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HOWARDS END – Richard Robbins


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the 1980s and early 1990s the producing-directing team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant made a series of films based on classic late Victorian-era British novels, including several by the great E. M. Forster, whose examinations of the hypocrisy of the British class system made him one of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation. Howards End was the third Forster adaptation by Merchant-Ivory Productions, after A Room With a View in 1985, and Maurice in 1987, and it’s generally considered to be one of the best films they ever made, and one of the best films of the 1990s. It’s a film about society, class, warring families, and life in Edwardian London, with the titular country house serving as the prominent location around which all the drama unfolds. The film stars Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anthony Hopkins, and Vanessa Redgrave, and was an enormous critical success, eventually going on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and with Thompson winning Best Actress.

One of the other Oscar nominations that Howards End picked up was for its score, written by the American composer Richard Robbins. Robbins was something of a curiosity in film music circles because, with just one or two exceptions, he spent his entire career working with Ivory and Merchant. Although he was a classically trained composer, having studied at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and later in Vienna, he actually began his career as Ismail Merchant’s personal assistant in the late 1970s. He scored his first film, The Europeans (directed by Ivory) in 1979, and went on to score nine more films for them in the 1980s, including the aforementioned A Room With a View and Maurice, as well as Heat and Dust in 1983, The Bostonians in 1984, and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge in 1990, plus another dozen or so additional films in the 1990s and early 2000s. The fact that Robbins only ever really worked with Merchant and Ivory meant that, unless you consistently watched those films and were a fan of their work, Robbins was something of a film music unknown quantity: virtually every film he scored was a British period drama – he never did a comedy, never did an action film or a fantasy film – and so he had a consistency of sound and tone across his entire career, right up until his death from of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 71 in 2012.

Given the tastes of a lot of contemporary film music fans I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of people reading this have never heard a Richard Robbins score or, if they have, it would be his two Oscar-nominated ones: this one, and The Remains of the Day. And, to be fair, one could easily say that if you have heard one Richard Robbins score you have heard them all: his style and approach to film music was almost identical across all 30 or so films he scored in his career, with just subtle variations in orchestration and melody. Howards End is probably the quintessential Robbins score in that it contains all the mannerisms and stylistics that followed him across his entire career, from his prominent use of pianos and light strings, to his generally quiet, delicate, slow-moving sound, to his intentional incorporation of folk songs and light classical pieces from the period in which his films were set. For Howards End, Robbins based elements of his score on two works by the Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger, “Bridal Lullaby” and “Mock Morris”. The piano pieces were performed by the English concert pianist Martin Jones, accompanied by members of the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Harry Rabinowitz.

The Bridal Lullaby features prominently in the main title, “Howards End,” and then later in “Margaret’s Arrival at Howards End,” while Mock Morris plays throughout the “End Credits”. The Bridal Lullaby is actually quite dramatic and portentous in parts, huge booming orchestral chords tempered by some lovely, intimate piano writing, while Mock Morris is a lively piece for a frolicking piano, prancing strings, and occasionally dramatic orchestral outbursts.

As for the rest of the score, Robbins generally plays to the mood and tone of the scene rather than offering specific and recognizable thematic ideas for different characters or settings. Different instrumental touches tend to distinguish the three families – the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts – and Robbins employs strings, pianos, and woodwinds in various combinations to illustrate the various relationships that develop between them over time.

“Helen and Paul Call It Off” has some summery, twittering woodwind performances backed by light pizzicato strings, illustrating the flightiness of the on-again-off-again relationship between Helena Bonham Carter’s character Helen Schlegel and the son of Anthony Hopkins’s character Henry Wilcox, whose dalliance initially brings the two families together. “Music and Meaning” is a classically rich piece for opulent pianos and sumptuous strings, which stands in juxtaposition to the blunt piano writing, spiky string sounds, and more earthy tones of “The Basts/Spring Landscape”. The Basts are the working class family of the film, and the story’s regular focus on the fate of the luckless Leonard Bast shows the stark contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in Edwardian society. Part of the music in “The Basts” has a rhythmic, minimalist sound that reminds me very much of 1990s Michael Nyman, and is very good indeed.

“An Unexpected Proposal” is a more stately and staid piece of string writing, full of elongated strings and woodwind chords and glassy textures, representing the ‘marriage of convenience’ relationship between Emma Thompson’s character Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox; the stagnancy in the strings and the slight undercurrent of trepidation combined with near-boredom is a perfect representation of their somewhat passionless courtship. On the other hand, “The Sister’s Reconciliation” is warmer and more cheerful, an array of scampering woodwind textures that offers a much needed ray of sunshine.

The final third of the album includes a pair of light suspense and action cues, “On the River” and “Leonard’s Death,” the latter of which underscores a pivotal scene in which Henry Wilcox’s boorish son over-reacts while ‘defending his sister-in-law’s honor,’ with tragic results. While Robbins was in no way an action composer, his musical solution to the narrative’s drama was nevertheless interesting and mostly successful: in the former, he relies on low, brooding, churning woodwinds, and then punctuates them with enormous percussive stingers and crashing cymbal hits, while in the latter he returns to the bombastic brass outbursts from the opening cue, then revisits the Nyman-style rhythmic motif for the Bast family with more intensity, before concluding with a dour, dissonant, unruly orchestral flourish.

The conclusive “Return to Howards End” is understated and perhaps a little underwhelming, but Robbins still creates a compelling ambience through the meticulous interplay between strings, piano, and woodwinds, as well as some interesting usage of chimes and harps, resulting in an unexpectedly magical atmosphere. The score also includes two pieces of original source music – the lively “Tango at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand” with its prominent accordion, and the superb “At a Castle in Shropshire,” a country dance with a flighty brass theme, a string-led waltz, and bouncy, festive arrangements that immediately conjure up images of an idyllic English fête, lords and ladies promenading in their finery.

As I mentioned earlier, Howards End is probably the quintessential Richard Robbins score, and would likely be an excellent place to start for anyone mildly curious about the career of this obscure but double-Oscar nominated composer. It’s probably lazy shorthand to compare his sound to that of the great British period drama composers of the 1980s and 90s – George Fenton, Patrick Doyle, Rachel Portman, others – but it’s nevertheless true that Robbins’s music does have a great deal in common with their work in that genre, and anyone whose taste extends in that direction will likely find Howards End appealing too. I like the score a lot, and it’s quality makes me disappointed that Robbins was never able to showcase his work for other directors in other genres – whether it was his choice never to explore beyond the confines of the Merchant-Ivory world, or not, remains a film music mystery.

Buy the Howards End soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title: Howards End (Bridal Lullaby) (3:48)
  • Helen and Paul Call It Off (2:53)
  • Music and Meaning (3:04)
  • The Basts/Spring Landscape (7:54)
  • Tango at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand (3:17)
  • An Unexpected Proposal (4:10)
  • Margaret’s Arrival at Howards End (Bridal Lullaby) (2:37)
  • At a Castle in Shropshire (4:40)
  • Moving In (2:05)
  • On the River (3:14)
  • The Sister’s Reconciliation (2:08)
  • Leonard’s Death (5:30)
  • Return to Howards End (4:22)
  • End Credits (Mock Morris) (3:19)

Running Time: 53 minutes 01 seconds

Nimbus Records NI-5339 (1992)

Music composed by Richard Robbins. Conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. Performed by The English Chamber Orchestra. Orchestrations by Geoff Alexander. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Album produced by Richard Robbins.

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