Johann Johannsson - The Theory of Everything

Johann Johannsson: The Theory of Everything - film score soundtrack CD cover A well-received drama that explores the first marriage of esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything features two outstanding performances from young British leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Beginning at Cambridge University in the early 1960s, director James Marsh's film charts the tentative beginnings of the relationship between Hawking (Redmayne) and his eventual wife Jane (Jones), a partnership that was eventually tested by the former's tragic diagnosis with motor neuron disease. While Redmayne magnificently conveys the sense of a great scientific mind encased within a failing body (requiring him to act, for the most part, from a wheelchair), Jones' subtle, measured performance as the devoted wife pushed to her limits by her husband's illness shouldn't be underestimated. The film, adapted from the second of two books written by the real Jane Hawking, is being widely tipped for Oscar success, particularly the two leads, both of whom have been met with Oscar nominations. Another acclaimed component of the drama is the score by up-and-coming composer Johann Johannsson, whose beautiful music (also an Oscar nominee) captures both the wonder and pain of this most remarkable marriage.

Johann Johannsson: The Theory of Everything - image 1 A native of Iceland, Johannsson's ability at fusing more traditionally classical sounds with electronics has yielded acclaimed, stand-alone albums such as Englaborn (2002) and the genre-defying Virthulegu Forsetar (2004), which mixed brass, organ and glockenspiel with experimental synths. His film score work dates from 2000, which saw his debut on Icelandic movie The Icelandic Dream, although it was his moody, understated score for 2013 kidnap drama Prisoners that saw Johannsson get Hollywood's attention. If there's any justice, The Theory of Everything will catapult him onto the front line of film composers. With overtones of Alexandre Desplat's musical subtlety (although with a touch more emotional directness), Johannsson's music brilliantly walks the line between enhancing the drama and allowing the narrative to speak for itself. Hawking's story is such an inspiring one that it would have been all-too-easy for the score to tip over into schmaltz; however, Johannsson's natural restraint as a composer lends everything an achingly poignant, wistful air. The tone of the score becomes immediately apparent in the opening track "Cambridge 1963", gentle, undulating piano and calm strings eventually building into a rapturous orchestral statement, an overture of sorts to the musical drama that is set to unfold.

Johann Johannsson: The Theory of Everything - image 2 "Rowing", as the title suggests, pulsates with a sense of movement as a rhythmic little motif is passed between strings, piano and woodwinds; this is where the Desplat influence is most immediately apparent but there's a greater sense of warmth and joyousness to Johannsson's writing here (a shorter, alternative take is also presented later in the album). "Domestic Pressures" (very clearly temp-tracked with Desplat's score for Philomena) introduces a lovely, contemplative piano/string/glockenspiel motif that is perhaps a tad more melancholy than the previous two tracks but still attractive. "Chalkboard" proceeds with an altogether more forthright input from strings, marching forward with great vigour. "Cavendish Lab" by contrast brims with a palpable sense of wonder as the young Hawking, prior to the onset of his illness, starts to formulate his groundbreaking theory of time; a wash of buzzing strings undulates beneath a series of gentle piano notes, Johannsson conveying a gradual sense of intellectual awakening.

Johann Johannsson: The Theory of Everything - image 3 "Collapsing Inwards" slows the tempo down as the composer drains the strings of their vigour, fully capturing the sadness of Hawking's tragic diagnosis with motor neuron disease. Thereafter, the score's melodic moments are tinged with a more poignant quality: the following "A Game of Croquet" reinstates the central theme but at a slightly slower, more reflective pace as both Stephen and Jane must come to terms with the challenge that lies ahead. Even so, Johannsson recognises that Hawking's life was dotted with triumphs, despite his illness; hence the moving, major key tone of "The Origins of Time", a quietly optimistic track in which the combination of glockenspiel and woodwind is especially haunting.

"Viva Voce" is still somewhat subdued but builds into a beautiful arrangement for strings and piping woodwinds, the ideal build-up for the track entitled "The Wedding" as the Hawkings prepare to start their lives together. The latter is in fact one of the score's highlights, the Ennio Morricone-esque lush strings accompanied by an acoustic guitar. "The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of" proceeds in more solemn, piano-led fashion while fluttering woodwinds and ebbing strings lend an ethereal sense to "A Spacetime Singularity". Dialling everything right back, "The Stairs" is a quietly forlorn, if brief, piece whereas "A Normal Family" reinstates a sense of compassionate, string-led humanity, capturing the sense of the people at the centre of the drama.

Johann Johannsson: The Theory of Everything - image 4 "Forces of Attraction", much like the earlier "Wedding" cue, is a melodic powerhouse where piano, guitar and strings combine to especially moving effect; the film is, after all, primarily a love story, and Johannsson doesn't shy away from reinforcing that. "Camping" is slightly jauntier and more forthright with cello primarily taking up the melodic line from the main theme but it's back to sadness again in "Coma", the strained, desolate strings capturing the terrible moment where Hawking finally loses his natural speech. Subtle optimism is back on the cards in "The Spelling Board" and "The Voice Box" as Hawking gets his speech back before "A Brief History of Time" presents one of the score's more contemplative moments, rhythmic strings and steady piano attaining a tempo that shimmers with a precise, thoughtful quality.

As the score proceeds towards its conclusion, the more hopeful quality of the album's first third is reinstated, building towards a celebration of Hawking's remarkable life. The sprightly woodwinds of "Daisy, Daisy" lead into a deeply poignant piano solo, followed by the intimate, reflective "A Model of the Universe", which is quieter than one would expect given its sweeping track name. The outstanding, piano-led "The Theory of Everything" then duly obliges in the melodic stakes, the full orchestral ensemble again joined by the acoustic guitar. "London 1988" is reminiscent of the earlier "Cavendish Lab" as it builds from a sense of anticipation into a heartwarming finale.

"Epilogue" then concludes things with a final statement of the opening "Cambridge" theme, bringing everything full circle, before the climactic track "The Whirling Ways of Stars That Pass" ends the score on a thoughtful, wistful, harp-led note, allowing us to contemplate both Hawking's and our own place in the universe. (The film's end credits are in fact scored to the soaringly beautiful "Arrival of the Birds and Transformation" by The Cinematic Orchestra, although it's understandably absent from the album.)

Johann Johannsson: The Theory of Everything - image 5 Given Johann Johannsson's relative inexperience in the realm of mainstream film scoring, The Theory of Everything is both a delightful surprise and a very impressive achievement. Such a dialogue-heavy movie, not to mention one that deals with incredibly sensitive subject matter, must have been a very difficult one to score. Push the music too hard and it risks turning the narrative into an overblown melodrama; pitch it too quietly and the emotions of the film may not be drawn out. It's entirely to Johannsson's credit that he's composed a score both subtle and highly engaging, gently enhancing the movie whilst allowing Redmayne and Jones' excellent performances to stand out. Resplendent in a sense of intimacy whilst also alluding to the more expansive, universal themes on which Stephen Hawking has built his career, The Theory of Everything is a fine piece of work and most deserving of its Oscar nomination.

The score is available on CD or via MP3 download at the following links: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Reviewer: Sean Wilson

The Theory of Everything by Johann Johannsson - album track listing


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