Phantom Thread – Psycho – Cloud Atlas – Platoon – Lorenzo’s Oil – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – American Crime Story: Versace – The Club – Schindler’s List – Jesus Christ Superstar – Moonlight – Jackie – Under the Skin – A Single Man – The Red Violin
Johnny Greenwood’s score for P. T. Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” may win the Oscar this Sunday (although most Oscar pundits peg it as runner up to Alexandre Desplat’s lovely waltzes for “The Shape of Water”). It is my favorite movie score of the year, deftly evoking both unabashed romanticism and prickly modernism reminiscent of mid 20th century music. (A great part of “Phantom Thread’s” extraordinary achievement resides in how every element of the film, story, cinematography, acting etc. feels unusual as well as rooted in the era it takes place, as if this original love story could have been made in the 1950s, minus a few cuss words.)
Greenwood’s lush score favors strings, in a small chamber configuration and full string orchestra, joined by harp, percussion, piano and celeste. Some of the more overtly romantic tracks feature the piano prominently, but the first time the main theme is played, it is the string orchestra on its own, sighing away in the upper registers, in close harmonies and polyphonic echoes of the main motif:
Phantom Thread – Phantom Thread I – Johnny Greenwood
The Phantom Thread theme is played four times in the score, each time in a musical and instrumental variation; a piano/violin duet, an extravagantly double-stopped solo violin version, and another, more stately, heavy version for the string orchestra, accompanied by timpani:
Phantom Thread – Phantom Thread III – Johnny Greenwood
It is however the first version that struck me the most, and reignited an ongoing fascination I have with what I call the “sighing strings of cinema”, movie score pieces that exclusively utilize string orchestra in gorgeously heart-tugging, soul-stirring ways. There is a purity as well as a richness of tones in a string orchestra, and a variety of expression, even when limiting the parameters to what one may call “sighing strings”. Turns out there are a quite a few accomplished examples of that extremely particular subset of movie music, so I will try to keep my examples limited to the pure variety exemplified by Phantom Thread I and not the “impure” accompanied-by-one-or-more-non-string-instruments options as exemplified by Phantom Thread III … except for one or two can’t-help-myself exceptions.
My fascination with string orchestra music begins with one of the all time great scores ever composed for a movie, Bernard Herrman’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. One of the great composers of classic Hollywood (“Vertigo”, “North by Northwest”, also for Hitchcock) who also defines the modern era with his score for “Taxi Driver”, Herrmann chose to match Hitchcock’s stark black and white aesthetics with the stripped down palette of the string orchestra. Everybody knows “Psycho’s” most famous musical cue of the shrieking string glissandos that nerve janglingly accent the knife slashes of each murder – arguably the most famous musical cue in all of movie history, but Herrmann’s complete score for “Psycho” deserves recognition as one of the most accomplished scores for string orchestra in the 20th century, inside and outside the cinema.
Beyond the screaming shower strokes, Herrmann’s “Psycho” music masterfully sustains an overall mood of unnerving tension through jagged, propulsive syncopation, in its main title “Pursuit” theme, as well as eerie motifs that rise and fall up and down scales, long held notes of foreboding, and nagging pizzicatos. Yet there are also themes of intense longing and melancholy, which may be less remembered aspects of the score but which are in part the most beautifully haunting tracks, and great examples for this post’s sighing strings. So while most of us may recall the strings of “Psycho” as messengers of horror and unease, I’d like you to also take in the sweet sorrow in the theme of the heroine, doomed because of a mistake she will make out of love:
Psycho – Marion and Sam – Bernard Herrmann
Deep yearning is also the root of this next piece, but it reflects the longing in Norman Bates’ twisted soul, as he tells Marion perhaps a little too much about life with his mother, and finds himself a little too much attracted to Marion.
Psycho – The Madhouse – Bernard Herrmann
Both these tracks exemplify the emotional, yearning, sighing strings that are as much a part of Hermann’s “Psycho” score as those murderous harpy string slashes.
But, fine, I’ll throw in those for kicks too. It’d be silly to leave them out of any discussion of “Psycho”, I suppose:
Psycho – The Murder – Bernard Herrmann
My second most favorite cinematic string orchestra piece comes from “Cloud Atlas”. It is the Cloud Atlas Sextet arranged for string orchestra. In the storie(s) of “Cloud Atlas” the sextet is composed by one of the time-hopping movie’s 1930’s era characters; it’s music that, though forgotten in its own time, will resonate in a variety of ways in future ages to come. This concert version is discovered by another character in the the 1970s on one of only six vinyl copies believed to remain of that recording:
Cloud Atlas – The Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra – Tow Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, Gene Prisker
I love this theme and this arrangement. How it sighs and pulls and enraptures. It sounds perfectly like what a classical composer in the 1930s might have composed for string orchestra, which is of course exactly what it is supposed to be, not a soundtrack cue in a movie.
And speaking of classical music from the 1930’s, one can’t discuss the sighing strings of cinema without this most famously cinematically incorporated string orchestra piece from the classical concert repertoire:
Adagio for Strings – Samuel Barber
The opening strains of Samuel Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings belong on any list of movies’ best known musical cues, in part because they are heard over and over again in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”. Around the 6 minute mark of this sad and stately 9 minute piece, Barber takes the slowly stepping melody up to greater and greater heights until all the strings are crying out in a sustained high pitched primal sigh. After repeatedly focusing just on the opening strains of the Adagio throughout the film, Stone does include that string sighing climactic part of the piece during the depiction of Willem Dafoe’s death (starting in this clip at the 1:30 minute mark):
The Adagio is also featured extensively in “Lorenzo’s Oil”. Here is one two minute example, when Nick Nolte does painful research on his son’s horrible ailment (a six minute nearly complete rendition of the Adagio arranged not for strings but for a human choir is played at another point of the movie):
Samuel Barber’s Adagio has surely been very influential to composers in general and film composers in particular. The movie music cue that to me seems most indebted to the Adagio, particularly that climactic extended high string cry, is Patrick Doyle’s “Death of Cedric” from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”, in which Doyle repurposes the main theme played heroically and joyously previously in the movie. Now it is stretched out in high string harmonies and lower string lamentations.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Death of Cedric – Patrick Doyle
Before I fully return to sighing strings composed directly for the screen, let me make mention of two more examples from the classical concert repertoire to grace cinemas. The “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ” by Remo Giazotto would be an example to rival’s Barber’s in public consciousness – so famously used in “Gallipoli” and other movies that some complained of overuse when it was recently prominently featured in “Manchester by the Sea”. The problem is that in addition to plenty of mournfully sighing strings there’s also that peskily prominent organ. That should disqualify it from this discussion, except a convenient loophole arrives in the form of a special arrangement of the Adagio scored for the limited TV series “American Crime Story: Versace”. The organ is removed, leaving a pure string ensemble arrangement, with sobbing solo violin taking the organ’s place:
I’ll throw out one more example of classical string orchestra scores borrowed by the movies, and that is the less famous but mesmerizingly haunting “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell” by Arvo Pärt. I have to bend my rules somewhat because of the inclusion of the bell, but the piece is just too beautiful and devastating in its use of ever descending string patterns. Like repeated extended sighs finally dissolving in dark despair. This piece is played in its entirety (or near entirety) during a harrowing climactic scene in the Chilean movie “The Club”.
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell – Arvo Pärt
This pattern of string chords descending (and rising) in a tension of sighs brings me back to another track I love from “Psycho”:
Psycho – The City – Bernard Herrman
I clearly have a thing for the sorrowful and ominous quality of descending string chord patterns. I use them myself with three cellos in the opening strains of “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre“.
Let’s get back to sighing string scores written directly for the movies. Long past time I include the Great Grandmaster of film scores from the last 50 years, John Williams. No one has wrought more memorable melodies and rich tapestries of musical colors out of a full orchestra in movie soundtracks than he, for “Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Superman”, “Jurassic Park”, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and and and. For at least two films Williams composed large portions of the score focusing heavily on the strings, and back benching if not completely leaving out the other instruments: “Angela’s Ashes” and “Schindler’s List”, the movie for which the nearly perennially nominated composer won the Oscar his fifth and (so far) last time.
In “Schindler’s List” Williams wrote some of his most heartbreaking music, for a solo violin masterfully played by Itzhak Perlman supported mostly by the string section of the orchestra. Only two tracks however come close enough in their entirety to fulfilling my rubric of “sighing strings”. “Remembrances” is a solo tour de force for a deeply sighing solo violin, first accompanied by harp (technically a string instrument, yes, but not really a bowed member of the string section), then enveloped by emotionally resonating strings. At the 2:41 min mark, woodwinds are added, plus a touch of trombone, technically disqualifying the rest of this piece from this post, but heck, it’s John Williams, so exceptions will be made.
Schindler’s List – Remembrances – John Williams & Itzhak Perlman
Hewing more closely to the “rules” of this post, with only a smattering of percussion added to the mix of strings, “Auschwitz – Birkenau” is understandably drained of melodic sweetness. Perlman’s solo violin expresses phrases that sound like aghast mutterings of Jewish prayers. The string ensemble’s drone-like chords and uneasy tremolos heave and moan.
Schindler’s List – Auschwitz – Birkenau – John Williams & Itzhak Perlman
Finally, I’ll include this rendition of the main theme from “Schindler’s List” for string orchestra:
Schindler’s List – Main Theme from Schindler’s List – John Williams
It comes at the very end of the “Schindler’s List” soundtrack, and reminds me of the the string orchestra reprising the theme of “Gethsemane” at the end of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (stage and movie version). Both are soulful, mournful musical epilogs for the strings (well, mostly, horns can be heard in the mix deep into “John Nineteen: Forty One” and that flute solo at the very end definitely flies in the face of my strings only aspirations – I better buck up, as my standards for string purity are clearly slipping).
Jesus Christ Superstar – John Nineteen: Forty-One – Andrew Lloyd Webber
The score for last year’s surprise Oscar best picture winner “Moonlight” relies like “Phantom Thread” heavily on piano and strings, but romantic and lush are not words most would apply to Nicholas Britell’s brilliant compositions. Nonetheless they heave stark sighs of deep longing. My first example is from when father figure Juan teaches young Little how to swim, a moment that will reverberate through the boy’s life into adulthood. Britell worked with solo violinist Tim Fain to create arpeggios echoing almost unbearable emotional stirrings. Two thirds through the piece a boy soprano voice appears to join the music, but I suspect it might be a violin electronically manipulated in the recording studio.
Moonlight – The Middle of the World – Nicholas Britell
In this next excerpt it seems clearer to hear that some of the long held notes that sound like a voice sighing are surely being played by a violin, with some studio manipulation (in the cd liner notes Britell talks about using sound studio recording techniques to alter the pitch quality of the string instruments for parts of “Moonlight”). Whereas “The Middle of the World” captures an electric moment in the lead character’s boyhood, “The Culmination” references his reunion with the love of his life, a moment that marks the opening of a new chapter in his life where love and hope are possible. The sorrows of the past seem to be felt in a low sobbing violin while couched in more hopeful, propulsive promises within the pizzicato of the accompaniment and a high bright sighing above all.
Moonlight – The Culmination – Nicholas Britell
Mica Levi is another composer who relies heavily on string ensembles, and pushing their uses into heretofore unheard of directions for movie soundtracks. Levi has only just begun scoring movies, but already her first two efforts are highly acclaimed.
Her score for “Jackie”, about Jacqueline Kennedy coping with the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, opens with string instruments playing chords on glissandos that sound like deep, grief-filled sighs. Eventually they are joined by a richly reverberating flute tone held long four times.
Jackie – Intro – Mica Levi
The only track from “Jackie” that employs an unadulterated string ensemble is “Walk to the Capitol”, full of moans and sighs in the strings, but eschewing comfort and sentimentality.
Jackie – Walk to the Capitol – Mica Levi
Levi’s writing for strings is even more audacious in her film score debut “Under the Skin”, the avant-garde science fiction movie about an alien, tasked to lure humans to body dissolving doom, who discovers empathy and love, to her own peril.
This first track starts with a long drawn out tremolo cluster drone in the lower strings, assisted by electronics. On the 55 second mark we suddenly hear a scary three note theme, which echoes until played up high over and over again by electronically manipulated strings producing a most unearthly howl; assisted by more string tremolos and glissando groans (and percussion – I know, breaking my rule):
Under the Skin – Andrew Void – Mica Levi
Tremulous buzzing, wispy high string sparkling and fuzzy melodic sighing marks “Love”, which may not include any actual string instruments playing but most likely consists solely of synthesized string sounds from the electronic keyboard (Would that not disqualify it as a string orchestra piece? What the hell, I’ll include it anyway).
Under the Skin – Love – Mica Levi
One of my absolute favorite film scores of the last decade is for Tom Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man”. Two composers, Abel Korzenioswki and Shigeru Umebayashi, each provide beautiful music for the movie, including pieces nearly exclusively for strings. In an embarrassment of musical delights, I’ll share two of the most poignant, one from each composer:
A Single Man – George’s Waltz – Shigeru Umebayashi
A Single Man – And Just Like That – Abel Korzenioski
I don’t know if I could ever adequately express in words the simple elegance and soul stirring sweetness of these pieces. They really move me beyond words. It isn’t just their association with a magnificent movie, or the particular quality of their composition or performance. Sometimes music just touches the ineffable that pierces one’s heart irrevocably and undyingly.
See … I should have just left well enough alone and let the music speak for itself.
My word count for this post is nearing 3000, with over two dozen music tracks, so I probably should stop now. If there are string centered movie scores or tracks that I have neglected, their exclusion is due to forgetfulness or lack of awareness rather than a conscious snub.
However, there is no way I could create a post on “Sighing Strings of Cinema” without including “The Red Violin”. Naturally this score, basically a full hour of strings sighing exquisitely, requires deserved inclusion in this survey.
“The Red Violin” tells the story, or stories, of a violin with an unusual red varnish, built in the 17th century in Cremona, and the dramatic events that befall it and its various owners in 18th century Vienna, 19th century Oxford, 1960s Shanghai and 1990’s Montreal. Unsurprisingly composer John Corigliano wrote a score with a variety of emotionally resonant and technically brilliant violin solos, played by Joshua Bell, accompanied almost exclusively by string orchestra.
The main theme starts as a wordless melody sung by Anna, the Cremona violin maker’s wife, a sweet, wistful sigh of a tune, romantic and ineffably sad. This sadness takes on an even greater, fateful sheen when (spoiler alert) Anna dies and the violin maker in his grief mixes her blood into the varnish he paints onto a newly built violin. This apparently dooms the violin to numerous existences of great and often deadly passion. Anna’s theme now becomes the Red Violin’s theme:
The Red Violin – The Red Violin – John Corigliano
Much of the music played on the violin on screen had to be composed before filming began. Wikipedia asserts that Corigliano finished “Anna’s Theme” after principal shooting. Nonetheless I can hear echoes of “Anna’s Theme” in some of the movie’s onscreen violin solos, especially in the romantically fiery Oxford segment. Listen to this erotically charged violin solo, and note how the opening notes of the main theme keep reoccurring, with increasing insistence and clarity, as the violin gets ever more agitated climbing up the scales, until the main theme is clearly played at the 2:09 mark, right before the violin gets shot, literally; yes, someone shoots the violin with a pistol (it’s a very dramatic scene).
The Red Violin – Pope’s Betrayal – John Corigliano
After much travails the red violin is discovered at auction in Montreal and given what a gypsy fortune teller in the 17th century prophesied as a rebirth. Samuel L. Jackson plays Morritz, who discovers the red violin’s bloody secret, and steals the instrument for his daughter. Here Morritz’s theme is intoned as a mournful solo violin, ultimately threaded with the Red Violin theme:
The Red Violin – Morritz’s Theme – John Corigliano
Finally, not just to conclude the Red Violin segment, but also as a more fitting end for the whole of Sighing Strings of Cinema, here is a track from “The Red Violin” called “Coitus Musicalis”. Ah … Coitus Musicalis. You can count on quite a bit of exquisite sighing in the strings here, a languid denouement at the end of a long day of play:
The Red Violin – Coitus Musicalis / Victoria’s Departure – John Corigliano