The Music of Shadowlands: A 20th Anniversary Interview with George Fenton (Part II)

This is Part II of an exclusive interview with George Fenton about his score for Shadowlands, celebrating the 20th anniversary of its American release this month. Read Part I here.

Fenton’s other major theme for Shadowlands is one for Lewis and Joy. “When [Attenborough] finished filming and started cutting,” the composer recalls, “he said, ‘Have you got the theme? Can I hear the theme?’ I said, ‘What are we talking about?’ He said, ‘The theme of the Golden Valley, where he takes her in the car.’ So I wrote that, and it really became the theme of the film.”

Since the relationship between the characters isn’t a traditional love story, the melody isn’t a “love theme” in the traditional sense. “Lewis was bewildered, because he could see she’d fallen in love with him before she met him,” says Fenton, “and that what she fell for was the English idyll. Somehow everything he presented to her in that way just ticked the boxes for her, I think. And it was through that they developed this deep affection, or love.”

A winding bass line in the lower strings skates contrapuntally alongside the melody, in which each phrase begins high and gently drops in the same pattern. It’s a hopeful theme, and nostalgic, but built into it is a strain of loss and inevitable pain. Fenton ekes it out lightly at the dawn of Lewis and Joy’s friendship, and it swells with increasing passion as their love matures. At the same time it becomes more fragile, like Joy—rendered on a solo French horn over an ascending piano figure (“The Lake”) or lightly on piano as high strings strain their upper register and the horn braids the melody with the “Veni Sancte Spiritus” theme (“The Golden Valley Part Two”).

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“I think the theme is really about the English idyll, rather than about the interpersonal relationship,” says Fenton. “That’s why it’s quite formal. The theme feels quite fully expressed as a tune, and has a sort of completeness, which is an homage to the golden valley and the things people love about rural England. They invested in it themselves, so it became their love theme.”

Outside these two main themes, Fenton wrote an appropriately genteel, classical, and slightly stuffy piece for C.S. Lewis the academic. The string quartet in D (nicknamed “The Randolph” after the Oxford hotel) canters along at a comfortable pace, embodying the professor’s cozy and predictable life before Joy came crashing in.

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In “The Wardrobe,” as young Douglas Gresham explores Lewis’ attic (in the hopes of finding a portal to Narnia), Fenton assigns a few phrases of the Golden Valley theme to the kantele, a Finnish plucked instrument that bears resemblance to a table harp or zither. Fenton thought of it because a music teacher, who specialized in playing instruments like the cimbalom and dulcimers, played the kantele.

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“I love the sound of it,” he says, “because it’s like a cross between plucked, hit, struck…and yet it’s very transparent and can be very light. It has a quality of emphasizing things in the way a celeste or glockenspiel would, but not in a way you recognize. I like its delicacy, and I think it sits very well in the orchestra.”

Shadowlands was Fenton’s third collaboration (of five) with Richard Attenborough, and his career in film owes a lot to the director’s taking a chance on him with 1982’s Gandhi. “He always made me feel incredibly secure with what he was doing,” Fenton says. “He loves music, and he’s very musical.”

“He’s such a wonderful director of actors because, being an actor himself, he knows how to make them feel like they’re trusted. I don’t think Anthony Hopkins has ever given a performance better than the one in Shadowlands. And the way he directed the boy…it’s fantastically well done. Actors all love him, and I think it is to do with the fact that he trusts people and makes them feel they’re very special, and therefore they step up and do something. We’re all children in a way, so a pat on the head is a great thing.”

Because of Attenborough’s complete trust and because the film was totally under his control, Shadowlands was an ideal assignment for Fenton. “He knew what his film was,” Fenton says, “and I was literally able to have the film and be quiet with it for several weeks, and then go and record it. There was never any sort of panic.”

fenton2“If I think of the scores of mine that have been the most developed,” he says, “where you could look at any part of them and say, ‘This belongs to this score because of the various tonality or the use of interval or this theme or whatever,’ they’ve nearly always been those scores that have been left alone to grow on their own. Shadowlands is definitely in that camp.”

There was something magical, “charmed” as Fenton says, about the entire making of the film, and that unplannable quality was engraved deeply into the score—which, 20 years later, stands as one of his all-time favorites.

“Every time you start to work on something, you want it to be the thing that’s the most special,” he says. “You always think the next score, the next thing you write, is going to be the one that will stand out, because you want to always get better and make things better. And sometimes you look back and you think, ‘Whatever I do, there’ll never be another’ whatever it might be.

“There will never be another Shadowlands, because it coincided with so many things both in my life and where I was in film, and also because it spoke to so much of my background. I felt that, of all the things I’ve ever written, Shadowlands was my music. Not just the music for a movie, but it was actually from me. What that says about me, I don’t know, because it was very traditional and in a way very nostalgic. Musically it’s not ambitious or contemporary at all. But I think the intention, musically, in it is probably more me than almost anything I’ve ever written.”

Special thanks to George Fenton for a delightful interview, and for this faultlessly subtle, heartbreaking score.