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COLETTE – Thomas Adès

January 31, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There is always a slight frisson through the classical music fraternity whenever a respected contemporary concert hall composer writes a film score. It happened when John Corigliano scored (and won an Oscar for) The Red Violin in 1999. It happened when Sir John Tavener contributed music to Children of Men in 2006. And now the latest composer to ‘slum it’ in the world of film is Englishman Thomas Adès, the wunderkind behind such acclaimed classical works as The Exterminating Angel, Powder on Her Face, Asyla, and The Tempest. What invariably happens is that these esteemed composers thoroughly enjoy the process of writing for film, and comment on how difficult it is and how much it stretched their creative abilities, while the highbrow music press writes lavish articles about the composer’s experiences, offering backhanded compliments about the genre while continuing to look down their nose at the entire industry as a ‘lesser art form’. Of course, the other thing that invariably happens is that the classical composer writes a tremendous piece of music too, and this is exactly what has happened here with Adès’s score for Colette.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, best known by her mononymous last name, is now remembered as a celebrated author of French literature, and as a pioneering feminist; her best known works are the novels Chéri from 1920 and Gigi from 1944, the latter of which was turned into an acclaimed musical by Lerner & Loewe, and later an Oscar-winning film starring Leslie Caron. What is less well known is the fact that, at the outset of her career, she had to fight to be recognized as the author of her own work, as credit for them was taken by her husband and manager, Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier-Villars. Director Wash Westmoreland’s film Colette explores the personal and professional relationship between Colette and Willy, and Colette’s quest to have her own voice recognized. The lead roles are performed by Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

Thomas Adès was hired to score Colette almost by accident; Westmoreland, who had been a friend for several years, casually asked Adès whether the Paris in the 1890s was an interesting time for classical music. This led to a long and detailed conversation about some of the best works composed during the period, and eventually Westmoreland simply ‘popped the question’ – upon which Adès found himself with just weeks to write an hour of music for his friend’s film. Thriving under pressure, Adès wrote a gorgeous classical score steeped in the rich musical traditions of the time and place. Interestingly, Adès did not approach the film from a themes and variations standpoint, but instead assigned different musical instruments to specific characters at different times in their life: harp for when Colette is young and naïve, piano for when Colette is in the midst of creating her literary art, French horn for the domineering husband Willy, clarinet for Colette’s friend and eventual lover Missy.

There is one central theme running through the score, a florid and charming melody that first emerges in the second half of the opening cue, “Snow Globe,” and which receives especially splendid statements in later cues such as the more introspective “These are the Copses,” the almost celebratory “Flesh,” the flamboyant “Le Vagabonde,” and the richly rewarding “Colette’s Journey”. Adès orchestrates the theme variously for harp and piano, backed by luscious strings, depending on Colette’s circumstances and state of mind at that point in the story

The rest of the music, however, is all about beautiful textural ideas, instrumental combinations playing wistfully together, harp and strings and piano and woodwinds. There is a deliberate slowness and thoughtfulness to quite a lot of the music, quiet chords and elegant notes which hang in the air and allow the listener to contemplate the music in the moment rather than it bashing you over the head. Listen to the way the piano lingers in cues like the lovely “The Lake” and “Claudines Are Everywhere,” for example, or the way the harp is given a solo role in the intimate “Still Need Your Headmaster” before it gives way to a bed of strings.

A couple of additional cues stand out as specific highlights, including the fulsome scherzo towards the end of “Willy’s Arrival” which features the brass section at its most prominent, the twittering woodwinds in “Claudine a l’Ecole Print,” the agitated strings in “Anger by the Seine,” and the mock-portentous march in “Polaire’s Arrival”. There are also a couple of original period waltzes – “Valse du Salon” and “Arrival at the Theatre,” for example – which are sumptuous and sublime.

For the infamous “Dream of Egypt” scene Adès wrote some faux Egyptian pastiche to accompany the scandalous theatrical performance by Colette and Missy, which in real life in 1907 caused a riot when the two women kissed in public. Not only that, but Adès took it upon himself to re-arrange and re-orchestrate a number of classical pieces by Debussy, Satie, and Saint-Saëns for the film, including the re-imagining of one of Satie’s famous ‘Gnossiennes’ as a waltz for a scene where Colette and Willy visit the Moulin Rouge.

One other thing I wanted to just touch on was the fact that, by and large, there is nothing much to distinguish Thomas Adès’s score here from those written by the very best of his film music contemporaries. Had this score been played for me blind, and if I was then told it had been written by someone like Alexandre Desplat or Philippe Rombi or Abel Korzeniowski or any mainstream composer with a classical pedigree, I would take you at your word. The score sounds like really good Desplat, and by saying that I am intending to complement Adès, but also make a wider point about how little difference there is between really great classical music and really great film music, no matter how much classical music critics try to tell you otherwise.

Colette is a really beautiful piece of music filled with sublime orchestral textures and gorgeous instrumental combinations, anchored by a strong and memorable main theme. It will absolutely appeal to those whose tastes in film music tend to veer towards the traditionally classical, especially anyone with an affinity for the joie de vivre of music from 19th century France. As a film music debut for Thomas Adès, Colette is very impressive indeed, and I sincerely hope he graces us with more soundtrack commissions in the future.

Buy the Colette soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Snow Globe (2:58)
  • Willy’s Arrival (1:12)
  • Valse du Salon (3:36)
  • Willy Finds the Manuscripts (0:43)
  • Etching Montage (1:23)
  • The Lake (1:17)
  • These are the Copses (1:30)
  • Septet in E Flat Major Op.65 IV: Gavotte et Final (written by Camille Saint-Saëns) (2:04)
  • Claudine a l’Ecole Print (1:01)
  • Claudine a Paris (1:04)
  • Arrival at the Theatre (0:41)
  • Dream of Egypt (2:05)
  • Anger by the Seine (0:42)
  • Polaire’s Arrival (1:05)
  • Jules Colette Burial (1:08)
  • Gnossienne No.1: Lent (written by Erik Satie) (0:47)
  • Lost Your Touch (1:35)
  • Still Need Your Headmaster (1:15)
  • Missy and Colette (1:04)
  • Claudines Are Everywhere (1:01)
  • Arabesque (written by Claude Debussy) (2:21)
  • Colette is Free (1:24)
  • Flesh (1:08)
  • La Vagabonde (1:07)
  • Colette’s Journey (1:57)
  • Colette (4:09)

Running Time: 40 minutes 31 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Adès. Orchestrations by Thomas Adès and Anthony Weeden. Recorded and mixed by Adam Miller. Edited by Victor Chaga. Album produced by Thomas Adès and Victor Chaga.

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  1. February 1, 2019 at 9:06 am

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