Girl with a Pearl Earring Alexandre Desplat Hollywood Studio Orchestra Decca 2003
Filmed biographies of painters always seem to inspire composers to do some of their best work and, although Girl with a Pearl Earring is something of a fictionalised account of the creation of one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, I was still optimistic about its score. The name of Alexandre Desplat is not one that rolls off the tongue metaphorically or otherwise, however, his scoring of European films is extensive and about the only one of his works to receive more general appreciation is 2000’s The Luzhin Defense where Desplat made chess seem interesting. Girl with a Pearl Earring imagines that the subject of the painting is Vermeer’s (Colin Firth) maid Griet (Scarlett Johansson) and explores their relationship both in the context of the painter’s family and artistic life, garnering good reviews and some positive comments at Desplat’s score. Had Desplat opted for an historical, 17th century style score then Corelli, Purcell and Monteverdi would be the main composers to lean on, but Desplat largely eschews this approach. However, the orchestration is of chamber sized orchestration, leaning heavily on strings, with just occasional woodwind and trumpet, which prevents the music from becoming melodramatic or overblown. Undoubtedly the highlight is Griet’s Theme which is treated to a sublime concert arrangement, which is as masterly as anything by better known film composers in both the quality of the theme and its arrangement. If forced to make a comparison, it sounds like a distant cross between John Williams’ themes from Angela’s Ashes and Seven Years in Tibet, especially in some of the harmonic twists. However, Desplat’s orchestration is much less dense and the occasional obbligato string figure gives it a nice feeling of movement, an idea that recurs throughout. Most of the score uses or is related to the melody, but Desplat avoids the score feeling monothematic with variations of the melody itself as well as altering the orchestral context.
There are a few asides such as Van Ruijven, which accentuates Vermeer’s creepy patron through the use of a constant, somewhat unusual percussion pulse and is about the only point where the score actually feels a touch anachronistic even when, in reality, it all is. Aside from the early concert arrangement, Colours in the Clouds is perhaps the score’s other most memorable cue, largely because it functions as pure music and its heady harmonic twists give it a delightfully mysterious feel. The album is rounded out with some alternate versions and reprises, all of which are worth hearing again because the entire album is worth hearing again. That the album never becomes repetitive is a testament to the quality of his melodic material and how he varies it within his modest orchestrations. Desplat manages to keep the drama subtle, without sacrificing the musical interest and a skill that a few Hollywood composers would do well to hone in their own work. A delightful, tuneful, yet unflashy score that is easy to recommend.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2:17) Griet’s Theme (4:08) A New Life (3:06) The Master’s House (3:18) Camera Obscura (1:30) The Birth Feast (2:46) Cornelia (1:44) Vermeer’s Studio (3:07) Winter Nights (2:09) Van Ruijven (3:33) Home (1:14) Colours in the Clouds (3:29) The Master is Painting (3:29) By the Canal with Pieter (1:46) Catharina’s Pearls (1:23) Colours in the Clouds (Strings) (3:27) Girl with a Pearl Earring (Reprise) (2:18) Silence and Light (Piano Solo) (1:41) Griet’s Theme (Reprise) (4:17) Griet Remembers (0:57) Total Time 50:28