Soundtrack Sunday: Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”)

Gabriel Yared

Seeing The English Patient in the 1930s Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, VA enveloped me in the dawn-of-WWII era portrayed in the film.  I was nineteen and thoroughly captivated; the sensual imagery of the film and its poignant score, wrapped up in the time-halting Art Deco walls of the Lyric, made an inedible and surreal impression on me.

I suppose The English Patient was the Doctor Zhivago of my generation, and comparisons between the two have been invited… although in this review, as with many others, there’s not a single mention of Gabriel Yared’s Oscar-winning (1996) score.  Why?  Filmtracks.com more or less pans it: “For many film score enthusiasts, however, this score completely fails to function outside of the film’s ambient personality, and in many regards, it’s one of those rare cases where the film completely carries the score”.  This raises an interesting question to me about the purpose of film music and the lens through which it is appraised.  Is a film score only considered “great” when it can stand alone?  If so, where does that leave the main motif from Jaws?  When heard alone, those E-F-E-Fs on the low strings are vaguely menacing, but when combined with the film, they’re truly terrifying. So perhaps, much like the commonplace yet essential belt or screw in a Ferrari engine, some scores can succeed by being symbiotic: integral as a component of the functioning whole.

Whatever your opinions on this particular argument, Gabriel Yared, who was honored at the Ghent Film Festival in 2011, doesn’t create scores in post-production, fitting music to the final edits.  He described his process of fitting music to the film to the Hollywood Reporter at the time of the award ceremony:

“I work before the film, before the images … I talk to the directors, go to the shooting, meet the actors, meet the cinematographers,” he said. “If I have to see the film, I see the film in an early form and then I stop looking at it. I look to my imagination before starting to work just on a shot by shot [basis].”

Yared’s technique of wrapping himself in the soul of the film early on is evident to me in his score, which is successful and memorable as a complete integration of the film.  It definitely contributed to my immersion into The English Patient on that moody summer evening at the Lyric Theatre.   One motif in particular has always tickled my ear.  It’s short, deceptively jam-packed with emotions, and perfectly captures the mysterious English Patient’s ethereal joy and sorrow.  I hear bliss, wistfulness, an otherworldly mystery, profound sadness, pathos and calm in fewer than 10 chords.

Here is my piano transcription of Gabriel Yared’s “Herodotus” (click to view full-size):

Copyright 1996 by Gabriel Yared | transcribed by Laura Peterson

This theme appears during the scene when Almásy and Katherine sit out the sandstorm in the car (music cue starts 1:20), merging into Almásy’s reclusive flashback in the villa.

I would assert this gorgeous little poem of a theme could be compared to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde chords which are chiseled into every music major’s brain during sophomore year.  My question: when will modern film scores of this caliber, clearly more sophisticated than a (still lovely) Mozart divertimento, receive airplay on my local WETA station?

Learn more:

  • Buy the soundtrack!
  • Purchase the Film Score guide by Heather Laing.
  • Director Anthony Minghella and composer Gabriel Yared discuss the soundtrack for The English Patient and the origins of the Bach-inspired elements, ending with the sequence accompanying Hana and Kip in the church.

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