The sound of silence: Alexandre Desplat on the music that ‘just floats’ throughout ‘The King’s Speech’

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The drama in “The King’s Speech” stems from the inability to communicate. The challenge, then, for French composer Alexandre Desplat was to keep his score from saying too much.

“This is a film about the sound of the voice,” Desplat says. “Music has to deal with that. Music has to deal with silence. Music has to deal with time.”

First, the score to the Tom Hooper-directed film could not sound too perfect. The sleuthing skills of Abbey Road’s chief engineer, Pete Cobin, helped Desplat find the tone he needed for the historical drama. Digging through the EMI archives, Cobin, says Desplat, recovered vintage microphones owned by the British royal family.


“At that time, the royal family had microphones made to order,” Desplat says. “We recorded the score with these microphones. It allowed the sound to have a dated feel -- a purely dated feel.”

Desplat averages between seven and 10 films a year, and his work on “The King’s Speech” may be his warmest and most restrained effort to date. Much of the score centers on a piano, chosen to match the film’s use of Beethoven and Mozart. As string melodies drift and cascade in the background, the piano tends to lag just behind, save for the romantic swing that accompanies Colin Firth’s King George VI as he rehearses in Westminster Abbey.

Desplat wanted a score that would mirror, rather than amplify, the drama of the story. ‘The King’s Speech’ is based on the true story of the relationship between Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist, and Albert, the Duke of York, who was forced to confront his debilitating stammer in the years leading up to his 1936 ascent to the throne as King George VI.

Says Desplat, “The king stammers, so how can you say that in musical terms without being didactic or obvious? I suggested to Tom 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.”

If not purely minimalist, as Desplat worked with a small choir, ‘The King’s Speech’ can, at moments, have a sort of suspended animation feel -- ‘the music just floats,’ Desplat says. Tightly wound strings, for instance, allow the piano only to flirt with a melody.

‘This man cannot talk,’ says Desplat, a three-time Academy Award nominee, including for his work on ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.’ ‘He cannot speak. It’s not only because of his handicap, but he cannot articulate his pain. He cannot even name them until therapy helps him. The music must respect the dramaturgy. That’s the main lesson I’ve learned from working in the theater: respect the dramaturgy. I don’t want to overwhelm everything with music.’

In fact, Desplat had to persuade Hooper to use more music. The director initially wanted the rehearsal for King George’s coronation to be filmed sans music. Desplat disagreed. What Desplat orchestrated, and what Hooper ultimately used, is something of a moment of release. The wind instruments strike a more playful tone, and the stammering sensation that Desplat played with earlier feels more celebratory than tense.

‘Tom said no music, and as I was watching, I thought, ‘No, no, no, no. There has to be something there.’ It is the climax. Dramatically, you would think that the climax is before this moment, but his story is a story about friendship, which is really rare. Mostly, you have love stories. Friendship with two men or two women is not too easy to do well. The moment they learn to trust each other for the good and the bad is the rehearsal. So that, I believe, is the climax.’

With no action and all dialogue, Desplat’s music takes on a defining role. Yet despite having plenty of silence to work with, Desplat didn’t view the assignment as one with near creative freedom.

‘If I wanted an open space, I could do a documentary about fishes,’ he says. ‘Then I would have an open space to play my music. That’s not how I visualize the work I’m doing. I’m there to tailor something very precisely and something very subtly to dialogue and the actor’s energy. I’m there to bring out something that isn’t spoken. ‘King’s Speech’ is the perfect film to do it.’

-- Todd Martens


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