Music and the Historical Film: An Overview

Simon Nugent, University College Dublin

Historical film has been an ever-present feature of Hollywood cinema since the 19th century, with the role of music in this genre changing dramatically over the history of film. In the so-called “Golden-Age” of Hollywood cinema (roughly 1930-1960) many composers used the standard orchestral score to accompany historical epics and dramas. As the orchestra as we know it today did not emerge until the 17th and 18th centuries, its use in historical films often did not match the time-period and location of the film in question. Some composers felt that music in this genre needed to be “authentic” or historically informed by music of the past. While other elements of period films could be scrutinised and checked for their “authenticity” (such as dialogue, costume and set design), music could not. The lack of musical instruments, melodies and recordings from many periods of history apparently hindered the attempts of many composers to included “authentic” music. However, one of most important and famous composers of music for historical films, Miklós Rózsa, attempted to recreate melodies and instruments from the film’s time-period and combine these with the orchestral score. This can be heard in his scores for Quo Vadis (1951), Knights of the Round Table (1954) and most famously, Ben-Hur (1959).

Quo Vadis? – ‘Suite’

The practice of attempting to include “authentic” instruments and melodies in music for historical films has continued to the present day. While the orchestra remains the main template for historical films, composers have developed new ways to make their scores “authentic”. In his score to The Three Musketeers (1993), composer Michael Kamen used medieval and renaissance dance forms, such as rigadoons, bransles and courantes to match the setting of 17th-century France.

Youtube – The Three Musketeers, ‘Athos, Porthos and Aramis’ –

Although some composers have tried to make their scores “authentic”, many composers still choose not to. For example, in his score to Oliver Stone’s historical epic Alexander (2004), Vangelis used modern music techniques (such as minimalism) and modern instruments (including electronic synthesisers) despite the film being set some time around 300BC.

Alexander, ‘Roxane’s Veil’ –

Other examples where films scores do not appear to be overly “authentic” or historically informed include A Knight’s Tale (2001). In this case, the composer, Carter Burwell, makes use of 1970s rock music (such as Queen, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy) as the sound of 1370s France. Although heavily criticised for its deliberate use of “incorrect” music, the  director Brian Helgeland was quick to defend the musical choices in his film, stating that ‘an orchestral score would be equally anachronistic, since orchestras hadn’t been invented in the 1400s’.[1]

A Knight’s Tale, ‘Dancing Scene’ –

While music in the historical film has changed since the days of Rózsa, composers continue their attempts to include “authentic” or historically informed music in their scores. Despite the emergence of new compositional techniques, many scores for historical films continue to rely on the orchestra. As a result, no matter how hard a composer may try to (re)construct and (re)create the music of a particular historical time-period, the very foundation of that “authentic” score, the orchestra, is unauthentic.

[1] Brian Helgeland, quoted in Roger Ebert, ‘Review: A Knight’s Tale’, Robert Ebert, Last modified 11 May 2001, (Accessed 5 April 2015).

John Lunn’s The Last Kingdom: A Musical Sense of the Other

Dr Adam Whittaker, Birmingham City University

Historical film is a well-established genre in modern society and, partially thanks to the popularity of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, continues to attract large audiences, making this a medium through which much of the general public engages with the historical past. As we have discussed at many of our roundtable sessions, it is clear that directors and composers navigate the representation of the sonic past in a number of different ways, adopting different techniques to the use of ‘period’ costume and sets.

One of BBC America’s most recent TV-series The Last Kingdom, which is based on novels from Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series, tells the story of conflicts between the Vikings and the Saxons that characterised much of the ninth century. It tells the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who was born a Saxon and raised a Dane, giving him dual heritage. Throughout the series, references are made to the contrast between the Christian and Pagan faiths and the ways in which these beliefs were often at odds with one another, a tension that is continually revealed in Uhtred’s character.

In the case of The Last Kingdom, the approach towards the sonic past is noteworthy, given that it seems to move away from established historical-film clichés in some aspects of its soundscape. The composer John Lunn, who is perhaps best known for his recent work on Downton Abbey, made an intriguing musical decision in the soundtrack to The Last Kingdom that is worthy of further exploration, creating an unusual sonic vision of ninth-century England.

Lunn constructs the entire soundtrack for The Last Kingdom without using a traditional orchestra, instead opting for percussion, analogue synthesisers, and vocals provided by the popular Faroese folk artist, Eivør Pálsdóttir. Given that the series is set mostly in the Kingdom of Wessex in 872AD, the decision to use analogue synthesisers might seem a little odd at first glance, given the usual home of such synthesisers in sci-fi movies from the 1970s. However, the use of a modern symphony orchestra would have been equally inappropriate and, in some ways, would have created a sonic environment that was all too familiar for the historical period in question.

Thus, it seems that the ‘otherness’ evoked by the sense of the rather unusual sounds of analogue synthesisers was probably what John Lunn wanted to create through his soundtrack. This is neatly demonstrated in the opening title sequence, which sets the tone for the rest of the soundtrack:

In addition to the analogue synthesisers, a fairly steady drum beat can be heard that would not be out of place in most historical dramas. This is seemingly a stereotypical motif for any kind of historical drama that involves military engagement, of which there is plenty in The Last Kingdom.

Moving away from the instrumental forces, the vocal line that sits atop the analogue synthesisers and drums is rather peculiar, given that it does not seem to fit within a traditional scale and has hints of musical ‘orientalism’ about it. The words that are sung are completely indistinct and its otherworldliness quite comfortably distances the viewer from the soundscape of modern life. Indeed, the tone is very ‘nazal’ and grating, quite distinct from the ‘pure’ vocal sounds of plainchant that are often used to evoke the Christian musical past. Instead, it sounds more like the vocal sounds used to evoke a sense of areas outside of Europe.

There is clearly something outside of the normal convention at work here that situates the viewer within an early Europe, particularly England. Might this be representative of the musical language of the Vikings that would, undoubtedly, have been different from that of the Christian church in England? Perhaps then, this unfamiliarity of the soundworld goes some way to accounting for Uhtred’s eclectic upbringing? In any case, Lunn’s soundtrack relies heavily upon the sense of ‘otherness’ to create something that sounds historically distant, even if it is thoroughly modern in its underpinnings.