The King's Speech

CD Review: The King’s Speech

As a longtime Oscar junkie, I live for the end of the year and the glut of Oscar bait that floods the multiplexes. The bait is no indication of quality but it usually means a step or two up from the mindless drivel of summer that is released through much of the rest of the year. High on the list of this year’s Oscar-worthy contenders is THE KING’S SPEECH. Following his lovely, layered performance in A SINGLE MAN last year, Colin Firth tops himself as Albert, the Duke of York (known as “Bertie” to his family), the stuttering and reluctant soon-to-be King George VI, who must struggle against his debilitating speech impediment to rally a country on the brink of war. Geoffrey Rush is every bit Firth’s equal as his unorthodox speech therapist and Helena Bonham Carter sparkles at Bertie’s wife, the future Queen Elizabeth.

While I think much of the interior cinematography seems to be trying too hard to be artsy and a stronger director could have made more of the story, at least everyone pretty much stays out of the way of this trio of superb actors and David Seidler’s excellent screenplay. Giving the story even more poignancy is Alexandre Desplat‘s lovely score.

The album begins quietly with warm, rich string chords that convey the growing relationship between “Lionel and Bertie.” In the hesitating ascending chords and the descending piano line, Desplat interpolates the middle movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, more commonly known as the “Emperor” Concerto, which also closes the album and the film. The halting, unsure nature of the music captures Bertie’s struggle with speech and has yet to become the magisterial sound of England’s future “emperor.”

“The king stammers, so how can you say that in musical terms without being didactic or obvious?” Desplat asks in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I suggested to [director] Tom [Hooper] that we could maybe give this idea that music is not going forward. How do you do that? I suggested one note, repeated…It’s almost like a sad movement of a Schubert quartet.” That sadness centers around the solo piano and violin, which give voice to Bertie’s pain and fear.

As the piano tolls the solitary notes, the solo violin struggles to communicate as Bertie relives his tortured “Memories of Childhood.” The piano plays four-note descending motifs, the violin ascends higher and higher and the string chords gently pulse with restrained, understated emotion.

The King's Speech soundtrack
“Memories of Childhood”
“The King’s Speech”

A somber string theme announces “The King Is Dead,” and that same theme gains more force as Bertie becomes a reluctant “King George VI.” Set against Desplat’s trademark staccato string accompaniment, the piano once again plays solitary pitches and the violins sigh in pain as the new monarch faces the winds of war. A poignant piano theme gives voice to Elizabeth’s love for her husband’s plight.

Leavening the historical and emotional surroundings, Desplat writes a lovely piano theme for the deepening friendship between Lionel and Bertie. The theme, first heard in “The King’s Speech,” brings humor to Lionel’s “My Kingdom, My Rules” and lightens the King’s “Fear and Suspicion.” As the friendship between the two men comes full circle, so does the theme as Lionel outlines Bertie’s coronation during “The Rehearsal.” The cue starts off with tentative repeated tones, followed by staccato strings to give it  life. The theme is dissected and interpolated, accompanied by chirping woodwinds and a poignant cello countermelody. The friendship between the two men is complete.

Desplat’s music mostly plays in fits and stammers, giving tentative musical voice to the King’s speech patterns.  Restrained and understated, much like the royal family themselves, the score never wears its heart on its sleeve. Desplat’s trademark orchestrations, utilizing harp and celeste, as well as the classically arranged strings, perfectly capture both the wit and gravitas of the storyline, imbuing the score with energy and emotion. He weaves his delicate music throughout the music of Beethoven and Mozart that is used in the film, fitting in nicely with those two musical giants.

Pete Cobin, Abbey Road’s chief engineer, gives Desplat’s music the proper royal treatment. Digging through the EMI archives, Cobin recovered vintage microphones owned by the British royal family and used them for the recording sessions. Cobin created his own “royal family tree” of microphones which gives the score a timbre and musical patina appropriate to the era.

Desplat’s music floats over the film, never calling attention to itself, yet always supporting the drama. The power of the score grows with each repeated listen. THE KING’S SPEECH is simply one of the finest scores I’ve heard all year.

  1. I’m no great fan of Desplat, but I really like this score. It’s a very enjoyable listen, and one of the years best. I think the track “The Rehearsal” is amazing, it blows me away with each listen.

    Great review. May I enquire about your favourite scores of the year so far? A top 5 maybe?

  2. I have to wait until 26th December to see the film, and even longer to get my hands on the soundtrack. But, based on what I’ve read in various reviews so far, both will be worth the wait.

    Incidentally, I hope the use of the classical music won’t rule the score out of Oscar contention. You know how dumb that lot are at applying their own rules from one year to the next. :o

  3. I’m curious about this picture, and hopefully Firth will make up for his drab SINGLE MAN excursion last year.
    Desplat is one of the few contempo composers that periodically catches a break with me, but not particularly for his English-language films. The two cues you sample here intrigue me enough to give this one a listen. I’m a sucker for nicely controlled strings and a light touch on the piano.

    I’ve heard that James Franco and Ann Hathaway are hosting the Oscars this year, so I suppose it is going to be as close to the MTV movie awards as it can get. The last couple of years have been atrocious – the grossest low being Bullock winning for her bourgeoise bitch goddess in THE BLIND SIDE – the worse kind of true-story TV movie. I’m being too kind. :)

    1. I’ll disagree about SINGLE MAN. I can see problems with the picture but I thought his performance was excellent.

      KING’S SPEECH is a score that continues to grow on me. It started out fairly strong and just kept getting better with each listen. This is definitely a winner for Desplat. Hope you like it.

      “Bourgeois bitch goddess” cracked me up.

  4. Please be kind enough to tell me the name of the dramatic and stirring classical piece that was used during the actual delivery of the actual speech at the end? It’s a well known piece, I just can’t recall.

  5. I thought that the final piece was from the Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto ” The Emperor”

    1. The very last piece is the concerto. But I think the piece under the actual speech is the 7th Symphony. But it’s been about 6-7 weeks since I’ve seen the film, so I could be mistaken.

      1. Yes, you are right. One of my favorite pieces of music of all time. It is beautiful in this context.

  6. The last piece of music in the film was was one of the most brilliant/fitting scores to emphasize the struggle that the King was going through and his ultimate success at defeating his stammering.

    As for your comment, Gary, on December 10th,2010,how can you deny Sandra Bullock the Oscar??! Look at her entire body of acting work over the span of her career!(The Academy usually does that I believe, even though I disagree w many of their decisions) She has been severely underrated in the past,she certainly deserved that Oscar! She is the most humble actress I’ve ever seen considering her talent,not full-of-herself like J.Roberts.

  7. Haven’t seen the movie yet (it will be released next week here), but I’m listening to the score right now on Spotify and I think it’s beautifull. I’m (sort of) a fan of Desplat and I like almost everything he’s done, untill so far, but this score surely is one his better ones. Imho ofcourse.

  8. The use of Beethoven’s 7th over (rather than under) the King’s Speech at the end of the film left me reeling! To me it was Entirely inappropriate and I left that fantastic film wondering how on earth that piece was used. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, I was listening to the whole symphony just last week, but in that context….. It’s a huge piece, all about winning a war, so perhaps that’s why. But to me it had the power of a sledgehammer when the whole story was of the subtle, discreet way the nut of the stammer was cracked. Not to mention the fact that using an 18th Century German composer over the announcement of the 2nd WW in 1939 felt very very odd. Surely Elgar or Britten or Vaughan-Williams would have been more appropriate. Honestly, I’ve never been more thrown by a piece of music in a film before.

    But I seem to be alone in my criticism. And other than that, I thought the film entirely satisfying and everyone should get their Oscars!

    1. Thankfully, most people seeing the film won’t know about the background of the piece. (I venture to say that most people probably think it’s an original piece.) In my nine years of high education in music, I don’t think they ever taught us that. Though that probably says more about my education and/or my memory than anything. It shocked me too when I first heard it, but since I’d already heard Mozart at the first “reading,” I figured that’s what they were going for. Ultimately, the dramatic moment and the acting was so strong that they could have put a band of kazoos as background music and I would have bought it. (Well, that may be stretching it…)

  9. You can over-intellectualize these things, but Beethoven’s score works in my view – provided you forget the historical references.

  10. The irony of the use of Beethoven was not lost on me either.. that said, I am struggling to find the names of the other classical pieces used – Mozart, I think a Brahms piece…… I know these pieces by heart from childhood, just not the reference names…. can anyone help?

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