The producing/directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory brought to the screen some of the loveliest films of the 1980s and 90s. While some critics berated their films as nothing more than extended installments of Masterpiece Theater, Merchant-Ivory films became the benchmark for literary adaptations.
Their penchant for classic British literature showed in a trilogy of films based on the novels of E. M. Forster, including my favorite, HOWARDS END (1992). Beginning with THE EUROPEANS in 1979, Richard Robbins composed the music for every one of Ivory’s films through his final picture, THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION, in 2007.
Like most of his Merchant-Ivory scores, Robbins’ Oscar-nominated music for HOWARDS END has its pleasant moments, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Plagued by Robbins’ trademark incessant noodling, the score starts nowhere and proceeds along a winding path with no consistent melodic content to beckon the ear. Bookending the film, however, are two delightful piano pieces by British composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961).
The main title sequence begins with two crashing chords and some nondescript music from Robbins that foreshadow the tragedy ahead, followed by the delicate strains of Grainger’s Bridal Lullaby on piano. Dating from 1916, Bridal Lullaby was composed as a wedding gift for Karen Holten. She and Grainger had met in 1905 and the love-affair between them lasted for several years, being conducted almost entirely by letter. The version of the piece heard in the film was reconstructed by Grainger expert, Barry Peter Ould, from Grainger’s original notes.
“During a visit to the USA (March-April 1985),” writes Ould, “I was thrilled to find that among the facsimile manuscript collection of Grainger material housed in the White Plains Public Library, a copy of what was listed as a sketch for piano of Bridal Lullaby was part of their collection. I at once obtained permission to view the copy manuscript, and was delighted to see that it was complete, although Grainger had written on all pages ‘sketch for Bridal Lullaby‘. On a page of commentary (page 1 of the manuscript) he states: ‘Publish as it is, as a sketch.'”
According to author Thomas Lewis, the piece “was written in both a state of regret at what had been lost and satisfaction that Karen had at last found happiness.” Another note from Grainger himself appeared in the commentary and provides poignant insight into the emotional background of the piece: “See Karen Holten’s letter to me of 24-6-16 telling me she hoped to marry Dr Kellerman on August 16, 1916. Early August ( 1916) mother & I were down at Southampton, Long Island, staying with Mrs Samuel Thorne. I felt sad all that summer, weighed down with the thought of losing Karen (inevitable, of course), yet very glad, too, that she should have a real full satisfying life of her own ahead, & wishing her Ever so well all thru life. In this mood of loving sentimental sorrow (very acute Aug 15-16, 1916) yet tender resignation the ‘Bryllups-vuggevise’ was born.”
In only 17 bars, Grainger’s piece provides the perfect atmosphere of regret and loss pervading the main titles. To the piano’s delicate strains, we see a vision of the ever-beautiful Vanessa Redgrave slowly wandering through a field. The twilight dim casts a ghostly glow on her features as she gazes upon the energetic life inside Howards End.
Much as Robbins’ score for A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1986) was overshadowed by the Puccini arias that he chose, his score for HOWARDS END is eclipsed by the Grainger pieces that bookend the film. Robbins’ Oscar nomination rode in on the skirt hems of the film’s popularity, and if voters were humming anything from the score, the tune was Grainger not Robbins.