“Not With the Eyes, but With the Ears”: Scores from Shakespeare Films, Act II: The Histories

First in Film Score Monthly Online, January 2006


Second in the series (again, with most humble apologies to Will)


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


The history plays are seldom in vogue,
   Seen as dry, perplexing, lifeless and dull.
But ’neath the surface, riches can be found
    ’Mongst kings, queens, and the occasional lull.
With thrones overthrown it’s hard to keep score
Of who murder’d whom ’midst the blood and gore.
Some find it difficult to follow all
   The battles, murders, and deeds in the night.
But music whispers to those weary souls,
   Bringing their confusions into the light.

The field at Agincourt.

Following a few misguided American attempts at filming Shakespeare, leave it to the Brits to do it properly. Laurence Olivier’s Henry V revitalized the text to a wider realm of cinematic possibilities, popularizing Shakespeare on film. Staged as a performance within the “wooden O” of the Globe Theatre, the film provides a fascinating look at Elizabethan theater practices. Though many find the end result “stagey,” it remains an important document of wartime filmmaking.

Premiered in England on November 22, 1944 (it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1946), the day after the last blackout in London, the film was made explicitly for propagandist purposes. Though it came too late in the Second World War to serve as a call to arms, the film served as a powerful reminder of what Britain was defending. And if Henry’s speeches to his troops didn’t rouse the British citizens, William Walton’s soul-stirring score surely did.

Walton borrowed major themes from three different sources. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an anthology of Elizabethan keyboard music, contributed melodies for the children’s choir, the passacaglia for the death of Falstaff, and the beautiful minuet accompanying Pistol’s (Robert Newton) goodbye to Mistress Quickly (Freda Jackson). A recurrent melody from Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne, which weren’t very well known at the time, was used for the scenes at the French court. (Canteloube never granted permission for its use, and was eventually awarded damages.) In addition, two old French tunes, “Réveillez-vous Piccars” (a 15th century battle song) and the well-known “Agincourt Song,” were expanded and served as the basis for the fifteen-minute Agincourt battle sequence.

Walton scored the music for full orchestra (including tabor and harpsichord), plus treble, mixed, and children’s chorus. The first sounds we hear are sustained string chords followed by a flute accompanying a playbill fluttering in the breeze. As the parchment slaps against the screen, a fanfare heralds the performance of the play. The camera pans across the Thames accompanied by arpeggiated violins and a wordless chorus singing the “Spirit of England” theme, until cymbals and timpani announce our arrival at the Globe. A chamber group plays Walton’s quasi-period music as the audience gathers inside the theater. Once the play opens up as Henry departs for battle, Walton finally lets loose with a rousing march and churning sea music.

But it is the massive forces used for the battle at Agincourt that provide Walton his most rousing moments. The trumpets and French horns represent the warring sides of the English and French. The pulse races as the French horses gallop faster and faster, the trumpets interjecting over the top, providing subtle aural cues for the likely victor.

Hubert Clifford in Tempo wrote, “Judged by purely musical standards the best in this score nears comparison with Walton’s own output for the concert platform.” And, rare for film music, the score was indeed adapted for the concert hall. Sir Malcolm Sargent pulled together a Suite for Chorus and Orchestra. Two pieces for strings were extracted from the score and later arranged for organ and for piano duet. Muir Mathieson (who conducted the score on the soundtrack) arranged a Suite for Orchestra, which Don Phillips later used as the basis for his suite for wind band. Christopher Palmer’s A Shakespeare Scenario for speaker, mixed chorus, children’s chorus, and orchestra, was later arranged for chamber ensemble and brass band. Palmer also adapted two of the Scenario movements for oboe and piano, and one for flute and piano, while Robert Power composed a suite for organ.

When Olivier screened the completed film for Walton, the composer remarked, “I’m very glad you showed it to me, because I must tell you I did think it was terribly dull without the music.” Still, Olivier was lavish with his praise—“for me, music made the film”—and acknowledged this by bestowing on Walton the final screen credit, unheard of for a composer.

* * *

Twenty-nine-year-old Kenneth Branagh had a tough act to follow when he filmed his version of Henry V in 1989. Though the actor had already been labeled a “genius” and the heir apparent to Olivier, the earlier film version was considered a classic and many were concerned how this young upstart would translate Shakespeare’s play to contemporary audiences. Said Branagh, “Henry V emerges as a political thriller, a warts-and-all study of leadership, a complex debate about war and the pity of war, an uncompromising analysis of the English class system….The crucial bonding agent in all this was the music.”

Though Patrick Doyle had been an actor and composer with Branagh’s theater troupe, the director was nervous about hiring a first-time film composer (even though it was also Branagh’s first film). Doyle was nervous, too. He commented, “[Writing the score] was a very frightening experience, but the Walton thing was really the last thing on my mind, because the job in hand was for me more terrifying than following in his footsteps. I had to create my own footsteps…” And Doyle’s score is every bit as majestic, exciting, and moving as Walton’s 45 years earlier.

Feeling the music needed to be “of our time, classically rich in tone but instantly accessible,” Branagh did not want to use period instruments. The director “always, always” encouraged size: “the epic approach, thunderous, full-blooded, heroic size.” And Doyle’s “operatic” score granted Branagh’s wish that “every tune…make an impact.” That impact is heard from Henry’s first appearance onscreen. As massive double doors slam open, Henry is seen as a backlit figure in shadow. A string-and-woodwind flourish leads to Henry’s six-note brass theme, followed by a relentless fugue-like motif in the low strings. These themes work in tandem throughout to score to convey Henry’s boldness and determination as he wars with France.

Trombone and strings mourn Falstaff’s passing. Flutes flutter about Catherine’s (Emma Thompson) carefree life, and a beautiful theme accompanies Henry’s wooing of her. But it is with Henry’s stirring speeches that Doyle, like Walton before him, has the perfect opportunity to manipulate our emotions.

The oboe and French horn provide a stirring underscore to the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the music builds as the full orchestra joins in. First heard under the Chorus’s prologue and later as Henry roams through the camp on the eve of battle, the theme for “Non nobis, Domine” represents loss. But it is heard to its greatest effect in its vocal version as the soldiers gather up their dead. What begins as a lamenting tenor solo (sung by Doyle himself), becomes a rousing choral anthem to the English victory at Agincourt.

In 1991, Doyle reworked part of the score into Henry V: A Suite for Actor and Orchestra. The score received even more exposure when Paul Wylie skated to the music during his silver-medal-winning performance at the 1992 Winter Olympics.

Henry V remains Branagh’s and Doyle’s supreme achievements.

On the field of Agincourt the kingly
   Hal laid waste, against all odds outnumber’d,
As Doyle and Walton waken’d emotions
   In hearts and minds that have too long slumber’d.

A room in the Garter Inn.

In 1967, a “new” Shakespeare work premiered. After filming Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), actor/director Orson Welles took on another major Shakespearean role—Falstaff. Chimes At Midnight (also known as Falstaff in some prints), combines scenes from Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V, and the two parts of Henry IV, to show the waning friendship between Welles’s aged comic character and Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) in the final days of Henry IV’s (John Gielgud) reign. The film is an excellent piece of filmmaking, especially given the budget restraints. And though most critics and audiences ignored it upon its initial release, it is now considered a classic, if still not widely seen.

Welles brought along his Othello collaborator, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, to compose the score. Lavagnino captures a Renaissance flavor in his chamber instrumentations, with particular attention given to mandolin, flute, oboe, recorder, and tambourine, as the descant instrumental solos revolve around rarely changing modalities. The raucous world of Falstaff is conveyed in the pounding timpani and cymbals of the main titles, heard later in scenes at the Garter Inn and during the forest chase.

The battle sequence uses the most powerful orchestration of the score. A mournful trumpet solo signals the quiet before battle. String and woodwind stinger chords punctuate the brass, while the percussion doles out the horrors of war. Chiming chords and a wordless female chorus give the cue a funereal effect, as if unseen mothers were crying for their dead.

But the film ultimately belongs to Welles. His vision is so firmly stamped on the film, the funeral drums over the end credits not only mourn the loss of Falstaff, but also Welles himself.

Falstaff—a man who lived each moment with
   Wine and women, friends, and nary a care.
The Windsor bell hath struck twelve and the chimes
   Of midnight have tolled out your final prayer.

London. The palace.

Three different filmmakers—Al Pacino, Richard Loncraine, Laurence Olivier—and three different composers—Howard Shore, Trevor Jones, William Walton—provide three wildly different artistic visions of Richard III.

Pacino was originally hired to star in a traditional filming of Shakespeare’s tale of the hunchback king. In the process, he decided to direct the film as well, presenting huge chunks of the play (hence its inclusion in this article) in a quasi-documentary style in which the actor discusses Richard and Shakespeare in general, and their relation to contemporary society.

The resulting film, Looking for Richard (1996), serves as an excellent introduction to Shakespeare’s second longest play (behind Hamlet), as well as a rare, behind-the-scenes look at acting and the rehearsal process. One of the stumbling blocks to reading or viewing Richard III is “all those relationships,” as John Gielgud states in one of the film’s many illuminating interviews with actors and scholars. Pacino not only gives us the historical background of the story, but strips away most of the subplots, clarifying the intricacies of the feudal court.

Howard Shore’s score incorporates a medieval sound, perfectly complementing the choice of filming the dramatic scenes. Those scenes were shot at the Cloisters, a branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, constructed from monastic sites in southern France, that houses European art and architecture from the Twelfth through Fifteenth Centuries. To gain this sound, Shore employs a cathedral organ and mixed chorus singing portions of Shakespeare’s text in Latin, which lend a somber gravity to the score.

Because of the documentary nature of the film, Shore was not bound to the usual restraints of action-specific scoring. After numerous conversations with Pacino regarding the characters and their relationships, Shore viewed the film once and then studied the play: “I wrote that music without really dealing with the movie. I wrote hours of material then fit it into the movie.” Given the unorthodox method of scoring, Shore’s music succeeds surprisingly well at creating a unique mood that could easily have been at odds with Pacino’s unique storytelling device. Fans of the composer’s Academy Award-winning work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy will find the seeds of those scores in Looking for Richard.

* * *

For years, directors have interpreted Shakespeare in periods other than those in which the play is set. One of the boldest film incarnations is Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film of Richard III, starring Ian McKellen in a reprise of his role in the Royal National Theatre production (originally directed by Richard Eyre), which sets the play in the 1940s. Richard’s regime now becomes an obvious analogy to the Third Reich, with striking period costumes and Art Deco set design. In condensing the play, the resulting film may seem like a Cliff Notes version, but the action moves briskly, anchored by McKellen’s charismatic performance.

Trevor Jones composed period-perfect big band tunes for the dances and scenes at court, including the opening vocal solo, “Come Live With Me” (words by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe). Though the big band music is given prominence, there is much more to Jones’s work than pastiche.

The saxophone, heard as part of the band while Richard floats disconnected along the periphery of the dance floor, later becomes a wailing, vulgar reflection of his diabolical nature. While the trumpets belch into their wah-wah mutes, the sustained underlying chords seldom move more than a half-step apart, matching Richard’s stilted stride. These chords underlie the lonely flute solos accompanying Clarence’s (Nigel Hawthorne) premonition of death and Lady Anne’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) final, heroin-induced scene.

Richmond’s (Dominic West) military drums and martial brass are strong and muscular. With Richmond’s wedding, the music finally takes a breath for some beautiful string writing in a long-awaited major key. But even in this happy moment, Richard’s diabolical chords insinuate themselves under Richmond’s dialogue, never letting us forget the hunchback King waiting in the wings.

One can denote a beat under much of the score. At times it is the jubilant rhythm of the band; in others, the slow heartbeats of the murder victims in the string basses and lowest notes of the piano. The beat edges us ever forward as Richard plots and schemes, moving inevitably toward his death at Bosworth Field.

The score generally takes a backseat to the strong visuals and Shakespeare’s text. Though the CD contains a good deal of dialogue and sound effects, it puts Jones’s excellent score in the context of the film, uniting the different musical styles into a cohesive vision with the other elements of the film.

* * *

As to be expected, Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of Richard III is the most traditional. It is the last of the actor/director’s trilogy of Shakespeare plays, following Henry V (1944) and the Academy Award®-winning Hamlet (1948). Olivier gives arguably his finest filmed Shakespeare performance and surrounds himself with a stellar supporting cast. With the action confined mainly to the claustrophobic castle, Richard’s machinations seem even more horrific when seen in such close proximity to each other.

Once again, Olivier wisely brought along William Walton to provide the score. Walton’s task was a bit more difficult compared to his earlier work on Henry V and Hamlet. Except for the climactic battle scene and a few choice cues, most of the music is used as transition in between scenes. Given these restrictions, Walton still channels his talents into a rousing score that is the perfect coda to his Shakespearean film work.

The main titles signal the pomp surrounding the court of King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) with fanfares, a crash of cymbals, pounding timpani, and a declamatory brass melody. A patriotic theme follows in the strings and French horns, bookending the film as Richmond (Stanley Baker) ascends to the crown following his defeat of Richard. As the main titles end, the strings and piccolo dissolve into a swirling mass of deceit.

More brass fanfares, organ, and harpsichord represent the newly crowned Edward’s procession. A lighter fanfare in the flutes later accompanies the arrival of the innocent young Prince of Wales. Lady Anne’s (Claire Bloom) mournful oboe theme is heard over uneasy tremolos and flutter tonguing in the strings and flute.

As he did in Henry V, Walton shows his mettle in the exciting battle music, and the “dissonant trumpets with their sly hint of royalty gone bad” (New York Herald Tribune). Following snatches of previous melodies, a downward glissando on the cello signifies Richard’s dying breath, a technique Richard Strauss used in his tone poems Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote. Walton’s score was again adapted for the concert hall in many of the same arrangements as Henry V.

For the first time ever (and maybe since), a film was premiered in theaters and television on the same day. Though it was released in the U.K. in 1955, Richard III was shown in the U.S. on NBC the afternoon of March 11, 1956. Less than five minutes were cut for the broadcast, and the film received excellent reviews in both mediums. If the estimates for the television audience are correct (between 25 and 40 million), that single broadcast outnumbered the sum total of the play’s theatrical audiences over the 358 years since its first performance.

The murders of children, brothers and wives
   Are crimes no head nor heart nor saint could save.
Villainy and treachery are no more.
   Richard of Gloucester now lies in his grave.

* * *

Though the tragedies are more popular,
   The historical plays merit a place.
With their drama and deceit, they show our
   Best and worst, from victory to disgrace.
Warts and all, through the music we can hear
   What truly lives in the heart and the mind.
But through the music, we must never fear,
   For therein beats the hope of all mankind.



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