth onstage is poorly suited to film.

Not so Howard Blake’s score. Expanded from the stage production, the music contains a lushness that makes up for the Spartan look of the film. It also employs a childlike simplicity and wonderment that perfectly suits a young boy’s dream.

An attractive violin solo sings of love in the air, later sung by a mournful, wise viola during the “I know a bank” soliloquy. The entire orchestra joins in for a joyful rendition during the flight to fairyland. Umbrellas play a large role in the staging and solo woodwind triplets ascend into the heavens accompanied by pizzicato strings as the umbrellas take flight. Female voices seduce the ear, from a plaintive alto mermaid voice to the beautiful female trio waltzing through “Philomel with melody”. A jaunty trumpet and oboe with slide trombone (which later bays with Bottom’s ass’ head) accompanies the merry band of actors. A gentle string trio underscores the party and later provides a tender backdrop for Bottom’s final speech.

Blake’s score captures more of the magic of Shakespeare’s text than the awkward production. If you can find a copy of the long-out-of-print import CD, it’s definitely worth a listen.

* * *

As of this writing, the latest Midsummer arrived in 1999 with a dream of a production. The art direction is stunning and the cast creates relationships that other versions never captured.
Director Michael Hoffman set the film in turn-of-the-century Italy and insisted that Italian opera be incorporated in the score. Renowned voices such as Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Cecila Bartoli, Roberto Alagna, and Marcello Giordani contribute their talents to famous arias by Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini. Mascagni’s beautiful “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria rusticana is adapted by composer Simon Boswell and used quite effectively for Bottom’s (Kevin Kline) scenes with Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mendelssohn’s indelible music is used as well.

With so many classical melodies, it may be difficult to discern Boswell’s original score. The most striking cues are heard during the fairy sequences, using Indian, Bulgarian, and Syrian influences. “We wanted it to be not area-specific, and not time-specific, so people didn’t think it was relating to the Shakespearean period at all, and that it should be rather dark, and not airy-fairy… We discussed somehow making it a kind of pan-world sound, using influences from around the world that weren’t specific, and were actually downright peculiar!” This was achieved by combining medieval and Arabic instruments with ancient Persian percussion.

Fine performances backed by gorgeous arias and Boswell’s interesting score combine for what is arguably the best film version of Shakespeare’s popular comedy we can expect for some time.

What a fool this mortal be who questions
   Of a midsummer night’s dose of pretend.
But music heard in groves outside Athens
   Enriches those that listen. Pray, attend.

The Forest of Arden.

The 1936 film version of As You Like It is notable if for no other reason than it stars Laurence Olivier in his first Shakespearean film role. However, the Forest of Arden suffers from some of the problems that the Midsummer trees did the year before, namely how best to adapt the Bard to the sound era without it sounding stagy and wooden.

One element that cannot be faulted is William Walton’s rich score. By 1936, 34-year-old Walton was known as the “white hope” of English music. And though Walton’s music is used mainly as decoration and transition except for a few choice spots, it hints at the great film scores to come.

The main titles begin with a flourish and a galloping brass minuet, which is heard later during the fountain sequence delicately played by a small string contingent and clarinets, harps, and flutes. One of the rare extended cues is nighttime in the forest, full of idyllic French horns and murmuring woodwinds. A twenty-two-year-old Benjamin Britten, reviewing the score for World Film News, was none too taken with the sequence: “One is conscious of the energetic ranks of the London Philharmonic sweating away behind the three-ply trees.” Walton gets one more chance to let loose during the wedding procession at the end, backed by the full force of the chorus.

Under the greenwood tree sing wonders, for
   Music was scal’d back because of locale.
These seeds of invention blossom’d and bloom’d
   In war and the reign of Larry’s King Hal.


The Taming of the Shrew provides two juicy roles for an actor and actress, roles they can sink their teeth into and scenery they can chew. And it took two huge stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, to tackle Petruchio’s taming of the fiery Kate in 1967. Director Franco Zeffirelli keeps the proceedings busy and brawling, as it should be, and Nino Rota, the musical voice behind the films of Fellini, composed a rousing score that adds greatly to the enjoyment of the picture.

The score consists of three major themes. The rousing melody based on “Where is the life that late I led” perfectly captures Petruchio’s boisterous ego and the speed with which he wants to “wive it wealthily in Padua.” The theme for Lucentio (Michael York) and Bianca (Natasha Pyne) suitably pines along with the young lovers. But it is Kate’s melancholy music, voicing her unspoken loneliness, which gives an emotional depth to the score. The theme is also sped up for her more shrewish moments.

Add in some lutes, mandolins, and troubadours and Rota’s score provides a delightful accompaniment to this most entertaining film.

With crate and plate, to berate is her trait.
   Bonny and curst, far from plain is our wench.
No matter how soft music makes our Kate,
   Harsh are her shrewish ways. Why, there’s a wrench!

An island.

Given Hollywood’s love of CGI-generated special effects and the supernatural elements of the story, surely someone would have made a successful adaptation of The Tempest by now. The most infamous is Peter Greenway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), which, while retaining a good deal of Shakespeare’s text, is far from traditional. Anyone familiar with Greenway’s work will recognize the director’s visual stamp on the film. Layered cinematography, striking costumes and sets, and tons of nudity provide something to gaze at for everyone. John Gielgud speaks all the roles (in voiceover), further adding to the unique flavor of the film.

Minimalist Michael Nyman composed a score that would have sounded far different had he not remembered Caliban’s line incorrectly referring to an “island full of voices,” instead of an “isle full of noises.” By the time he discovered the error, the overall concept of the score was essentially vocal, with settings of the majority of the song texts Shakespeare included in the play. Nyman made the decision that no music would be written or re-written which was remotely contemporary with Shakespeare’s play. The score is thoroughly contemporary and adds immeasurably to the visual images onscreen.

Love it, hate it, minimal sets the score.
   Such stuff as dreams are made on, are they more
Wedded on film than on shore? For some it’s
   Art, others it’s junk, the rest it’s a bore.

LEONATO’S house and orchard.

Kenneth Branagh’s sun-drenched Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was his first Shakespeare film following the phenomenal success of 1989’s Henry V. The film is suffused with joy and it belongs to Branagh and Emma Thompson—as the quarreling Benedick and Beatrice—and to the stunning cinematography and art direction of the picturesque Italian countryside.

Branagh wisely brought back his longtime musical collaborator, Patrick Doyle. Following a dual career in acting and composing for British television, Doyle joined Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987 as an actor, composer, and musical director before composing his first score for Henry V.

As opposed to the dramatic muscularity of the earlier score, Doyle’s music for Much Ado is saturated with pure elation, especially in the overture. During the memorable main titles, the strings and woodwinds swirl around Leonato’s (Richard Briers) chaotic household as they prepare for the arrival of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and his band of soldiers, accompanied by galloping trumpets, French horns, and percussion.

The plaintive ballad, “Sigh No More, Ladies,” serves as the love theme. First spoken during the prologue by Beatrice, it is later sung by a balladeer accompanied by guitar and backup trio. The melody plays a memorable role in the newfound love of Beatrice and Benedick. And the tune bookends with the finale, as the joyous wedding party romps through the orchard. While there are darker moments in the score for the jealous Don John (Keanu Reeves), the overall tone is decidedly, and blissfully, sunny.

Hey nonny, nonny, love is in the air
   For masters and mistresses ever fair.
If Beatrice and Benedick apply,
   Then love can find anyone, `by and by.

OLIVIA’S house.

Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring tales of mistaken identity and gender bending, was finally filmed in 1996. Trevor Nunn, internationally known for helming theatrical hits such as Cats and Les Miserables, directed the impressive cast (which includes Ben Kingsley, Helen Bonham Carter, and Nigel Hawthorne) with the utmost earnestness.

Shaun Davey composed a rich, full-blooded orchestral score, interspersed with some charming settings of Shakespeare’s songs for the clown, Feste (Kingsley). Davey had worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and composed the music for the BBC series Ballykissangel before scoring Twelfth Night. He would later be nominated for a 2000 Tony Award for the musical James Joyce’s The Dead.

After a dire prologue, the main titles give some indication of the vibrancy of the score as Viola (Imogen Stubbs) disguises herself as Cesario. The lovely piano theme for the “Food of Love” sequence is heartbreaking and plays a major role in the poignant finale as Viola and Sebastian are reunited.

Befitting Davey’s prominence as one of Ireland’s foremost composers, many of the melodies, especially the songs, have an Irish flavor to them. The march for Malvolio (Hawthorne) is, like his character, light, delicate, and vedy proper. And the finale is suffused with merriment while Feste leads a rousing rendition of “The Wind and the Rain” as the lovers are married and everyone gets what Shakespeare feels they properly deserve.

If music be the food of love’s sweet throne,
   Eat from its banquet, sing of its refrain.
And when the gales of ill become o’erblown,
   Remember, “Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.”

Navarre. A park with a palace in it.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 2000 Kenneth Branagh turned Love’s Labour’s Lost into a 1930’s musical set to classic songs by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. Though it was an audacious move, it stumbles on two left feet. The film gives us the barebones of the plot spoken by a less-than-comfortable group of actors (excepting Branagh). When the Shakespearean dialogue is interrupted with the songs, sparkling and period perfect though they are in their orchestrations, the effect is jarring and makes what many consider a silly play even sillier.

Patrick Doyle commented on the complexities of the music: “The songs here needed longer introductions; the Collegian design (being quintessentially English) called for a traditional English sound; the Royalty aspect cried out for a noble quality; the very funny ‘Cinetone News’ sequences needed none other than the classic ‘March of Time’ accompaniment; the comic characters…needed music that reflected their dignity; the opening titles need to sound like the old M-G-M overtures.”

Doyle’s original score fills in the gaps, supplying the emotion and poignancy missing from most of the film. Variety agreed, saying Doyle’s underscoring is “a major assist in mood and tone, especially in the final reels.”

For those who watch, pity Gershwin and Cole.
   The cast could have been stronger on the whole.
Listening to Doyle’s music can set you free.
   With three-fold love I wish you all these three.

Venice. A court of justice.

The Merchant of Venice, with its centuries-old controversial character of Shylock, can barely be classified as a comedy under the most permissive of circumstances these days. And director Michael Radford’s 2004 film version eliminates most of the comedic elements, focusing on the darker aspects of the play. So Jocelyn Pook’s somber score comes as no surprise.

Best known for her minimalist score for Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pook immersed herself in Renaissance music “hoping to achieve music that was a kind of hybrid between my own contemporary style and early music.” Ancient instruments such as recorder, psaltery (harp), sackbut (trombone), and theorbo (lute) were used in the scenes involving court musicians, balanced by more modern instruments such as guitar, snare drum, and double basses elsewhere in the score. The fight between religious forces is reflected in the Hebraic and Protestant melisamas in the score. Adding to the ethereal quality of much of the music is the presence of German countertenor Andreas Scholl.

Pook’s music provides a great deal of atmosphere to the film and stays in the background without drawing undue attention to itself. Variety called the score “subtle” and an “elegant addition” to the film.

A pound of flesh is more than we can bear,
   Preferring our merchants out of the glare.
You prick’d us, we bled. In villains, forsooth,
  We looked in the mirror, ourselves in truth.

* * *

“Drama is easy, comedy is hard,”
   Or so it has oft’ been said by those who
Live, laugh, and love by the words of the Bard.
   But humorous or no, music we hear
   Can translate a phrase as soft on the ear,
Singing of men, women, players no more
   But stars who leap from centuries’ old page
   To take their place in the world, on her stage.



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