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AGNES OF GOD – Georges Delerue

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

agnesofgodTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After he won the Oscar for Best Original Score in 1979 for A Little Romance, it appeared that the great French composer Georges Delerue would make the leap from the prestigious European films for which he was known, and begin a career scoring prestigious Hollywood fare. After all, Delerue was the musical voice of the French New Wave, the composer of choice for directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais, whose collaborations included such landmark works as Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959, Shoot the Piano Player in 1960, Jules et Jim in 1962, Le Mépris in 1963, Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent in 1971, Une Belle Fille Comme Moi in 1972, and La Nuit Américaine in 1973. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened at all. Hollywood seemed to be completely at a loss with what to do to with Delerue, and instead of him being asked to score serious, worthy films, he ended up writing music for films that were, to put it mildly, deeply beneath him. Between 1980 and the summer of 1985 Delerue wrote music for such forgettable fare as Richard’s Things, Rich and Famous, and The Black Stallion Returns, and even had the ignominy of having his score for Something Wicked This Way Comes rejected by the studio. Thankfully, one person who appreciated his talent and knew what he could bring to the table was director Norman Jewison, who approached Delerue to score his serious religious drama, Agnes of God, in 1985.

The film is an adaptation of the acclaimed play by John Pielmeier, and stars Jane Fonda as Martha Livingston, a forensic psychiatrist working for the state of Quebec. Dr Livingston is sent to investigate an unusual event at a Roman Catholic convent near Montreal, where a young nun named Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) has been found in her room with a dead baby. Agnes is suspected of having killed the child, and Livingston’s job is to evaluate her to determine if she is mentally fit to stand trial. However, after locking horns with the convent’s fearsome and protective mother superior, Mother Miriam (Anne Bancroft), the atheist and skeptical Livingston is astounded to discover that Agnes claims to remember nothing about being pregnant or giving birth, and truly believes that she may have undergone an immaculate conception. What follows is a battle between faith and science, the church and the courts, as Livingston tries to get to the bottom of what really happened to Agnes. The film was a critical success, and received three Oscar nominations – one each for Bancroft and Tilly for Best Supporting Actress, and one for Delerue’s score, although none of them ultimately won, with Delerue losing out to John Barry and Out of Africa.

As one would expect, Delerue’s score is steeped in the glorious, emotional religioso sound that he often employed for films of this nature, and will at times remind listeners of a certain age of the similar-sounding biblical scores penned by Alfred Newman and Miklós Rózsa during Hollywood’s golden age. It was recorded in Toronto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and The Elmer Isler Singers and it is, quite simply, one of the most staggeringly beautiful scores ever written. No one wrote lyrical melodies like Delerue; no one else sounded like him, and no one ever will. Themes and harmonies flowed out of him as easily as breathing, and Agnes of God contains two of his absolute best. The score is written mainly for strings and woodwinds – no brass, virtually no piano – with solo performances for flute, oboe, and harp, is accompanied by the choir, and is anchored by two recurring main themes.

The first theme, which could be considered Agnes’s Theme, is lilting, gently romantic, innocent, flowing. It has echoes of the rejected score for Something Wicked This Way Comes, as well as the music for another religion-themed drama, True Confessions, while foreshadowing the similarly tender string-and-woodwind writing Delerue would later write for films such as Joe Versus the Volcano and Memories of Me. The second theme – which is sort of an all-encompassing theme for the concept of religion – is pious, slightly more restrained, but simply heavenly, and achieves transcendence when accompanied by the choir. Again, it has echoes of Delerue’s familiar style of writing for remembrance, tragedy, and loss, as heard in subsequent scores like Tours Du Monde Tours Du Ciel and Diên Biên Phú. Interestingly, John Williams wrote what is clearly a temp-track variation of this theme for the “You Are the Pan” sequence in Hook five years later, but that’s a discussion for another time and place.

After a solemn choral opening in “Part I, Track 1,” both themes are presented sequentially in “Part I, Track 2,” with Agnes’s theme being anchored by a gorgeous flute solo accompanied by harp and strings, and the Religion theme featuring a lovely, warm oboe. Agnes’s theme is reprised towards the end of “Part II, Track 2,” again for gently romantic flutes. Interestingly, the themes are discarded for long sections of the middle section of the score, which instead concentrates on more dissonant and moody string writing, to accompany Jane Fonda’s investigations and the revelations surrounding Agnes’s life.

A strained, slightly awkward-sounding woodwind lullaby appears in “Part I, Track 3” – possibly lamenting for Agnes’s departed infant – while “Part I, Track 4” features more nervous, edgy string writing, dissonant choral embellishments, and a ghostly harpsichord, before building to a majestic finish. “Part II, Track 1” features an unaccompanied boy soprano singing an Agnus Dei in Latin. “Part II, Track 3” highlights more ghostly choral work which grows in intensity and anguish, accompanied by nervous strings and what sounds like an inverted, slightly tortured version of Agnes’s theme in the clarinets. “Part II, Track 4” is reflective and somber, showcasing an elegant but downbeat flute solo, while “Part II, Track 5” builds to a stirring conclusion by reprising the heavenly choral material from the opening track, and augmenting it with a wash of strings.

Finally, the Religion theme returns at the very end of “Part II, Track 6”. After several minutes of meandering bass flute solos, harp glissandi, and the score’s only instance of piano – stark, edgy, resigned – a beautiful but tragic performance of the theme appears at the very end. This segues into “Part II, Track 7,” which offers a simply wonderful reprise of both themes. The choir coos softly, and the solo flute performs Agnes’s theme, before moving into a lush performance of the Religion theme for the full string section and the choir. Finally, Delerue returns to Agnes’s theme, this time on oboe, but cleverly counterpoints it with the choir and harp part from the Religion theme, illustrating the inexorable link between the two concepts in the persona of Agnes herself. It’s a glorious, boldly emotional conclusion.

Agnes of God was one of three scores released by Varese Sarabande in 1993 as a memorial to Delerue, who had died in March of the previous year, literally hours after he finished recording his final score, Rich in Love. The soundtrack album is structured as a two-movement, 12-part tone poem called the Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra, and it features a personal and appropriately moving note from producer Robert Townson about his friendship with the great composer. The lack of actual specific cue titles may be slightly annoying for those who need some sort of correlation between the music and the scenes it accompanies, but this is a very minor irritant in what is otherwise a virtually flawless album, which at just a touch over 30 minutes, provides a strong overview of everything the score has to offer.

For those younger listeners who have yet to fully discover the genius of Georges Delerue, Agnes of God would be a good place to start. Delerue truly was a one-of-a-kind composer, someone who could always find the heart and soul of every film he scored, and who wrote unashamedly passionate, emotional, beautiful – but appropriate – music for every project. Agnes of God is a perfect example of Delerue at his absolute best, highlighting everything that was good about his music. I’m not a religious man in any way but, if I was of that persuasion, I could honestly say that listening to the score for this film would bring me closer to heaven.

Buy the Agnes of God soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part I, Track 1 (1:47)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part I, Track 2 (3:29)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part I, Track 3 (1:53)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part I, Track 4 (2:54)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part I, Track 5 (3:40)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 1 (0:33)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 2 (2:25)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 3 (1:38)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 4 (1:14)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 5 (1:44)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 6 (5:57)
  • Symphonic Suite for Chorus and Orchestra – Part II, Track 7 (3:30)

Running Time: 30 minutes 44 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5368 (1985/1993)

Music composed and conducted by Georges Delerue. Performed by The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and The Elmer Isler Singers. Orchestrations by Georges Delerue. Recorded and mixed by Hayward Parrott. Edited by Richard Stone. Score produced by Georges Delerue. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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