Viewers may take it for granted that period films contain more than period music, but composers walk a careful line in balancing the sound of 18th-century England, for example, with more modern, complex melodies. In other words, the harpsichord is not the best tool for evoking cinematic climaxes. Rachel Portman’s task on “The Duchess” was not to stray too far from a classical, romantic sound — inspired by the dramas of Georgiana (Keira Knightley) — while following helmer Saul Dibb’s wishes for a bold score.
“For a period film, I avoid using certain, more modern-sounding instruments, like marimba or acoustic guitar,” says Portman, the first female composer to win an Oscar, for 1996’s “Emma.” “I also naturally avoid certain harmonies, which I might use freely in a contemporary film. However, I would never feel constrained to use only the musical language of the time period, or the score might feel more like source music.”
Portman says she listens to classical music, much of it from the era of the “The Duchess,” all the time. “It’s part of the musical fabric that I draw on in all my writing,” she says. Portman incorporated pieces by Bach and Hadyn into live scenes, but she didn’t want the music to be of the period. “The score needed to play deeper into the emotions of the characters than the music of the period could do effectively.”