Browse in the Library:
and subscribe to our social channels for news and music updates:
Chocolat – Main Theme by Rachel Portman (sheet music)
Rachel Portman, film music composer.
Rachel Mary Berkeley Portman (Surrey-England, 1960) was not only the first composer to win an Oscar ( Emma , Douglas, McGrath, 1996). She has also been the first to win a Primetime Emmy Award ( Bessie , 2015) and possibly the most nominated for other very prestigious awards (Bafta, Golden Globes, Grammy…).
From the age of 22 to the present, she has written more than a hundred soundtracks for film and television, making her the most international European composer and the only one who can rub shoulders with her leading male colleagues. Hers are the scores for The Cider House Rules (1999), Chocolat (2000) and Oliver Twist (2005). Rachel was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2010 and is an Honorary Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford.
Such a resume makes it very clear that we are facing the most successful film composer in history.
Having said this, one wonders what his “secret” is and if, as one might suppose, it is related to his way of conceiving film music and, by extension, to his compositional style. In this regard, when journalists want to know how she approaches the composition of her soundtracks, she has no problem revealing it, always repeating the same thing:
I like to write things that are simple and clear. Communicative music, that is not difficult for people to understand. I always write clearly.
The truth is that any viewer with a musical sensibility soon realizes that Portman’s music flows naturally and so unobtrusively that, at no point, does it take over the film. And she, as we have seen, has no problem admitting it.
In a perhaps somewhat excessive display of modesty, he has come to say that he aspires to “not disturb” with his music and even admits that everything he has written for the cinema is very similar, except for the score of The Manchurian Candidate ( The Manchurian Candidate , 2004). Certainly for this movie she tried to do something different, “scary” in her own words.
Since she was 14 years old, the age at which she began playing the piano, Rachel Portman had a clear inclination towards theater and film music. Her first improvisations were based on stories she was imagining, and her initial works as a student at Worcester College, Oxford, were scores for plays and films by her classmates.
The first time her name appears in the credits of a film is in the college thriller Privileged (Michael Hoffman, 1982), shot by students in collaboration with the university itself. As an anecdotal fact, it is also the first film of one of her most outstanding companions: the famous British actor Hugh Grant, born the same year as her.
This unequivocal narrative vocation did not take long to find the right channel in commercial soundtracks. His next jobs were for television, a medium in which he continued to collaborate until, in the 1990s, the film industry offered him big-budget films, the first being The War of the Buttons (John Roberts, 1994). From this moment on, she began to stand out as a versatile and successful composer, with a well-defined style.
It is clear that Rachel Portman does not want to break the mold or enter the uncertain world of sound experimentation. She basically is a piano composer who usually has an arranger who is in charge of transferring her ideas from the keyboard to the orchestra. One of its most recognizable stylistic features is that of superimposing a classical theme on a persistent musical element (an ostinato or a pedal note).
His extensive filmography includes period films such as the award-winning Emma (1996) or The Legend of Nicholas Nickleby (2002), both by Douglas McGrath, and also literary adaptations such as Oliver Twist (Roman Polanski, 2005) or The Joy Luck Club ( Wayne Wang, 1993). His music, as discreet as it is personal, suits this type of tape like a tailored suit.
The musical ideas of the English composer are not characterized by their dynamism and, therefore, do not seem very suitable to drive the action. This could be the reason why she has shunned films that don’t suit her style.
When he is commissioned a job far from his preferences, as in the case of the war drama Hart’s War (Gregory Hoblit, 2002), he tackles it without renouncing its essence, building a monothematic soundtrack, using very simple melodic material and the almost constant accompaniment of ostinati or pedals. As far as this film is concerned, the result can be said to have been as conventional as it was effective.
Looking at her resume, there is no doubt that Rachel Portman reigns over all other female film composers. And she does it based on the use of norms far from the most modern compositional currents, such as those represented by her compatriot Mica Levi or the Icelandic Hildur Gudnadóttir.
We will summarize these rules, extracting them from an interview with him by the musicologist John Caps. From her answers, the opinion of the composer regarding film music is deduced; an opinion that could be synthesized in the following principles:
- Music must be used wisely.
- It must be conceived as a secondary actor, although its function is important.
- You must be intelligent and bring your own perspective.
- It must be at the height of the film, without interfering with it.
- It must act as an invisible force.
- It should be as simple as it is practical.
- It must be communicative and easy to assimilate by the average viewer.
A committed assignment
When Portman was commissioned to write the score for a remake of The Manchurian Candidate , signed by Jonathan Demme, Oscar for best director in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs, he could not refuse. What he did not ignore is that he would have to propose something quite different from what he had done up to that moment.
It was a tense political thriller focused on the rottenness of the upper echelons of power; of a perverse and unhealthy nightmare of high psychological voltage, in which music would have to play an important role.
In The Candidate of Fear, a group of ex-combatants, experience terrible dreams, linked to a traumatic experience during the Gulf War. Little by little, Commander Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), will discover that they are related to a dark political plot that will endanger his life and that of the survivors of his platoon.
I have read somewhere that the director asked Rachel Portman for a “Hitchcock-style” soundtrack and that she wrote it following his instructions. When it was finished, they saw that it didn’t work, and she had to rush to write another score, which she did in just two weeks.
With this added difficulty, she faced the challenge again and resolved it with great skill. I would have liked to ask the author what were the premises from which she started before putting the first note of this second score, although it is not difficult for me to imagine them.
It undoubtedly had to be music as dark as its subject: the manipulation of human behavior for political purposes, set against a sordid Oedipal relationship. Therefore, some dissonances were necessary, albeit slight, because Portman is not a composer who likes to pierce her ears. True to her style, the melodic elements will be very simple, almost minimalist, and must have some Arabic reminiscence, since the previous action takes place in Kuwait. T
here will also be some military musical element missing, for which she will use drum rolls and incorporate the sound of a helicopter rotor. When she appears at the piano, she will do so by adding a dash of lyricism with simple and effective melodies. She too, and looking for greater expressiveness, will mix electronic and acoustic timbres, with metals (so used in war contexts) being the protagonists in some scenes.
However, the absolute musical resource will be the pedal, that sound (or bundle of sounds) that sounds continuously and is so appropriate to intensify the tension in the viewer.
Certainly the use of all these ingredients does not at all guarantee a good soundtrack, something that does happen in this case, thanks to the skill and inspiration of Rachel Portman. The result is a homogeneous soundtrack that is well integrated into the film as a whole.
Capote according to Portman
In November 1959 a family was savagely murdered in a Kansas town. Based on this terrible crime, the American novelist Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, the novel that established him as a great writer.
To document it, he traveled to the scene from New York and together with his friend Harper Lee, the famous author of To Kill a Mockingbird . Once there, he began a long investigation that led him to interview both the friends of the victims and their executioners. The experience was so hard that he changed his life forever:
No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took from me. I think, in a way, it killed me. (T. Capote)
Three movies have been made based on this book. The first one was In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967), the second, Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) and the last, Story of a Crime , directed by Douglas McGrath in 2006, with music by Rachel Portman.
Rachel Portman does not usually dedicate a special effort to characterize the characters, but in Story of a crime she made an exception. Truman Capote is the central figure of this film and the score reflects the essence of him. During the first half of the film, his frivolous genius is expressed musically through light-hearted themes in a style reminiscent of jazz manouche .
But when Capote begins to get involved in the terrible story, dramatic themes appear that refer to the writer’s traumatic childhood, his close relationship with the murderers and the very unpleasant details of the quadruple crime. Then, the music evidences this radical change of atmosphere, giving an unequivocal message to the viewer and making it clear that the friendly British composer has a special weakness for clear and communicative musical writing.