THE NAME OF THE ROSE – James Horner
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery with a difference. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, and adapted from the enormously popular 1980 novel by Umberto Eco, it stars Sean Connery as William, a 14th century monk who journeys to a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy to attend a religious conference with other scholars. However, the conference is disturbed by several unexplained deaths, and the monastery’s abbot (Michael Lonsdale) assigns William to investigate them. With the help of his young student Adso (Christian Slater), William quickly uncovers a hotbed of secrets, hidden desires, and political and religious skullduggery among the monks, leading to more murders as the perpetrator seeks to maintain hidden. The film, which co-stars F. Murray Abraham, Helmut Qualtinger, Feodor Chaliapin, and Ron Perlman, was unfortunately not a successful one in financial terms, but it has gone on to be something of a cult film in some circles, with critics likening Connery to a medieval Sherlock Holmes who uses ingenuity and intellect to uncover the truth, in stark comparison to Abraham’s fiery and superstitious bishop, who as a member of the Spanish inquisition sees witchcraft and devilishness under around every corner.
The score for The Name of the Rose is by James Horner, and is the third of the four films he scored in 1986. Sandwiched between beloved works such as Aliens and An American Tail, The Name of the Rose is an often overlooked score from this period in his career; compounding this is the fact that it’s one of the scores he wrote during his ‘experimental synth’ phase, a polarizing group of works that includes titles like Where the River Runs Black and Vibes, as well as aggressive action scores such as Commando and Red Heat. It’s unclear why Horner chose to score The Name of the Rose in this way, because he was not usually one for anachronisms. Recent information suggests that Horner was specifically asked to score the film with synths by director Annaud and producer Bernd Eichinger, and that Horner initially resisted, before eventually acquiescing to their wishes, but none of it is really clear. Whatever the case may be, the resulting score remains one of the most unusual works in the composer’s canon, a light year away from the lush and powerful orchestral music most of us are familiar with.
The score features a number of real period instruments, including voices, bells, and flutes, and had Horner simply used this limited ensemble to convey the story’s dark message – perhaps in conjunction with a small chamber orchestra – it would have been undeniably effective. However, instead of using live instruments, the score is instead embellished and enhanced by a vast array of dark, brooding electronic textures which give the entire thing a sense of mysterious isolation, otherworldliness, and overarching dread. The electronic tones Horner uses are slow, morose, almost morbid in the way they capture the gloominess of the abbey, and terrible goings-on within its walls. This is not a score which overflows with lightness or real tonal beauty, although some may find parts of it to have a soothing, religious quality. By today’s standards the samples sound desperately synthetic – there is no question as to whether these strings are live or electronic – but the fact that Horner isn’t trying to hide them, ironically, gives him more freedom to be a little more experimental with the sounds his basic keyboards are able to make.
Thematically, the score is understated too. The score’s only recurring main theme appears in the third cue, “The Lesson,” where it emerges from a bed of throaty, ominous electronic tones, meandering and threatening alongside a deep electronic bass choir, but it is absent from large parts of the score’s middle section. Instead, much of the rest of the score is dominated by dark, textural writing. The “Main Titles” introduce the many of the score’s core elements, including urgent pulses and drones, cascading bells, interjections from a single string chord, and sampled voices which range from a solo singer to a massed Gregorian choir. These foreboding tones feature strongly throughout the score, notably in “The Scriptorium,” “Flashbacks,” and “Betrayed”, all of which maintain the dreary, deadly serious ambiance of the opening cue.
In “First Recognition” a harsh, grating medieval woodwind texture gradually gives way to a more gentle, soothing harp and harpsichord melody. Elsewhere, “The Confession” is lighter, with a higher register sound which could be a sampled guitar, lute, or harp. The clean, elegant, simple writing and searching textures in this cue remind me of the more intimate parts of Cocoon, while the hesitant, gentle performance of the main theme, accompanied by flute and cello playing in double counterpoint, is just lovely. Later, “The Discovery” revisits the lighter textures from the Confession cue, but gives them a sparkle of life and sprit via some light tapped percussion and dance-like rhythmic figures which seem to have been inspired by his other 1986 synth score, Where the River Runs Black.
The main theme finally returns in earnest during the final two cues, “Epilogue” and “End Titles,” both of which contain broad and clear statements of the score’s primary identity. The former sees the theme emerging from a clanging, banging, cacophonous collision of bells and electronic textures; the rising-and-falling string contrapuntal ideas Horner uses here are a composer hallmark, while the cello and harp duet just after the 3:00 mark is especially attractive. The latter cue begins with sampled wordless plainsong, light bells, chimes, and drones, before eventually flourishing into a faster-tempo, elegant statement of the main theme to conclude the score.
The album is rounded out by three tracks of traditional period-authentic religious plainsong arranged by Kurt Reith; “Beata Viscera” performed by counter tenor Charles Brett, and “Kyrie” and “Veni Sanctre Spiritus” performed by the choir of The Choir School Maria Schutz.
It’s interesting to note how the electronic writing in several of Horner’s later scores can be traced back to The Name of the Rose. The low, rapid beats in “First Recognition” are clearly a precursor to the electronic pulses in the end credits of Glory. Some of the textures, especially the trial runs in electronic campanology, sound like early experiments leading up to what would eventually become the desolate action music in Braveheart – I’m thinking specifically of cues like “Attack on Murron” and “Revenge”. Even the B-phrase of the main theme would later go on to influence part of the theme for The Missing, which Horner would write some 17 years later.
All this is fascinating from an intellectual point of view, but I have to conclude that, while my admiration for The Name of the Rose has certainly increased over the years, many will find it to be something of a slog, despite the entire album running for less than 45 minutes. The intentionally sparse and austere electronic textures are a world away from the lush orchestrations that made Horner such a popular figure for so many years. The comparative lack of sophistication in the synth samples that were available to him at the time may put people off, especially those used to the best contemporary samples, which can be indistinguishable from live instruments. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the score’s slow pacing, dreary tone, melancholic emotional content, and limited thematic identity. These issues were the most important ones for me, and for many years they kept me from really appreciating everything that Horner was trying to achieve in this score. I’ve warmed to The Name of the Rose over time, but I would certainly advise caution for those who have yet to delve into this dusty corner of Horner’s back catalogue, and may not realize what is in store for them.
A note about the releases: the soundtrack has never been released on a US label, but has been released three times in Europe: by Virgin in France (where it goes by its French title, Le Nom de la Rose), by Teldec in Germany (where it goes by its German title, Der Name der Rose), and by PDI in Spain (where it goes by its Spanish title, El Nombre de la Rosa). Each release has slightly different cover art – I chose the German one here because I am especially fond of the picture they use, highlighting a supremely pissed-off looking Sean Connery in artsy monochrome.
Buy the Name of the Rose soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Titles (3:01)
- Beata Viscera (traditional, performed by Charles Brett) ( (2:19)
- First Recognition (2:28)
- The Lesson (4:18)
- Kyrie (traditional, performed by the choir of The Choir School Maria Schutz) (2:22)
- The Scriptorium (3:52)
- Veni Sancte Spiritus (traditional, performed by the choir of The Choir School Maria Schutz) (3:13)
- The Confession (3:10)
- Flashbacks (2:05)
- The Discovery (2:28)
- Betrayed (2:56)
- Epilogue (6:06)
- End Titles (3:12)
Running Time: 42 minutes 00 seconds
Teldec 2292-44391-2 (1986)
Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner and Kurt Reichmann. Recorded and mixed by Harry Schnitzler and Ulrich Ullmann. Edited by Bob Hathaway. Album produced by James Horner.