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AGNES OF GOD – Georges Delerue

November 5, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

100 GREATEST SCORES OF ALL TIME

Original Review by Craig Lysy

John Pielmeier’s play 1979 Agnes of God was both a commercial and critical success, achieving a respectable run on Broadway. Norman Jewison convinced Columbia Pictures that the story had big screen potential, and secured backing for the project. He would both produce and direct the film, and brought in Pielmeier to adapt his play for the cinema. Crucial to the film’s success would be finding three actresses to fill the trio of roles on which the story unfolds. Jane Fonda was cast as Dr. Martha Livingston. Joining her would be Anne Bancroft as Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, and Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes Devereaux. The film offers a murder mystery where science and faith intersect and clash. The story reveals nuns rushing from evening prayers to Sister Agnes’s room in answer to her screaming. They discover her bleeding profusely and a dead baby lying in a basket strangled by its umbilical cord. The court assigns Dr. Livingston to assess Sister Agnes for competency to stand trial. A clash of wills unfolds between Dr. Livingston efforts to discover the truth, and Mother Superior efforts to protect her niece, who she believes is innocent. What results is a classic confrontation of science and faith, with both sides working with the best of intentions.

Jane Fonda offered the following commentary on the film’s storyline:

“What it forces you to do is to begin to probe how you feel about miracles, faith, innocence, about the human need to believe in things that can’t be explained. These are very fundamental questions that have been debated for centuries. This film isn’t going to answer them, but I think it’s a good time to re-raise them in an artistic context.”

The film achieved modest commercial success and mixed critical acclaim, earning three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Score.

French composer Michel Legrand, who was a friend of Jewison, recommended fellow countryman Georges Delerue for the scoring assignment. Jewison thought is was a great idea as he was already favorably disposed to his 1983 score for Silkwood, as well as some earlier works for French cinema. He sent Delerue the script and received word that he was very enthusiastic about taking up the assignment. Jewison related that he wanted a religioso feeling to the score and brought in a Jesuit musicologist as a consultant. He advised Delerue that the film’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist would be contrasting light and darkness, black and white, and that the his music needed to seek synergy. Delerue’s proposed that the score evolve during the film, becoming more lyrical following the miracle. He explained to Jewison that given the intimacy of the film that he would use a small ensemble of strings, woodwinds, harp and piano, which would showcase solo performances by flute, harp and oboe, as well as wordless choir, expressed both a cappella, as well as with the orchestra.

For the score, Delerue conceived two primary themes; the first being the Agnes’ Theme, which serves as her identity, brilliantly capturing the purity and innocence of her on screen presence. The theme is simple in construct, buts offers a stirring religioso statement. It is rendered by ethereal angelic wordless female choir, with lush strings solenne joining, before concluding with male wordless choir joining the strings in their register. The second primary theme is the Marie Madeline Theme, which serves as the religious identity of the Les Petites Soeurs de Marie Madeleine, or Convent of Mary Magdalene. This may be the greatest theme in Delerue’s canon. On the album the cue “Marie Madeline” offers a concert piece of sublime beauty. It opens reverentially with a prelude of shifting strings solenne supporting a repeating five-note harp phrase, which ushers in the A Phrase, which features a beautiful soliloquy by solo flute tendero with harp adornment. Throughout his career, Delerue’s woodwind writing has been peerless, and this songlike melody offers testimony to his compositional gift. At 1:11 we transition to the lyrical long lined B Phrase born by sumptuous strings. It offers a stirring melody of such supreme beauty as to elicit a quiver and a tear. It is minor modal and we detect a tinge of sadness in the notes. We return to the A Phrase, which is now emoted by solo oboe for a statement as breath taking as was the flute. We conclude with a coda of the B Phrase, which is rendered solemnly. Juxtaposed to these timeless melodies would be some of the finest dissonant writing of Delerue’s career. He understood the film’s narrative, and that he would have to contrast the idyllic and contemplative imagery of the convent with deeply unsettling music, to inform us that beneath this holy veneer, something is terribly wrong. Lastly, I advise the reader that album construction was challenging as cues are not only out of order, but also sometimes joined with cues from different segments of the film. My review is aligned with film continuity.

On the album the “Entering Convent” cue is oddly joined to the “Main Title” cue, but not so in the film. The film begins with the roll of the opening white credits against a black screen supported musically by the “Main Title”, which begins at 2:21. Delerue sows an unsettling and deeply disturbing mysterioso with this ambiance cue born of formless, and never resolving dissonant strings affanato with harp adornment. At 2:53 a chord of despair resounds as “Agnes Of God” displays on the screen. At 3:06 the sight of the convent offers the films first scene, supported by the dissonant string line, harp and the unsettling whispering words of the nuns praying. As metal gates are locked at 3:35, a foreboding sustain by bass grave joins to juxtapose, creating a sense of dread as we see the nuns walking in circles as they pray in the courtyard. At 4:12 a repeating six note string figure that never coalesces or resolves supports the sight of nuns kneeling in prayer, their whispered words juxtaposed to the score. A forlorn flute joins as dark tolls sound, which supports nightfall. In the film, the music ends darkly at 5:03. The cue continues with music excised from the film, the first expression of a nascent Agnes’ Theme by violins and mixed wordless chorus, which fade to nothingness. This cue is brilliant in both its conception and execution. The idyllic and contemplative imagery of praying nuns is juxtaposed by eerie and deeply unsettling music, thus informing us that beneath this holy veneer, something is terribly wrong.

“Mother Finds Baby” was excised from the film. Horrific screaming wakes the nuns who run to Agnes’ room. As Mother Superior pushes open the door, the blood soak body of Agnes is discovered. As paramedics take her away, Mother enters the room, removes bloody sheets from the wastebasket to discover a dead baby. She weeps in a terrible agony, collapsing over the wastebasket. Delerue’s cue offers repeating string affanato figures, joined by foreboding bass, and a plaintive oboe, which writhe in pain, dissipating on a diminuendo of despair. I played the cue with the scene, and believe it was a creative mistake to remove it. I felt Mother’s agony much more with the music. In a scene change, Dr. Martha Livingston resists, but acquiesces to her superiors, agreeing to take the case to determine Sister Agnes’ sanity and fitness to stand trial for murder. As she arrives at the convent the next day, and enters, the music from the misplaced “Entering Convent” cue unfolds. A solo flute gentile and harp softly carries her progress. At 0:37 disquieting, repeating string figures support her tense wait for Mother Superior in the locked anteroom.

In “The Lady” Dr. Livingston is trying to interview Agnes, but is meeting resistance. In an attempt to win her over she agrees to reverse roles and allow Agnes to ask her questions. This eventually succeeds in disarming Agnes and she opens up about her vision of “The Lady” who came down to her as a cloud, which transformed into a beautiful glowing Lady who spoke to her. Dr. Livingston is taken aback by Agnes, who is starring with a vacant, glazed eyed madness. Delerue’s music enters as Agnes relates her vision supported by the religioso strings solenne of Agnes’ Theme, which crescendos reverently upon mixed chorus. “Agnus Dei” reveals scenes of the nun’s performing chores, which Delerue supports with the liturgical hymn Agnus Dei (Lamb Of God) sung a cappella in Latin by an angelic sounding boy. “Livingston Finds Agnes” was excised from the film and was intended to support Dr. Livingston searching for and finding Agnes. It opens full of foreboding with woodwinds and harp that usher in a solo oboe adorned with harp, which renders a variant of the A Phrase of the Marie Madeline Theme. At 0:58 we segue into “Graveside” where Dr. Livingston finds Agnes at the gravesite of a nun she loved. A prelude by lyrical strings usher in at 1:36 the A Phrase of the Marie Madeline Theme on solo flute delicato.

In “Let Me Help You” Dr. Livingston has a break through in eliciting Agnes to open up and reveal that her mother had humiliated and abused her by burning her genitals with a lit cigarette. The revelation is cathartic and the two hug tearfully and bond. A prelude by strings solenne usher in a variant of Agnes’ Theme on solo flute delicato, which adds heart and poignancy to the scene. The cue “Charlie’s Suite/Married To God” joins three cues, from three different segments of the film. I bypass “Charlie’s Suite”, which plays at the end of the film. At 0:37 we flow into “Married To God” where we see Dr. Livingston and Mother Superior enjoying a quiet moment together smoking in a gazebo. Dr. Livingston was being manipulative and succeeds in gaining Mother’s support to hypnotize Agnes. Delerue supports the scene with strings doloroso rendering a variant of the A Phrase of the Marie Madeline Theme, which ushers in a brief quotation by solo flute. I will comment on the remainder of the cue, later in the review when the scene to which it is linked plays.

“I Had A Baby” reveals Agnes under hypnosis relating to Dr. Livingston and Mother Superior that she had a baby. Dr. Livingston takes her back to the night of her delivery and we relive the pain and fear Agnes felt that night as she reenacts the horror of her delivery, writhing on the floor. Delerue sought to support the suffering on the screen with a deconstruction of Agnes’ Theme. We open sorrowfully with strings affanato that are joined by wordless male chorus that is wailing, and growing in intensity, yet it never crests, instead dissipating, and yielding to solo oboe doloroso. Almost the entire cue was excised from the film, which I believe was a creative misjudgment. Dr. Livingston is determined to discover how a man got into the convent. She goes to the city hall of records and locates the blueprints of the convent, which clearly display a hidden, subterranean tunnel to the barn. She returns to the convent, finds the secret entrance in the convent and journeys through the passage by candlelight. Returning to the “Charlie’s Suite/Married To God” cue, Delerue offers a textural mysterioso. At 1:22 unsettling dissonant and repeating high register strings figures sow discomfort and unease as she walks through the tunnel. As she ascends a ladder to the barn, the music dissipates into nothingness, replaced by the beating wings of startled doves. At 2:22 the cue shifts to a scene near the end of the movie, which I will discuss later.

“Immaculate Conception” supports the film’s most disturbing scene, where Agnes finally reveals all. She relates her passage through the tunnel to find ”him”, of how he spoke to her and descended upon her as a bird alight from God’s iris. Dissonant high register strings lead, and are joined by contrapuntal mid register strings led by a solo cello affanato. Low register strings join and usher in wailing choir at 1:41, that pulses and swells supported by orchestral menace, as stigmata appear and Agnes begins bleeding profusely. As Dr. Livingston demands to know the name of the man who did this to her, Agnes throws herself against the wall and cries out, God did this to me and I hate him for it! Delerue supports this revelation by building to a horrific crescendo of agony, which dissipates into nothingness. The confluence of film imagery, dialogue and music reflects genius. The film’s finale concludes in the courthouse where a judge exonerates Agnes by reason of insanity and remands her to the convent with regular visits by a visiting physician. In “Charlie’s Suite” Agnes rises, speaks with a vacant look, and relates how she would stand at her window as a man illuminated by moonlight sang to her. Sh states that one night he opened his wings and lay on top of her, singing. She begins singing a lullaby “Charlie’s Suite” a cappella as she is removed from the court. Delerue continues the lullaby carried by violins and a solo flute dolorosa to support a scene change to the convent. The film ends with Dr. Livingston’s closing narration, where she nurtures hope, and a good life for Agnes.

We conclude the film with “End Titles”, which provides a full rendering of the Marie Madeline Theme with its stirring and timeless melodic eloquence. The following two cues feature full expositions of the score’s two primary themes. “Sister Agnes” offers Agnes’ Theme, which is simple in construct, but emotes as a stirring religioso statement. It is rendered by ethereal, angelic, wordless female choir, with lush strings solenne joining, before concluding with male wordless choir joining the strings in their register. “Marie Madeline” supports the collective identity of the convent and residing nuns. It opens with a prelude by harp and chorus, transitions at 0:26 to the A Phrase born of a soliloquy by solo flute tranquillo, transitioning at 1:11 to the florid B Phrase emoted by sumptuous strings and choir, that returns at 1:59 to the A Phrase on solo oboe delicato, finally concluding at 2:49 with a coda of the B Phrase.

The original Varese Sarabande soundtrack release was structured as twelve symphonic suites for orchestra and chorus. While this offered a satisfying album listening experience, it did not lend itself to an actual review of the score in film context. I relate to you my joy when Varese Sarabande released the actual film score as part of its Varese Classics Revisited series. The mastering by Chas Ferry is superb, provides pristine sound quality, and an exceptional listening experience. The challenge presented to me as a reviewer however was that the cues were not ordered in film sequence, and two cues offered music joined from non-sequential film scenes. This score offers one of the finest in Delerue’s canon, with his Mary Madeline Theme rightfully earning admission into the hollowed halls of the Pantheon of great cinematic themes. He understood the film’s narrative and his decision to juxtapose melodic consonance of the idyllic and contemplative imagery of the convent with dissonant and deeply unsettling music was brilliant in its conception as it informed us that beneath this tranquil and holy veneer, something was terribly wrong. Given the setting, liturgical choir was needed to infuse his soundscape with the requisite religioso auras. These wordless voices spanned the full range of emotions from anguish, to haunting, to transcendence. In scene after scene Delerue’s music enhanced Jewison’s film by speaking powerfully, and eloquently to both the overt and covert emotions felt by the characters. I believe this score to be one of the finest of the Bronze Age, a classic, which I highly recommend you purchase for your collection.

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

Track Listing:

  • Sister Agnes (1:47)
  • Marie Madeline (3:28)
  • Mother Finds Baby (1:53)
  • Charlie’s Suite / Married To God (2:53)
  • Immaculate Conception (3:39)
  • Agnus Dei (0:32)
  • Livingston Finds Agnes / Graveside (2:25)
  • I Had A Baby (1:38)
  • Let Me Help You (1:14)
  • The Lady (1:44)
  • Entering Convent / Main Title (5:56)
  • End Titles (3:30)

Running Time: 30 minutes 39 seconds

Varese Sarabande 302-063-500-8-5368 (1985/2016)

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 byRobert Townson.

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