Oscar Nominees 2015, Best Original Score (Part 3 of 6): Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Theory of Everything

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No stranger to film scoring, Jóhann Jóhannsson has been writing music for films for the last fifteen years (mainly for films from his native Iceland and from Europe), and has had plenty of experience in scoring other narrative works such as documentaries, plays, and other stage works. Over the last two years, however, he has begun to make a name for himself in Hollywood with the critically-acclaimed 2013 film, Prisoners, and now has garnered his first Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything.

The Theory of Everything follows the remarkable life of the world-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who, despite being diagnosed with the increasingly debilitating motor neuron disease in his early twenties, has all the while made some of the most profound contributions to our understanding of the nature of time, black holes, and the universe itself. But more fundamentally, The Theory of Everything is a film about the ever transforming relationship between Hawking and his wife, Jane, whom he met during his doctoral studies at Cambridge University.

Accordingly, Jóhannsson’s score is less bound up with tying musical features to qualities of an associated character, place, or idea and much more concerned with expressing just the right emotion wherever his music appears. Nevertheless, there are several recurring themes that serve to bind the score and film together, but their associations are not always consistent, and in some of the film’s pivotal scenes, there is an absence of themes altogether. The following film music analysis will explore some of the more prominent themes and cues in the score in an attempt to show how sensitive Jóhannsson’s score is in its treatment of such extraordinary subject matter.

Stephen

This theme is presented in a traditional way, with the first appearance of Stephen in the film. Like the initial out-of-focus view we first get of Stephen, the first four notes of the theme are heard only in outline, two notes at a time, each one stated in long note values, obscuring their identity as part of a theme. It is only with the film’s sudden leap backward in time to 1963 at Cambridge, just before Stephen’s diagnosis, that a fully-formed version of the theme appears. And since this statement is coordinated with a cut to the young Stephen riding a bike, the implication is clear that this is Stephen’s theme. In terms of its melodic and harmonic material, the theme is of a fairly generic stock, so does not seem intended to capture the essence of Stephen’s situation or personality. Instead, it is a theme whose expressive meaning is determined far more by setting the same melody and harmony with different modes (major or minor), rhythms, instruments, and phrase structures.

In this particular instance, with the cut to young Stephen, the scoring suddenly swells to include the whole orchestra, the key is a positive major mode, and the rhythm is constant and sprightly, all of which suggest the glee he feels in racing his friend to the university on their bikes—a heart-breaking contrast with the relative immobility we just witnessed with the older Stephen. Hear this version of the theme below, the outline beginning at 0:14, and the “big” statement at 0:52:

01-Stephen

We next hear Stephen’s theme when he is unable to crawl up the stairs for the first time, a sign of the increasing toll the disease is taking on him. Rather than score Stephen’s theme here with a sense of struggle, perhaps with tremolo strings, dissonant chords, and a gradually rising melodic line, Jóhannsson states the theme in a way that is detached from Stephen. Unlike the initial sprightly version of the theme, it is now clearly set in a minor key, the rhythm is extremely slow, the rhythms drawn out, and most prominently, the melody is played by a celeste (like a glockenspiel with keys), an instrument strongly associated with children, largely through Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Notably, Stephen’s son stands atop the staircase watching his father attempt to climb it. The music thus expresses the poignancy we feel in seeing someone capable of so much become unable to perform an act that is, for those around him, literally “child’s play.” This, then, is not the music of personal struggle, it is the music of sympathy, and its placement here greatly enhances the emotional impact of the scene. Listen to this cue below:

Stephen’s theme also accompanies other events of widely differing emotional expressions. We hear it, for instance, when Jane implies that she and Stephen should divorce, upon which the theme enters softly, again in a minor key, scored for piano and strings to suggest the emotional tenderness of the scene. And it appears when Stephen tells a public audience his philosophy of life, a speech that endorses hope and a positive attitude. This is one of the rare instances in the score where we hear the brass prominently, and appropriately saved for a statement of Stephen’s theme that accompanies the film’s most optimistic scene. Hear both of the above cues below:

From 2:07:

Stephen Progressing

This theme, given in the clip below, usually appears in connection with positive moves in Stephen’s life and career. We first hear it when Stephen is beginning to work out the mathematics of his PhD thesis and we see him rush off as though inspired by the ideas. Like Stephen’s theme, the expressive qualities of Stephen Progressing derive less from their melody and harmony (as with more traditional film music themes) than from their rhythmic, instrumental, and structural setting. In this case, the theme starts off with the harp plucking out a constant, moderately-paced rhythm, and a violin and viola adding alternating “comments”, all of which seems to suggest the steady inner workings of Stephen’s mind. At 0:27, the theme begins another repetition, but its texture changes to include a faster constant rhythm and the addition of lower string instruments, giving the impression of Stephen’s increasing sense of confidence in his ideas. At 0:45, the pace of the constant rhythm quickens once more to reach a feverish pace and the full string orchestra enters to produce an even bigger sound, expressing the feeling of inspiration and excitement with which Stephen rushes off after working his mathematics out on a chalkboard. Notice that what I am calling a theme here actually lacks a characteristic melodic idea. All that identifies this theme is its underlying chord progression. In this way, we are allowed to focus on the theme’s “peripheral” material in order to enhance its emotional impact.

02-Stephen-Progressing

There are several other places in the film where we hear the Stephen Progressing theme, and most maintain the association of its title, as when Stephen realizes the communicative potential of his newly-obtained “voice box”, and at the end of the film, when Stephen and Jane regain more of the positive feelings they formerly had for one another. Most obviously, it appears over a montage during which Jane gives Stephen an electric wheelchair to increase his mobility, Stephen is featured on the cover of a scientific journal, and he is seen playing actively with his children by driving his new wheelchair. The theme here is set as a waltz scored for strings, piano, and harp, and though it is in a minor key, its buoyant rhythm lends it an appropriately mobile and optimistic tone. Hear this version below:

Even so, as I have said, the themes in this score are not always consistent in their associations. We also hear this theme, for example, when Jane is seen with Jonathan (a friend of Jane’s from church who volunteers to help her out at home) and the children, enjoying herself again after a long span of growing anger and dissatisfaction over her increasingly difficult relationship with Stephen. As far as the traditional idea of a theme is concerned, this statement seems to contradict its previous association. Then again, because it is set in a dance-like rhythm and adorned with a melody that is rhythmically active, it expresses an appropriate sense of Jane’s reinvigoration through her connection with Jonathan. This, then, would be an example of an emotionally-motivated statement of a theme rather than one based solely on its association.

Jane’s Struggles

This theme’s association is probably the most consistent of the entire score. Though it only appears three times, on all occasions, it reinforces the difficulties Jane faces in being with Stephen. It is first sounded when Jane tries to phone Stephen after becoming concerned about his absence from school. Stephen, however, has only just been told that he has only two years to live given his disease and decides to shut his friends out physically and emotionally, so he hangs the phone up on Jane. Jane then goes to look for Stephen in his dorm, but Stephen hides from view.

In the theme’s second appearance, Jane and Stephen have come to visit his parents and during lunch, Stephen seriously chokes on some food. As Stephen refuses once again to have help of any kind and thus maintain the pretense of living a “normal” life, Jane becomes overwhelmed and retreats into the forest as a momentary escape from the situation.

When the theme sounds a third time, it accompanies Jane’s tearful goodbye to Jonathan, who has decided to “step back” from the family after being (wrongfully) suspected of being the father of Jane’s third child.

The first time we hear the theme (in the clip below), it is scored for strings with a piano accompaniment that offers a sense of lightness to the texture with its moderately-paced rhythm. (I show the theme below without the piano accompaniment to show its essential features.)

03-Jane's-Struggles

From 0:35:

In its last two scenes, however, the piano accompaniment is removed and the slower rhythm of the strings now feel like an anchor has been tied to the theme, weighing it down with greater seriousness. And indeed, Jane’s situation has become more serious in both cases, as each time she does not know how she will overcome her difficulties. Hear this version below:

Incidentally, I should mention that, although the melodic and harmonic material of all the themes discussed so far are fairly generic, they are all cut from the same musical cloth. Notice that the three chords that define Jane’s Struggles are the last three chords of Stephen’s theme and are heard (somewhat less audibly) in Stephen Progressing beginning on its second, third, and fifth chords (an additional chord is inserted in between). Compare the three themes below:

Stephen:

Stephen Progressing (from 0:14):


Jane’s Struggles:

Non-Thematic Cues

In addition to the above themes, which are the most prominent in the score, there are a number of cues that, unexpectedly, avoid the use of a theme at crucial points in the film. Far from being inappropriately set, these cues are some of the score’s emotional highlights. One of these cues accompanies Stephen learning of his disease after tripping and knocking himself unconscious at the university. During a brief montage, we see Stephen beginning to discover the debilitating effects of the disease as he starts to lose some control in his fingers and legs. The music here has no theme to speak of. What we hear is essentially an oscillation between tonic and dominant harmonies, tonal music’s two most basic chords. But here they are most often made more complex by the addition of biting dissonances. Together with the cue’s minor key and prominent scoring for strings in a slow, sustained rhythm, these features suggest feelings of pain and suffering that augment the already pathos-laden scene. The lack of a theme here allows the music to speak directly to the emotions of the scene without being distracted by any recognizable melodic content. Hear this cue below:

Another non-thematic cue occurs with what is perhaps the film’s most memorable use of music. When Stephen attempts to take his sweater off but only manages to pull it over his eyes, his partial view of the roaring fireplace in front of him inspires an idea—that black holes emit energy in the form of heat, and so lose mass and eventually disappear, a profound idea that suggests that time itself had a beginning. A scene like this may seem a golden opportunity to reprise one of Stephen’s themes but intruigingly, Jóhannsson resists this temptation. I provide the cue below as a reference to the analysis that follows.

Instead, we hear a major chord that has gradually has several dissonant notes added to it, creating a hazy perception of the harmony—is this really a major chord, or something else? Likewise, in place of a melody, we hear long sustained notes in the violins that fade in and out of the texture and seem to be somewhat aimless. At 0:12, wind instruments join in, adding a rapidly trilling figure to the texture. The impression we obtain in this opening of the cue is of a picture (in this case a mental picture) gradually coming into focus and a kind of excitement, like a fluttering of the heart, at its formulation. Finally, 0:18 into the cue, a confident bass note enters and the melody and harmony align into a crystal clear major chord. In other words, all of these techniques seem perfectly calibrated to express, in an entirely musical way, the exhilaration and spontaneity of inspiration. In the film, this moment corresponds with one of its most powerful images—Stephen’s eye, shown in extreme close-up, subtly becomes a black hole radiating with fire. Thus, the meaning of the scene is communicated intuitively and emotionally, producing one of the most effective and musically memorable moments in the entire film.

Conclusion

Although subdued in character, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for The Theory of Everything is a highly effective one that has already received much attention. It may seem odd that it does not make more extensive use of its recurring themes, but then, in their absence, Jóhannsson is able to focus our ear more directly on the emotions of a scene without the “middleman” of having an association that comes with stating a theme. This focus on emotional rather than associative content is a fitting approach for a film that is all about grappling with one’s emotions in extremely difficult circumstances. Subtle though it may be, the score does not fail to leave us feeling the highs and lows of Stephen and Jane Hawking’s lives as though they are somehow our own.

Coming soon… Mr. Turner.

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Oscar Nominees 2015, Best Original Score (Part 3 of 6): Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Theory of Everything — 3 Comments

  1. Excellent once again Mark!

    This score certainly is one of the ‘less is more’ type of scores. Looking forward to your analysis of the last 2 films!

    -Paul

  2. These analysis are great and really get to the why ? of how a composer manipulates musical elements to fit the picture. A lot of analysis is hung up on musical theory with no reference to its relevance or purpose …..the whole point of film music is setting a mood and structuring relevance to the picture. Thanks very much for these detailed analysis!! as a learning Teacher this is extremely helpful

    Bryce,

    • Thank you, Bryce. That’s why I believe one absolutely must see the film when studying film music. It not only clarifies its meaning but also gets at the reasons why the music is structured the way it is, which is quite different from, say, concert music, where the music can more easily be studied on its own. Cheers!

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