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A Second Oscar?

Music by
Rachel Portman -
reviewed by

'Portman's score ably captures the poignancy ...'

The Duchess - Music by Rachel Portman from the Motion Picture. © 2008 Lakeshore Records

Will Rachel Portman's score for the new film The Duchess net her a second Oscar? It would if film music aficionados had anything to say about it.

Among Portman's many distinctions is the fact that she is the only woman film composer to have won an Oscar (in 1996, for Emma). One of the few women to be regularly and prestigiously employed in this highly competitive field, Portman has scored over thirty films, including Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, The Lakehouse, Mona Lisa Smile, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Listen -- Rachel Portman: extract from the soundtrack to The Lakehouse
(chapter 20, 86:51-87:39) © 2006 Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc

She favors reed instruments and piano on a deep bed of strings, and arpeggiated chords underlying melodic motifs which repeat throughout the score. Faster percussive passages used to highlight tension are reminiscent of Thomas Newman in their use of percussion, but without Newman's quirky choice of sounds or atonalities.

Listen -- Rachel Portman: I Think Of You All The Time (The Duchess)
(track 3, 0:01-0:46) © 2008 Lakeshore Records LLC

Portman's new release, The Duchess, is a score for the movie based on Amanda Foreman's best selling book about the life of an ancestor of Princess Diana, Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, also known as 'Gee'. The film treats a tempestuous decade (1774 to 1784) in the life of Gee (played by Keira Knightley), who, like 'Di' after her was an icon, beloved by the populace, pressured by her family to marry into higher nobility, with disastrous consequences for her physical and emotional well-being.

Listen -- Rachel Portman: The Duchess
(track 1, 0:00-0:32) © 2008 Lakeshore Records LLC

Composers who score period movies have two choices: period music interspersed with original themes that consciously incorporate period flavors (see Leonard Rosenman's score for Barry Lyndon or George Fenton's score for Dangerous Liaisons) or contemporary styles, sometimes risking anachronism, at least from the standpoint of instrumentation. Anachronism is, of course, less of a problem when considering the score by itself rather than as accompaniment for the movie. Although not period-specific, Portman's score ably captures the poignancy of the double bind which hamstrings Georgiana and the double standard which pinions even privileged women like her. (Gee's delay in producing a male heir only tightens the vise, and her affair with future prime minister and tea namesake Charles (Earl) Grey exposes her to reputation-threatening censure while her husband, the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes, not only feels justified in betraying her with her best friend, Bess, but suffers no social opprobrium as a result.) The bipolar oscillation of the accompaniment is a musical analog of Georgiana's predicament, and threads disquiet through the opulent tapestry of the visuals.

Listen -- Rachel Portman: Gee and Grey Make Love (The Duchess)
(track 5, 0:15-0:47) © 2008 Lakeshore Records LLC

Two main themes recur again and again -- Georgiana's main title theme (tracks 1, 16, 17, etc) and the lilting melody (so reminiscent of Georges Delarue, as noted below) which accompanies her true love, Grey, throughout the film (tracks 2, 3, 5 etc). Both melodies are suggestive of traditional English ballads.

The eighteen-track soundtrack album, recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, also includes two 'ambient' tracks, a Beethoven German Dance (track 7) and a string quartet Adagio by Haydn (track 14).

Listen -- Haydn: Adagio
(track 14, 2:05-2:58) © 2008 Lakeshore Records LLC

Ms Portman's work, like that of most film composers, echoes and elaborates on that of her predecessors and contemporaries. The work of Georges Delarue seems to figure heavily among her influences. (Note the similarity between the love theme, eg 'Gee and Grey Make Love', track 5 on The Duchess album and Delarue's 'Camille' from Le Mepris.) Ditto James Horner. (See, eg, Cocoon compared with Portman's 'Written in the Stars' for Only You). She can't be faulted for this. All film composers copy others, often unwittingly, and all copy themselves.

Listen -- Rachel Portman: Chocolat film score
(chapter 1, 0:00-0:50) © 2000 Miramax Films

Portman's score for Emma won the best comedy score Academy Award in 1996, during a brief window of years when there were two film music Academy Awards, for comedy/music and for drama. The dual categories greatly expanded the likelihood that complex scores like Portman's would be recognized. (Apparently the Academy may, at its discretion, award a separate Oscar for a 'musical' and or 'comedy' but it hasn't chosen to do so recently.) Some reviewers have commented Emma was not her best, but then composers seldom win Oscars for their best scores. (Besides Cider House Rules, one of her best, she was also nominated for the very well received Chocolat.) They are often rewarded for body of work with a statuette honoring an inferior score (eg James Horner won for Titanic but not for Apollo 13 or Braveheart).

Portman stands a good chance of an Academy nomination, and perhaps a win, with this one. However if her name is among those announced on 22 January 2009, she may face stiff competition from Thomas Newman (Revolutionary Road and/or Wall-E), Danny Elfman (Milk) and other A-listers.

I also recommend, besides Cider House Rules, her score for Only You. The movie went straight to video, but the soundtrack is considered one of her finest, least imitative scores, and a listen bears this out.

Copyright © 26 October 2008 K C Devereaux, Michigan USA


The Duchess - Music by Rachel Portman

217S CDR Stereo NEW RELEASE [c42'] 2008 Lakeshore Records LLC

Performers not credited

Rachel Portman: The Duchess (music from the motion picture):

1 The Duchess
2 Mistake Of Your Life
3 I Think Of You All The Time
4 No Mood For Conversation
5 Gee and Grey Make Love
6 Gee and Grey Together in Bath
7 Beethoven: German Dance in D from Twelve German Dances
8 Awakening
9 Rape
10 Bess' Sons
11 Gee Give Up Baby
12 Six Years Later
13 Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early
14 Haydn: Adagio (String Quintet in D Op 1 No 3)
15 Never See Your Children Again
16 Grey Comes Back
17 Gee Is Taken To The Country
18 End Titles


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