Home > Reviews > WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD – Rachel Portman



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Where Angels Fear to Tread was one of several cinematic adaptations of novels by the British writer E. M. Forster in the 1980s and early 1990s, the others being A Passage to India, A Room With a View, and Howard’s End. Like all of Forster’s work it is a scathing examination of the British class system, its rigid mores and morals, and how those formal rules butt up against the passions bubbling underneath the proverbial stiff upper lips. This film adaptation is directed by Charles Sturridge and stars Helen Mirren as Lilia, a recent widow who travels from London to Tuscany in 1905 with her young companion Caroline (Helena Bonham-Carter). Shockingly, Lilia falls in love with a handsome and roguish Italian named Gino (Giovanni Guidelli), marries him, and falls pregnant, much to the dismay of her conservative and status-obsessed siblings (Rupert Graves and Judy Davis) back in England. As the two halves of the family fight over Lilia’s perceived unsuitable relationship, especially as it relates to the future of her unborn child, the disagreements quickly turn to tragedy for all involved. The title comes from the famous line in Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem ‘An Essay on Criticism’: for fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is a landmark score as it was the first major theatrical release in the career of Rachel Portman. The Surrey-born composer had been working solidly and successfully in the British film and television industry for many years previously; she had received BAFTA TV nominations for her scores for the gothic horror mini-series The Woman in Black in 1989, and for the groundbreaking Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1990, and she had also worked on things such as Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, and two acclaimed Mike Leigh projects (Four Days in July, and Life is Sweet), but virtually none of her music was known internationally. Where Angels Fear to Tread changed all that, and led to Portman quickly establishing herself as an in-demand composer for literary dramas, romantic comedies, and period pieces. Within five years she would write the music for films such as The Joy Luck Club, Ethan Frome, Only You, Sirens, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, all leading up to her groundbreaking Academy Award win for Emma in 1996.

Anyone who has ever heard a Rachel Portman score will know exactly what Where Angels Fear to Tread sounds like. In many ways, it’s the prototype for all the successful (and more well-known) scores that followed it: the lyrical string themes, the bouncy and light woodwind countermelodies, the elegant piano writing, the cheerful tone, the dance-like rhythmic style, the overt romanticism in the harmonies. Where this score is important is in the fact that it was, basically, the one that introduced that sound to the world. Where Angels Fear to Tread is the score from where the Rachel Portman style originated, and anyone with any level of interest in her career will want to experience it for that reason alone.

The score is built around two recurring themes, both of which are introduced in the opening cue, “Where Angels Fear to Tread.” The first theme is a charming, slightly quirky clarinet melody backed by lively, sprightly strings, in the quintessential Portman style. It’s a perfect representation of the ‘English abroad’ sound, and accompanies Lilia and Caroline as they tramp around the sunny Tuscan countryside, slightly comedic fish out of water in their buttoned-up Edwardian clothes and with their buttoned up Edwardian attitudes. After around two minutes the second theme comes in, which is a little more forthright, more rhythmic, but still elegant, still pretty and beguiling. The theme becomes more intense with each successive statement until it erupts into a bold crescendo for strings with brass harmonies, and then moves into a piano variation. This theme clearly represents Lilia’s hitherto hidden free-spirited nature, and the unexpected intensity of her relationship with Gino, the handsome and swarthy local who steals her heart.

The rest of the score is, essentially, variations on those two themes, with subtle deviations and tonal shifts representing the various emotional elements of the film, including the idyll of Lilia’s life in Tuscany, the darkness following the birth of her son, Caroline’s subsequent relationship with Gino, and the way Philip and Harriet rush in and cause problems for everyone. For example, the writing in “Life and Death” is a little more downbeat and introspective, and contains a noticeably darker variation on the second theme for sinister woodwinds towards its conclusion.

“Monteriano” is a similarly bittersweet, slightly ponderous take on the first theme, while “The Storm” includes some turbulent string passages behind the dancing woodwinds and poignant pianos of the second theme. “I Love Him Too” is perhaps the emotional apex of the score – it’s dramatic, romantic, and offers lavish statements of both main themes for the full orchestra, illustrating Caroline’s realization that she loves Gino with rich romantic string crescendos backed by warm brass counterpoint.

Interestingly, both “Harriet’s Mission” and “Philip’s Visit” present what seems to be a third theme – or perhaps a more significant variation on the main theme – for Lilia’s meddlesome brother and her priggish spinster sister, whose repeated visits to Italy to ‘save’ Lilia and ‘rescue’ the baby cause more problems than they solve. The music for Harriet has the inquisitive, insistent quality of an unwanted busybody, while the music for Philip is full of odd rhythmic devices, hesitant, cautious, somewhat unsure of itself, and prone to waffling timidity.

There is a slight sense of unease in the strings in “Lilia’s Panic,” although this is washed away by the rhapsodic piano that appears towards the end of the cue. “Sawston” has a resigned, reflective quality, but also some lovely pastoral orchestral swells, while the “Finale” moves beautifully between both main themes, lush and appealing, sweeping and romantic, offering a perfect conclusion to the score. Also included is a 12-minute performance of “The Mad Scene” from Gaetano Donizetti’s famous 1835 opera ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ performed with virtuosic aplomb by soprano Jennifer Smith.

The physical soundtrack CD for Where Angels Fear to Tread, which was released on Virgin Records, has been out of print for many years but copies do go for reasonable amounts on the secondary market, and the whole thing is available to stream via Youtube and other online services. As such, I can’t recommend this score highly enough, especially to experienced Rachel Portman collectors who want to dig into the early part of her career. Where Angels Fear to Tread is an excellent score; it contains everything that ever made Rachel Portman’s music popular, from the lively dancing strings to the slightly pompous woodwind writing, and the overall sheen of warmth and gentle romance that has been the cornerstone of her music for three decades. Where Angels Fear to Tread is where it all started for her, more or less, and I guarantee you would not be a fool were you to rush out and listen to it today.

Buy the Where Angels Fear to Tread soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Where Angels Fear to Tread (4:30)
  • Life and Death (2:08)
  • A Night at the Opera (1:57)
  • Monteriano (1:14)
  • Harriet’s Mission (1:14)
  • The Storm (3:43)
  • I Love Him Too (5:02)
  • The Mad Scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor (written by Gaetano Donizetti, performed by Jennifer Smith) (12:25)
  • Santa Deodata (1:46)
  • Philip’s Visit (1:28)
  • Caroline and Gino (2:04)
  • Lilia’s Panic (1:59)
  • Latte Freschissimo (1:03)
  • Sawston (1:22)
  • Finale (2:38)

Running Time: 44 minutes 33 seconds

Virgin Records CDV-2671 (1992)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by David Snell. Performed by The National Hungarian Radio & TV Orchestra of Budapest. Orchestrations by Rachel Portman. Recorded and mixed by Chris Dibble. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Rachel Portman.

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