Sunday, 15 September 2013

Music in La Grande Bellezza

Paolo Sorrentino's latest film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), released in the UK this weekend, is an elegant, elegiac but synaesthetically chatty piece about The Eternal City, Rome. Carefully shot to preserve wrinkles in people and architecture alike, there is also a rich soundtrack incorporating new and older music. Indeed the whole film maintains a tension between the old and the new in the tradition of Italian culture. La Dolce Vita is an unavoidable touchstone for this film and the poetry of the self-styled romantic revolutionary Gabriele d'Annunzio - who, like the protagonists of the film, has stood the test of time by creating a personal-myth smoke-screen - is evoked, equivocally, early on [incidentally, song settings of d'Annunzio's poetry are available on this new CD].

This overview of the music at work in Sorrentino's film concerns the older ('classical') music.

The opening piece, David Lang's I Lie, has the fragile, contingent quality of much that follows. As traditional choral music, it is designed to work inside an acoustic. Indeed, most of the music demands an acoustic space. Full of beautiful, often religious buildings, Rome is full of such spaces; in fact Rome itself may be said to be the film's meta-space - and therefore meta-acoustic. It is disconcerting then to find so much of the film, out on the streets of Rome, to be so quiet. The sound, the music that we hear then tends to be added by the director; non-diegetic echoes of what the city once was and represented.

This is followed by one of the key pieces of the film, John Tavener's The Lamb. Full of mystical piety, constructed of palindromic phrases, the music comes to rest on a conventional repeated cadence that stands as a sobe, unrevealing monument. This is the other key symbol of the film at large, the ossification of figures into beautiful but inert monuments.

A peculiar, recurring part of the soundtrack is a setting of Robert Burns by the Estonian Arvo Pärt. Like John Tavener, Pärt creates spiritually ruminative music, and this is no exception. Minimal in its melody - invariably a single note - the music again takes on a wistful, echoing, two-dimensional quality. Not here a character pining for a living place but rather the façade of that place inviting the onlooker to imagine its former inhabitants.

This minimal character extends to further works, both liturgically explicit - Preisner's Requiem (the Dies Irae is listed as the movement used) - and implicit - Gorecki's 3rd Symphony. Lots of space in the music, meditative, distant, requiring and implying a large acoustic space.

Just as the film houses a dichotomy between old and new, so the music is also split between this echoing, chiaroscuro-inhabiting minimalism and more conventional melodic beauty. David Lang's music is featured again in his sostenuto instrumental work World To Come IV

Compare this ascetic, bewildered music with the pastoral simplicity of Vladimir Martynov's The Beatitudes for String Quartet

... or the more expansive orchestral palette of Bizet's Symphony in C. Most notably for me though was the intermittent use of Poulenc's Mouvement Perpétuel No. 1

This simple but curdling music is best known for its use (diegetically) in Hitchcock's Rope (1948), a film about the violent philosophical clash of youth and age in an Olympian-height New York apartment. This is the abiding theme of the film; from its Gatsby-like reveal of Jep in the opening party to the grand-view juxtaposition of Christianity within the city which gave birth to that religion two thousand years ago.

*Extracts are not necessarily the actual performances featured in the film


VVisienna said...


Framescourer said...

Thank you - though the use of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony is mentioned in the text of this post.