Exhibit number two: “Birth,” from Howard Shore’s Philadelphia.
I’m not wild about Howard Shore’s entire oeuvre, and compared to some people even my appreciation of The Lord of the Rings scores (undeniably his most impressive achievement to date) is tame. There’s no question he is incredibly gifted, and I do love how he invests a craftsman’s care and perfection into every aspect of his scores, but his voice only resonates with my tastes some of the time.
One such instance, though, is Philadelphia. I blindly picked up his original score (not to be confused with the ubiquitous song soundtrack) a few years ago at a used record store, and I warmed to it immediately. I’ve heard enough of his work now to recognize several Shore-isms in it, but this score stands apart with its own aural identity and holds a special place in my library. It is endowed with a sweet hopefulness—interestingly tinged with a dash of magic—and it shows off Shore’s wonderful ability at capturing a mood that is intimate and precious (pun regretfully intended).
“Birth” is announced with a surge of optimism, a miniature melody reaching upwards as harp outlines two alternating chords. Then the key changes, and charmingly harmonized flute, keyboard, and cello (an appropriate ensemble for the smallness of the scene’s object) introduce another mini motif built on two chords. Strings fall in to reinforce the bowed line, and then the track settles into its home key and melodic purpose.
The score’s featured instrument, a solo trumpet, celebrates the birth with one of Philadelphia‘s recurring melodies—an extremely simple line that climbs up stepwise and then retraces its steps, and that, sung by the noble brass instrument, embodies the poignancy and hope attending the introduction of a new life. The jingled percussion and keyboard accompaniment give the track a contemporary sound, and strings are brought in to sweeten and fill out the sonic space. “Birth” then returns to the attitude of wonder it began with, to plucked harp and a swelling string line, before concluding on a brief and unresolved adagio.
The Philadelphia score has a strange palette, with its fairy tale wind chimes, solo trumpet, and ’90s keyboard—and its tone fluctuates between mystical, contemporary, melancholy, and hopeful. But somehow it all clicks into place to form a splendid whole, and along with Nobody’s Fool is one of Shore’s beautiful character explorations from the 1990s.