The first CD I ever bought was the soundtrack to Titanic. I bought all three Lord of the Rings soundtracks, and I will argue for hours with anyone who doesn’t agree that Nicholas Hooper didn’t produce the best Harry Potter score. And when I heard that Dario Marianelli was coming to Oxford, I took out my dancing shoes and skipped down to the Holywell Music Room. Marianelli – in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last seven years, or tend not to wait in the cinema after the film until the score credits come on – is the composer of period film. He wrote the score for I Capture the Castle (2001), achieved major recognition with Pride & Prejudice (2005), won an Oscar with Atonement (2007), and continued with Jane Eyre (2011). He’s been astoundingly prolific, finishing up to six projects in an eight month period, and scoring popular films like Eat Pray Love and the currently showing Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
His scores are lush, lyrical, neo-Romantic, and poignant. Marianelli takes a narrow and even repetitive melodic sequence and extends it symphonically. Pride & Prejudice is a matutinal, contemplative, arpeggiated piano-driven score. In contrast, the Atonement score arrests attention immediately with the percussive use of a typewriter in the opening sequence, immediately setting off a revolving rhythmic sequence which Marianelli likened to the ‘mechanical, but a bit deranged’ mind of Briony Tallis, the central character. Jack Liebeck’s violin in Jane Eyre is suitably expansive and desperately interior. This is music to have nestled in your ear, or played generously on massive speakers.
Marianelli appeared at the Holywell Music Room in conversation with Michael White, the Telegraph music critic, attended by Jack Liebeck, the young concert violinist who played on the Jane Eyre soundtrack. Despite his intuitive and very feeling scores, Marianelli betrayed little sentiment when describing how he was chosen to score a film. Atonement and Pride & Prejudice attracted attention and he’s subsequently been branded as a period composer – ‘That’s what they offer to me’, he said. Composing for film is a tricky business: most directors hand composers the finished product and expect a score as icing on the cake. Marianelli’s partnership with Joe Wright, director of Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and the upcoming Anna Karenina (also, lamentably, starring Keira Knightly), has offered him something more generous, the opportunity to be in contact with the developing film, to start in advance, and to work alongside the director.
White played several clips which featured key moments of Marianelli’s score. The first was the scene in Pride & Prejudice when Knightley stands on the edge of the cliff in the Peak district and Jean Thibaudeaut’s rendition of Marianellis’ score cascades all around, counterpointed by homophonous strings. Marianelli admitted he’d attempted the music several times before he got it right. It was like ‘a very big bird’ which runs fast and has to take off.
White prodded Marianelli several times about the disparity between composing for film and composing for the concert hall. He asked if Marianelli felt a distinct lack of status, if he always envisioned making a transition, if there was something less glamorous about the commercial aspect of film-composing. Marianelli didn’t take the bait. Film composition ‘is not a sub-brand,’ Marianelli argued, ‘Music I write is used.’ Later, as the question continued to come up, Marianelli said, ‘Don’t think I’m diminished as a composer because there are people who need music to do certain things.’ He aptly compared his writing for film – a job which is recompensed by money and which might not be considered ‘pure art’ – to Bach’s composition of cantatas for the weekly Sunday mass, a job which required deadlines and an immediate sense of being set aside for the next week. ‘It’s not for the composer to judge its staying power,’ he said.
It was very clear that White felt that such a hierarchy existed and Marianelli did not. Instead of viewing the film composer’s role as subservient to the director’s vision – liable to the sword of Damocles which the producers and financiers of films hold – Marianelli sees the composer’s role as a part of the narrative or as a character in the film itself. Like opera, film scores tell stories, enlighten, engage, and move, said Marianelli. His ambition is to write music which has ‘integrity and a life’ which can ‘stand on its own’.
Contrary to what you might think, young, insecure directors cling very tightly to their power and would have written the music themselves if they could. Mature directors, said Marianelli, are more relaxed. Should the director exercise his brutal editing power, Marianelli is satisfied by still getting an album, which he conceptualizes as ideally offering a narrative experience analogous to watching the film.
I met Marianelli after the conversation with White, wearied from his talk and from the queue of impassioned American fans who stayed behind to have him sign their piano scores. When I asked Marianelli about the life habits of a composer, he admitted to drinking lots of coffee. ‘I’m very messy,’ he said, ‘I go a bit to the piano or the computer, watch the movie millions of times, and then the main habit is just to sit on that chair and work until something comes out and not let go. When I find something I hold onto it like a dog with a bone and try to make something out of it.’ When he’s actively composing, Marianelli finds music ‘almost unbearable. Going out for a meal is excruciating, because there’s music in the restaurant, and I can’t eat.’
It struck me that Marianelli’s interpretation of the period of the film he works with is very intuitive. When I asked whether he thinks periods have particular ‘sounds’, he admitted there’s an ‘English sound’ but said he was unable to elaborate much further, as it would merit a ‘very long conversation about the surface sound of the style and of the place’.
Marianelli is currently deeply into composition of the score for Anna Karenina, and I wondered if his composition found any distinct roots in Russian music. Marianelli said that he found Russian folk music important, ‘Especially the kind of folk music that started the five (Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin). Especially Balakirev. At some point he went off in the 1860s and went collecting folk music. He had this clear idea that he wanted a national Russian music based on folk tunes. And they’re very interesting, they have certain preferred intervals and idiomatic tone of phrases. I tried to listen as much as I could to them, more than the music of Mussorsky or Rimsky-Korsakov or even Tchaikovsky. I was more interested in what inspired them to come up with the Russian music that they invented, because Russian national classical music is a bit of an invention.’
Marianelli’s association with period films made me wonder if he responded to the novels upon which the films were based. ‘Yes and no,’ said Marianelli. ‘I did on Atonement because I started to work before the script was finished. Some ideas come from the novel, from knowing the characters better than I could have known if it was just a script. Sometimes it’s a hindrance to know too much because the film condenses or concentrates certain elements of the story.’
Marianelli divulged the fact that there’s a lot of liberty in Wright’s version of Anna Karenina because of a central conceit of an opera theatre. ‘Most of the story happens within the theatre almost as if it were an opera itself,’ said Marianelli, ‘The whole story is almost like it were an opera or puppet show. So the music goes in very strange places sometimes.’
Before the end of their conversation, White played a clip of the scene of the evacuation of Dunkirk from Atonement, in which the riotous carnival and destructive mayhem of the beach is movingly contradicted by a slow cello and a building elegiac counterpoint which slowly grows towards a climax, in which soldiers on the beach resolutely sing a Hubert Parry hymn, then eases away. Marianelli doesn’t watch the screen, but looks at his feet. There is a taut attitude of concentration in his posture, as though he is feeling the music, as Wordsworth writes, ‘moving through the heart and along the blood’. When White asks Marianelli why he chose that particular realisation, Marianelli answers with feeling, ‘What music do you expect? It is a great pity…we feel a compassion for the loss and waste. It is not the hellish but the heavenly part which is missing.’
It is this ability to underscore or to contradict the visual dimension of the film, commenting on the narrative in a way which immerses the viewer in the experience, which will ensure Marianelli’s prominent place in film composition for years to come.