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PIECES OF A WOMAN – Howard Shore

January 19, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Pieces of a Woman is a serious, emotionally devastating family drama about a pregnant woman named Martha who, following a shocking event during her home birth, finds her entire life falling apart. Wracked with guilt, Martha finds herself becoming increasingly alienated from her husband and mother, receiving judgmental comments from people around her, and eventually contemplating legal action against her midwife – all while coming to terms with her own feelings about what happened to her and her baby. It’s a searing indictment of the issues many women have to face during their pregnancies, including the assignment of blame, and the extent to which many women are not given full control of what should be one of the most important and personal events of their lives. The film was directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, and was adapted from a 2018 stage play by him and writer Kata Wéber; it stars Vanessa Kirby as Martha, and features support from Shia LaBoeuf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, and Ellen Burstyn, all of whom have been mentioned as potential Oscar nominees. The film is also notable for its inclusion of a 24-minute opening birth sequence, which was shot in a single take and was largely improvised in the moment by the actors, director Mundruczó, and camera operator Benjamin Loeb.

The score for Pieces of a Woman is by Howard Shore, the Oscar-winning Canadian composer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since finally leaving Middle Earth after The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in 2014 Shore has seemingly intentionally chosen to work on much smaller, more intimate stories, almost as if scoring the endless epic battle sequences that score required wore him down. His works since then – which have included titles such as the investigative journalism drama Spotlight, the period drama The Catcher Was a Spy, and the music themed-drama The Song of Names – have been unassuming and personal, and much more classically-minded, but have also not really resonated as much with film music audiences; The Catcher Was a Spy didn’t even receive a soundtrack release. Pieces of a Woman is his third score of 2020, after the French fantasy Le Prince Oublié, and the Canadian drama Funny Boy, and for me it’s probably his best score since his last journey to Tolkein-land.

Interestingly, the soundtrack opens with a piece of pre-existing music – a ten-minute track which is actually the second movement of the piano concerto “Ruin & Memory,” that Shore wrote in 2010 for pianist Lang Lang. The work was commissioned by the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Frédéric Chopin, and had its world premiere with the China Philharmonic Orchestra in October of that year. The piece is lovely; delicate, elegant, full of effortlessly florid piano flourishes that range from warmly inviting to quietly tender and almost dream-like. Lang Lang’s deft, feather-like touch on the keys is accented by the gentle orchestral accompaniment – a solo violin here, a fluttering woodwind there, an inviting brass chord somewhere else – to the extent that the whole thing feels like a walk in the sun, kissed by nature, but tempered by a sense of non-specific uncertainty. In the film, the piece plays over the end credits and offers a feeling of resolution to Martha’s story.

The rest of the score is clearly built out from Shore’s classical piece, and features a similar tone and a similar set of instrumental colors, even if it shares no real melodic connective tissue. German piano virtuoso Holger Groschopp takes over from Lang Lang, with additional performances by Wolfgang Kohler and Bene Aperdannier, and there are also oboe and cello solos by Maximilien Werner and Dave Eggar, respectively, as well as a string orchestra recorded in Berlin. Interestingly, the agonizing birth sequence is left almost entirely un-scored, with the exception of the “Motherhood” cue which accompanies the rollercoaster of emotions felt by Martha, which range from joy and relief to utter agony in the space of less than three minutes. Shore follows her tragic journey with sensitivity and compassion, moving from gentle pianos backed with subtle synths, to slightly off-kilter, twisted sounds towards the end of the cue.

Thereafter the score supports Martha’s story with a meditative, introspective air, offering subtle changes in emotional range depending on Martha’s mental state. “Family,” is a beautiful, almost whimsical oboe melody backed by lightly prancing strings that reflect the hopeful anticipation Martha feels at her impending birth. “The Nursery” offers a variation on the piano motif heard in the Motherhood cue, although this time the strings behind it tremble with uneasiness, reflecting on the terrible guilt and sadness Martha feels about the events that occurred.

“Yvette” is more of the same, as Shore moves between piano and woodwinds with an ambiguous air, while “Mystic River” introduces the cello into the score as a new instrumental color, intoning over agitated tremolo strings and almost imperceptible piano moods. “Elizabeth” is a solo piano piece, distant and a little cold, that acts as a motif for Martha’s judgmental mother; the subsequent “Waltz in F Major” is also a solo piano cue, but couldn’t be more different, coming across as pretty and light, with happily fluttering embellishments and a more vibrant tone. The title track, “Pieces of a Woman,” is an extrapolation of the waltz theme for the larger orchestral ensemble and is just delightful, especially in the way the strings sing the melody with a carefree, almost playful tone. The conclusive “Home” is a tender duet for solo piano and solo cello, ending the score on a thoughtful note.

A lot of the textures and chord progressions are vintage Howard Shore, recalling many of his quieter and more introspective works, but anyone expecting a return to the grandeur of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit will be disappointed – this is not that kind of a film, and it would have been utterly drowned by a score like that. For a film which deals with the sort of profound personal tragedy that Pieces of a Woman does, Shore’s score is well-crafted and perfectly-attenuated; it accentuates and enhances Martha’s emotional rawness in a way that feels empathetic, and allows the viewer and listener to experience her pain without the music coming across as manipulative or maudlin. Finally, from a musical point of view, the score sees Shore writing sensitively for a small ensemble that really highlights the deft work of the soloists. Although the album is only 30 minutes – ten of which come from a pre-existing classical work – Pieces of a Woman still leaves a strong impression, and will appeal to anyone whose appreciation for Howard Shore extends beyond hobbits and elves.

Buy the Pieces of a Woman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • ‘Movement II – Largo’ from Ruin & Memory: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (10:13)
  • Motherhood (2:47)
  • Family (1:39)
  • The Nursery (3:01)
  • Yvette (2:19)
  • Mystic River (1:16)
  • Elizabeth (1:30)
  • Waltz in F Major (2:12)
  • Pieces of a Woman (1:42)
  • Home (3:28)

Running Time: 30 minutes 06 seconds

Decca Records (2020)

Music composed by Howard Shore. Conducted by Ludwig Wicki. Orchestrations by Howard Shore. Featured musical soloists Holger Groschopp, Wolfgang Kohler, Bene Aperdannier, Dave Eggar and Maximilien Werner. Recorded and mixed by Tobias Lehmann and Sam Okell. Edited by James Sizemore. Album produced by Howard Shore.

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