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

Published in Film Score Monthly Online
January 2006


Final in the series (with final humble apologies to Will)



CHORUS, now a full-fledged Shakespeare enthusiast


Craig Armstrong • Carter Burwell • Patrick Doyle • Elliot Goldenthal • Richard Hampton • Jacques Ibert • Angelo Lavagnino • Michael J. Lewis • Charlie Mole • Ennio Morricone • Nino Rota • Miklós Rózsa • John Scott • Herbert Stothart • Third Ear Band • Roman Vlad • William Walton — composers


Audiences love a good tragedy.
It goes without saying, actors do too.
With one or more flaws, tragic figures star
In some of the biggest hits Shakespeare knew.
By the sword or with poison, it matters
Not how the deed is done. But question why
Iago, Hamlet, Brutus or Tybalt
Felt that someone or other had to die.
You might come away emotionally scarred.
Tragedy is brutal. Dying is hard.


M-G-M’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) is something of a tragedy. Though the studio spared no expense, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer (ages 43 and 34, respectively) stretched believability as the teenaged “star-cross’d lovers.” And Herbert Stothart’s score unfortunately reflects the limitations of film music’s early years.

Stothart’s music still followed in the classical, European tradition. The large orchestra and chorus are worthy of M-G-M’s budget, but the musical forces often dwarf Shakespeare’s story. The love theme, though attractive, is missing the necessary poignancy, and the common practice of quoting famous classical pieces (in this case Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture) further dilutes Stothart’s efforts.

It would take almost 20 years before film music was blessed with a truly dramatic Romeo and Juliet score.

* * *

Winner of the Grand Prix at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, Richard Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet is largely forgotten today. Though the film conveys the drama much better than the 1936 version, Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall are still less-than-compelling lovers. However, Roman Vlad’s bold score commands attention, focusing on the tragedy of the story.

The main title’s powerful opening begins with a short orchestral crescendo followed by an a cappella chorus chanting Miserere. The use of lutes, recorders, mandolin and medieval harmonies conveys a period feel. The memorable galliard sung by the children’s chorus in the ball sequence also serves as the love theme. Though much of the music was dialed down, Vlad’s powerful and gloomy score still impresses.

* * *

Filmed for $1.5 million and grossing $50 million, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version struck a chord with young audiences by casting actors that were close to the actual age of the lead characters, and the film virtually saved a struggling Paramount Studios. Nino Rota’s score was certainly no tragedy, playing its way onto stereos and radios around the world.

Rota’s elegant score incorporates medieval harmonies to a greater extent than earlier versions, with much of the music scored for solo winds and guitar. Romeo’s theme, first heard on English horn, is a wistful melody articulating the character’s dewy-eyed dreaminess. The galloping music for Juliet takes on a more tragic tone as the story progresses. Not until the epilogue does the music finally settle into a peaceful resolution over the lovers’ inert bodies. The love theme, one of the most famous melodies in film music, is first heard sung by a balladeer at the ball (“What Is a Youth?”). Henry Mancini’s orchestral version topped the charts and won a 1969 Grammy, as did Percy Faith’s choral performance. Johnny Mathis’ vocal rendition (“A Time for Us”) was also a hit.

Anchored by its famous love theme, Nino Rota’s score became one of the most popular soundtracks of the decade. The original album, which combined dialogue and Rota’s music, reached #2 and spent 74 weeks on the Billboard charts.

When Romeo and Juliet was filmed again in 1996, all the praise (and criticism) was reserved for director Baz Luhrmann. The film, brazenly titled William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, was geared to “the MTV generation,” employing a freewheeling visual style full of frenetic images. Critical and audience reaction was divided, but there was no denying Luhrmann’s chutzpah.

The film’s eclectic score, a mixture of pop, techno, rock and classical music, with orchestral underscoring, spawned two soundtrack albums. The first (which sold three million copies) was a compilation of the film’s songs from such popular acts as Garbage, Butthole Surfers, Everclear and Radiohead. The second volume (Luhrmann called it “a contemporary opera”) featured Marius de Vries and Craig Armstrong’s underscoring to tell the story. Beginning with a rush of orchestra and chorus over Friar Laurence’s (Pete Postlethwaite) prologue, the chorus is notable in the Mexican-flavored gas station cue and chanting “Requiem aeternum” over the body of Mercutio (Harold Perrineau). A string version of Des’ree’s song, “Kissing You,” becomes the love theme and serves as a prelude to the balcony scene’s haunting melody. Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde sighs over the dead lovers.

The score was an interesting blend of electronic and orchestral music, and contributed immeasurably to the film’s unique style.

Without believable lovers, the film
Falls out of favor and falls on its face.
The best R&J’s combine tragic love
And music to merit a timeless grace.



Superstition has surrounded productions of Macbeth since the 17th century. For instance, if a theater company was financially strapped, it would often announce a production of the popular tragedy in an attempt to boost ticket sales. If times were particularly bad, the play was often not enough to position the finances in the black, and Macbeth became synonymous with a company’s demise. Even today, it is referred to as “the Scottish play,” believed to be a precursor of bad luck to utter the name “Macbeth” inside a theatre.

* * *

Filmed in 23 days on a shoestring budget, Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) was, in his words, “a kind of violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play.” Though Welles cut 20 minutes and replaced the thick Scottish accents with a more traditional English soundtrack, many American critics blasted the film, unfairly comparing it to Lawrence Olivier’s big-budget version of Hamlet that same year. In wasn’t until 1980 that the original cut of the film, with the Scottish soundtrack, was discovered and restored.

Jacques Ibert’s score is austere, anchored by a Kurt Weill-like, sadistic march. For the witches’ scenes, a practically inaudible choir moans against eerie string harmonics, piano, harp, celesta and percussion. In addition, vibraphone and a large percussion battery were added to the orchestral complement.

Two years after the film’s initial release, Ibert contacted his publisher with a detailed listing of cues from the score that could be used in a suite. Since neither party pursued the suggestion, the suite was not heard until 1990.

* * *

Roman Polanski vehemently denied that his 1971 Macbeth was a personal response to the Manson murders of his wife, Sharon Tate. But the critics didn’t see it that way and the film languished in cinematic wasteland for years. Third Ear Band’s score, however, is a trip. The five-member band was formed in 1968 from an earlier psychedelic group, The Hydrogen Juke-Box. For Macbeth, violin, cello, bass and electric guitar, and synthesizers were added to the group’s foundation of percussion and oboe/recorder. In addition, rock elements enhanced the steady pulse of the hand drums, providing a contemporary complement to the gloomy, mystical aspects of Shakespeare’s story. But not everything in the score is “far out.” The Court Dance contains delightful folk rock, and the song, “Fleance,” is sung to a medieval accompaniment of recorder, guitar and drums.

Theatrical traditions and superstitions don’t often cross over to film, but neither Macbeth was particularly successful at the box office. So maybe there’s something to the superstition after all.

Macbeth had issues, his wife even worse.
So much so that the name is now a curse.
With portents so ill and brews that bubble,
Witches and spells spell nothing but trouble



Orson Welles’ Othello (1952) took three years to film due to budgetary restrictions. Like the director’s earlier Macbeth, the film languished in celluloid limbo until a restored print was released in 1992, with a properly synchronized soundtrack. What made the new print even more interesting for film music fans was the newly recorded Angelo Lavagnino score, performed by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera.

The music was transcribed directly from the film for a 40-piece orchestra, and then synched precisely to the original film. The score was influenced by North African, Elizabethan and medieval music, especially in the use of mandolins and harpsichord, filtered through Lavagnino’s modern sensibility. The innovative choral writing employed consonants and vowels rather than words.

Occasionally the music matches the onscreen action. For instance, the chorus screams a high-pitched shout, breaking off suddenly into darkness and silence during the “Put out the light” sequence. At other times it is used as counterpoint, as in Rodrigo’s murder, which is backed by bright but increasingly uncontrolled mandolins. The film bookends with a funeral march for Othello and Desdemona, using choral chants, drums and portentous piano chords.

Othello is a fascinating interpretation from one of cinema’s true innovators, and Lavagnino’s score serves as an integral component of Welles’ haunting images.

* * *

The 1965 Othello, starring Laurence Olivier, employs more of Shakespeare’s text than any other film version. However, John Dexter’s original Royal National Theatre production was plopped on a large soundstage without any creative use of the film medium. Richard Hampton’s “score” for recorder and guitar is used only as source music when called upon by the script, and warrants no further discussion.

* * *

In 1995, Laurence Fishburne became the first African-American to play Othello on film. Fishburne’s may not be the most dynamic portrayal, but Charlie Mole fills in the gaps with a score that combines ethnic and orchestral music. The ethnic instruments emphasize the Eastern setting and Othello’s Moorish background, contributing to the film’s romantic and thriller elements. Various songs and dances suggest 16th-century Cyprus. A flute solo serves as the prelude to the love theme, characterized by a descending second in the strings. An ascending, four-note motif turns into the majestic theme accompanying Othello’s triumphant arrival in Cyprus. Maracas give Iago’s machinations a snake-like rattle and wailing vocals warn of Othello’s epileptic fit. Desdemona’s (Irene Jacob) beautiful willow song is particularly memorable.

Mole’s score, especially in its use of suspended chords, effectively supplies drama and depth often missing from the film.

Green is the color of jealousy and
Greed and lust forever bring a man down.
Envy and resentment know no limits
Whether men do or do not wear a crown.



After Romeo and Juliet in 1936, Hollywood didn’t attempt another Shakespeare film until Julius Caesar in 1953. This time, Marlon Brando choice to play Marc Antony caused controversy, but Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s assured direction glosses over any inadequacies in the performance. Miklós Rózsa’s stark score serves as a perfect counterpart to Shakespeare’s tale of political deceit. Rózsa chose to regard the play “as a universal drama about the eternal problems of men and the most timely problems about the fate of dictators.” Instead of composing the score in a Roman or Elizabethan style, Rózsa wrote “interpretative incidental music, expressing my own musical language for a modern audience, what Shakespeare expressed with his own language, for his own audience.”

The score can be divided into three sections: Caesar’s (Louis Calhern) opening scenes; the soliloquies and central narrative; and the music for the battles and Brutus’ death in the last half of the film. Caesar’s dark and pompous march, the first of three main themes, is scored for brass, woodwinds and percussion. Following Caesar’s assassination, the theme transfers over to Antony, “for Antony is but a limb of Caesar’s.” Brutus’ (James Mason) somber theme is played mainly in the strings. Cassius’ (John Gielgud) single-minded deception is conveyed by a three-note motif in the basses, cellos and trombones.

Julius Caesar introduced stereo sound and Rózsa took advantage of the new technology, composing two contrapuntal sections for the scene of Brutus’s death. Recorded separately, the themes for Brutus and Cassius were played in the middle and left speakers and the martial music for the advancing armies of Antony and Octavius (Douglas Watson) played in the right speaker, to “give the impression that the victorious armies…[were] coming nearer and nearer and nearer.” As the music for the armies eventually overwhelms that of Brutus, he kills himself. The film ends uncharacteristically with the sound of quiet drums.

The score is done a great disservice by being truncated in spots and dialed down in others. Adding insult to injury, Rózsa’s overture was inexplicably replaced with Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. Though the score is less flashy than most of Rózsa’s other historical films, the majesty of the music prevails.

* * *

Another all-star cast headlines Stuart Burge’s Julius Caesar (1970), but the film is nearly ruined by Jason Robards’ somnambulistic rendering of Brutus. Thankfully, Michael J. Lewis’ score supplies the poetry generally missing from the film. While Rozsa’s Caesar entered Rome with deceit already in the air, Lewis’ emperor (John Gielgud) enters in a burst of triumph, with trumpet fanfares over a majestic march. Both Brutus and Portia’s themes employ guitar, tying their fates together. A descending, two-note motif gives hints of evil, followed by dissonant chords punctuating the introduction of each conspiracy member. Wild percussion figures and screeching violins accompany Caesar’s murder, with the emperor’s diminishing heartbeat fading in the drums.

When Lewis moved from London to Los Angeles, the original tapes were, unfortunately, lost or stolen, depriving film music fans of hearing this excellent score outside of the film.

Lend your ears for politics most bloody.
Beware the ides of Caesar’s brutal fall.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, pray prithee,
Who is the noblest Roman of them all?



Charlton Heston’s film of Antony and Cleopatra (1972) was a labor of love that had obsessed the star/director/co-writer since he had played a bit part in the Katharine Cornell production of the play on Broadway 20 years earlier. After taking on the Antony role in numerous stage productions of Julius Caesar and on film two years earlier, this was Heston’s chance to play the character’s tragic end. Hampered by a less-than-ideal Cleopatra (Hildegarde Neil) and budget restrictions, the film’s chief asset is John Scott’s sweeping, romantic score. A majestic chorus magnifies the larger-than-life characters and legendary love story. Trumpet fanfares and snare drums are the natural choices for Antony’s military might. Cleopatra’s theme moves in a descending, distrustful motion, while the plaintive love theme conveys the impending tragedy.

Thankfully, Heston was appreciative of Scott’s efforts, praising the composer for writing “a brilliant score at very short notice. It remains one of the strengths of the film.”

Antony and Cleo film’d for the screen
Is seldom remember’d and seldom seen.
For he’s off at war and she plays the shrew,
At least in this version. I wish ’t’weren’t true.


A very different Rome.

Based on Titus Andronicus, Julie Taymor’s bold and bloody Titus (1999) is perfectly complemented by Elliot Goldenthal’s eclectic score, combining everything from big-band to mid-1950s jazz, and carnival music to industrial rock.

Titus’ (Anthony Hopkins) victorious return to Rome features brass and a Latin-chanting chorus, combined with Korean percussion for what Goldenthal calls “a primeval sound.” The pity theme, a “Bach-like,” two-note counterpoint in the low strings brings a begging Tamora (Jessica Lange) to her knees. The theme is later used as Lavinia (Laura Fraser) is raped, and as Titus pleads for his sons’ mercy.

As Titus marches to the castle, Goldenthal scores the scene like a silent movie or cartoon, “para-military, puffy, and over-exaggerated.” This is followed by a frantic, seven-note motif repeated over and over with syncopated trumpet figures to convey the Emperor’s (Alan Cumming) increasing anger during Titus’ attack.

After the diverse musical styles, the ending is especially soothing. Composed in the key of D-flat with no open strings, the melody and key relationships are implied, and Goldenthal lets the musicians “come together by listening to each other,” as the characters must at the end of the play.

Lost a daughter and lost my sense of right.
Slaughter someone else’s sons? I just might.
I’ll bake them into meat pies, barbers do,
And serve them for dinner instead of stew.



Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning Hamlet (1948) is the standard by which all other Hamlets and Shakespeare films are judged. Though the film has lost some of its critical luster over the years, it still ranks as one of the very best productions of the Bard on film.

William Walton’s main challenge was musically portraying the psychological underpinnings of the characters. As Christopher Palmer wrote, “[the score’s] main function is to humanize, to mitigate the bareness and darkness.” To that effect, much of the music is brooding, as evidenced by Hamlet’s funeral dirge, which bookends the film, and a fugue in the low strings characterizing Hamlet’s indecision and melancholy.

One of the most memorable cues begins with an orchestral flourish as the camera rushes up the stairs to the top of the castle. The dawn announces itself with a crashing major chord and the orchestra descends as the camera pans into the top of Hamlet’s mind for the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In a major change from Shakespeare’s text, the Players pantomime the killing of Hamlet’s father, relying on Walton’s sarabande for oboe, English horn, harpsichord and violin to musically dramatize the action.

Though Walton composed some rousing fanfares for the court, this is a score for those who like their Hamlet dark, dramatic and bleak.

For Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version, the media attention was on the film’s star, Mel Gibson. Mel’s debatable success in the role ultimately didn’t matter, as the film is lifeless, which is also unfortunately reflected in Ennio Morricone’s “atypical” (Variety) score. The viola’s husky timbre is used for Hamlet’s melancholy at the beginning of the film and is taken up by the oboe as he later grieves over the death of Ophelia. A flute solo above slow-moving, meandering strings conveys Ophelia’s (Helena Bonham Carter) unstable mind. A brittle flute, tambourine, mandolin and portamento viola provide an eerie backdrop for the Players’ performance.

Zeffirelli praised the composer: “…as always, Ennio’s come up with something very interesting.” Since he wanted “atmospheric, mysterious sounds,” not tuneful music, Morricone supplied just what the director ordered.

* * *

In 1996, Kenneth Branagh risked investor dollars and the audience’s attention span with a four-hour, unabridged Hamlet. Once again, Branagh brought along Patrick Doyle to compose the score. A glorious processional fanfare accompanies the newlywed Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and Gertrude (Julie Christie) as they exit the hall under a flurry of confetti. Bass drum, syncopated brass chords, flute figures and a shrieking chorus signal the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Brian Blessed), and strings and swords slash through the air as Hamlet and Laertes (Michael Maloney) duel to the death.

As Branagh writes in the soundtrack’s liner notes, he wanted the music “to soar with Hamlet’s temporary optimism and hope,” and Hamlet’s theme in the strings matches Branagh’s unconventional portrayal. Ophelia’s theme contrasts ascending violins with descending lower strings, foreshadowing her tragic end. Doyle cleverly weaves Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s themes during Ophelia’s burial scene, and “In Pace,” sung over the end credits by Placido Domingo, heartbreakingly entwines the themes one last time.

Though the film contains some exceptional performances, bits of stunt casting in cameo roles detract from an otherwise excellent—though long—adaptation. And like the film, Doyle’s score is a mixed bag: some truly stunning moments alongside other less distinguished cues. However, the heartbreaking themes for Hamlet and Ophelia make this score worth investigating.

* * *

When it was announced that Ethan Hawke would star in a contemporary adaptation of Hamlet (2000) set in New York City, critics questioned whether this was nothing more than a stunt. Carter Burwell’s score makes a quiet, brooding contrast to the surreal images onscreen. Scored for a 17-piece chamber orchestra, only piano, harp, woodwinds and percussion were added to the smaller string section. The main theme is a slow-moving string melody, with churning arpeggios and piano triplets providing movement underneath. The stepwise motion in the harmonies and melodic lines has a lamenting quality to it.

The music is reminiscent of Burwell’s stark score for Fargo (1996), here again providing a calming influence to this unique interpretation.

As long as there are actors there will be
Hamlets we will be forc’d to pay to see.
This is the role ev’ry actor must play.
How many will succeed is hard to say.

* * *

A year ago, I would not have guessed that
Shakespeare would become a passion of mine.
His words holding a mirror to our selves,
Our very nature—human, flawed and divine.
The words came first, the music came later.
Beauty is found in melody and rhyme.
Not with the eyes, but with the ears we hear
Abstract and brief chronicles of our time.




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