Composing for history

Composer Howard Shore on The Song Of Names, The Aviator and A Dangerous Method

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Song Of Names producer Robert Lantos with director François Girard and composer Howard Shore at Sony in New York
The Song Of Names producer Robert Lantos with director François Girard and composer Howard Shore at Sony in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

François Girard’s The Song Of Names composer Howard Shore is a three-time Oscar winner for his work with Peter Jackson (Best Original Score for The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring and Best Original Score and Original Song with Fran Walsh and Annie Lennox for The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King) and is a six-time BAFTA nominee (Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, Hugo, and the Jackson films). Howard Shore is David Cronenberg’s longtime composer and has worked with Tom McCarthy (the Oscar-winning Spotlight), David Fincher, Tim Burton, Arnaud Desplechin, Penny Marshall, and on Tom Hanks’ directorial début That Thing You Do!

Howard Shore on François Girard and The Song Of Names, starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen: “I worked choosing with him very carefully all the music that's on screen.”
Howard Shore on François Girard and The Song Of Names, starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen: “I worked choosing with him very carefully all the music that's on screen.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Song Of Names, produced by Robert Lantos, Lyse Lafontaine and Nick Hirschkorn, is based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht, screenplay by Jefferey Caine, and stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen with Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King (Prince Eric in Rob Marshall’s upcoming The Little Mermaid), Luke Doyle, Gerran Howell, Misha Handley, and Eddie Izzard.

Little nine-year-old Dovidl Rapoport (Luke Doyle), a violin prodigy from Warsaw, is taken in by the family of a music publisher in London. War is looming, which at first doesn't make much difference to Martin (Misha Handley), who now has to share everything with this new intruder, who seems to be rather full of himself.

Soon the two boys become very close. Dovidl's family remains in Poland and their fate under the Nazi regime is unknown to them in England. After the war, at age 21, when Dovidl (Johah Hauer-King) is about to give his debut concert, a number of actions, playing with coincidence, fate, and betrayal, separate the two young men.

Only in their fifties, Dovidl and Martin (now portrayed by the third duo of actors, Clive Owen and Tim Roth) will some of the mysteries be revealed. A song is at the centre of everything. The Song of Names is a film of two brothers who aren't brothers and more than brothers, and of a song that isn't a song, but memory itself.

Nine-year-old Dovidl Rapaport (Luke Doyle)
Nine-year-old Dovidl Rapaport (Luke Doyle) Photo: Sabrina Lantos

Anne-Katrin Titze: I suppose composing for a film that has C G Jung or Sabina Spielrein in it, or one about Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes, is a bit different than working on The Song Of Names.

Howard Shore: Right. Well, they're all historical, so I delve into the research, the history. I love to read, so I loved to read about Jung and Freud. It was fascinating to film A Dangerous Method.

AKT: I loved it.

HS: And The Aviator is a great period, you know, from the silent film to sound, so I'm interested in that world. One of the reasons I like doing films is to be able to go into different time periods and to be able to do that kind of research. I really enjoy that.

AKT: So how did that work, for instance on The Aviator? How did you research on the time?

HS: I looked at silent films. There was 35 years of silent films that weren't entirely silent. Most of them had scores - not created for them - but they played with music generally.

AKT: Right, live music.

Dovidl Rapaport (Jonah Hauer-King) on the day of his début concert
Dovidl Rapaport (Jonah Hauer-King) on the day of his début concert Photo: Sabrina Lantos

HS: Yes, it had to be live. So that was a great thing to research and it's wonderful to uncover that period. And then going into early sound is also fascinating in what was being created and the composers that were starting to write for those films.

AKT: And with Jung and Freud, how did you research for that?

HS: With Jung and Freud, I drew a parallel in A Dangerous Method to Siegfried, Wagner's Siegfried, the opera. And through that opera I made connections to this story. And I was actually working with Wagner's ideas and placing them through this film. I kind of paralleled the work of Siegfried.

AKT: It's fascinating. I just picked two of the many films you worked on.

HS: You could do that on almost any film, there's always some background history and research.

AKT: With The Song Of Names, of course, the history had to be very precise, very specific, in order to pull this off.

HS: Yes.

Dovidl Rapaport (Clive Owen) in concert
Dovidl Rapaport (Clive Owen) in concert Photo: Sabrina Lantos

AKT: It's quite a magic trick. You create a historic song, which it isn't.

HS: Right. The song was in my DNA. Because I grew up in the synagogue in the exact period of this film. The scene in Stoke Newington, the pivotal scene with Daniel Mutlu, who is a cantor, who sings The Song Of Names.

AKT: Who is fantastic.

HS: That scene is from 1951. That's when I first came to the synagogue with my father as a young child. My father was a religious man, so I had the sound of 1951 and I knew I heard those cantors, I knew what it sounded like. I was just refreshing my faith, really, going back.

I had great guidance by Bruce Ruben, who's the cantor at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. And his wife Judith Clurman, [credited as music supervisor on The Song Of Names] who's a conductor and choral director, they had great historical knowledge about Judaism. They kind of guided me through the process.

AKT: The song in the film takes five days to be performed, we are told. How much of it did you actually compose?

Helen (Catherine McCormack) with Martin (Tim Roth) at the concert
Helen (Catherine McCormack) with Martin (Tim Roth) at the concert Photo: Sabrina Lantos

HS: Well, I've worked with François on the film for over two years. And I worked choosing with him very carefully all the music that's on screen. Knowing that I had to write The Song of Names that would be sung by the cantor in the small synagogue and also the concert version which you hear 35 years later.

AKT: At the end, yes.

HS: At the end, played on three violins. And the cantor. Those scenes, François mapped out in a lot of detail in terms of the shots. I think the concert scene is a few minutes, maybe about five or six minutes. So we were telling one small part of the story really.

Coming up - Howard Shore on recording the score for The Song Of Names with the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, Judith Clurman, Daniel Multu, Paganini and Ray Chen.

We'll also have conversations with The Song Of Names director François Girard and producer Robert Lantos.

The Song of Names opens on December 25 in the US.

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