Shakespeare's witty battle of the sexes comedy Much Ado About Nothing received a suitably romping, star-studded adaptation in 1993 courtesy of director Kenneth Branagh. It's the frothy story of two fiery individuals manipulated to fall in love (Benedick and Beatrice, played by Branagh and Emma Thompson); whilst another, engaged couple are manipulated to fall out of it (Claudio and Hero, played by Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale). Branagh called on the might of Hollywood, including Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves, to improve the film's commercial prospects and it worked a charm, the film now held up as one of the most entertaining Bard adaptations to have made it to the screen.
On-board was Branagh's regular collaborator Patrick Doyle who was also present on the Italian set during filming (he also played the minor role of Don Pedro's musician). Branagh and Doyle first collaborated to enormous success on 1989's Henry V, the gritty adaptation of Shakespeare's text benefiting hugely from Doyle's dark, broiling score. That of course was Doyle's debut soundtrack, one which led him onto a hugely successful career encompassing the likes of A Little Princess, Sense and Sensibility and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Much Ado About Nothing was Doyle's second Shakespeare score for Branagh (the others being the Oscar-nominated Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It). If there's one word to describe Doyle's score, 'summery' would be it. Another would be 'joyous', or perhaps 'exuberant'. There's nary a moment of darkness in this incessantly upbeat soundtrack and nor should there be. Given the nature of the play on which it's based, the film isn't dark either and Doyle, being the fine composer that he is, always makes the sensible decision of putting the film's needs before his own.
Given that the text revolves around the sparky battle between men and women, Doyle roots his two central themes in musical language that befits their respective gender. The 'feminine' theme, which uses the play's song "Sigh no More" as its basis, is introduced in the opening track "The Picnic" with spoken accompaniment from Emma Thompson. This was one of several pieces that Doyle pre-recorded and played back on set in order to aid the singing performances of Thompson and the other actors. The tone of the piece glides towards acoustic guitar, soft strings and woodwinds, swooningly romantic and in direct contrast to the 'masculine' theme which takes over in the score's celebrated "Overture".
A brassily energetic and optimistic piece that never flags over the course of 4 minutes, the "Overture" is one of Doyle's most enduringly popular tracks and understandably so. The track is itself a mini battle between male and female, the macho, swaggering brass and strings competing with the delicate, fluttering woodwind arrangements. The remainder of the score divides itself between the "Overture" and "Sigh No More" pieces, painting the gender battle on a wider scale. "The Sweetest Lady" presents a lovely, pastoral statement of the score's third theme for Hero, played by the radiant Beckinsale. Warm and inviting, it glows like the Tuscan countryside depicted in the film. The plucked strings of the following track "The Conspirators" introduce the score's only real note of darkness as the vengeful Don Jon (played by an amusingly wooden Reeves) schemes to break up the marriage between Claudio and Hero. That said it's not overwhelmingly dark, more devious and mischievous. Period-specific Renaissance orchestration takes over in the lively "The Masked Ball", an opulent piece of musical splendour. The whimsical track "The Prince Woos Hero" presents a deconstructed version of the masculine theme as Claudio finds himself head over heels for his future bride.
"Rich She Shall Be" re-introduces the brass but it's more hesitant this time, side-stepping around the string and wind arrangements. The masculine theme is in there but it never comes to full fruition as both genders compete with each other. "The Gulling of Benedick" and "The Gulling of Beatrice" then present two of the score's most infectiously witty moments. The whimsical, fluttering woodwinds and strings heard in both tracks are the ideal depiction of the mischievous love games taking place on-screen, as Benedick and Beatrice are each fooled into thinking that one has feelings for the other. In direct contrast is the blossoming, lush romance of "Contempt Farewell", which finally brings back the full force of the brassy overture.
"The Lady is Disloyal" introduces prickly strains of discontent as allegations of Hero's false infidelity are spread. This subsequently leads onto the somewhat more strained "Take Her Back Again" as the future of the marriage is thrown into doubt but the music nevertheless maintains a brisk pace and never wallows in darkness for too long. "Die to Live" presents a heartbreaking variation on the masculine theme and "Pardon Goddess of the Night" is a sombre, almost ecclesiastical choral piece. But as we know, the film is on course to wrap itself up in delightful, exhilarating fashion. Doyle's score follows suit, "Did I Not Tell You" brimming with a sense of perky energy and ushering in the heartfelt climax. "Hero Revealed" resolves that character's theme before "Benedick the Married Man" presents a matured version of the masculine theme, the brass used in a more reserved and stately but no less attractive manner. However it's the last track "Strike Up Pipers" that's the most memorable, the "Sigh No More" theme getting a rousing, near-operatic choral rendition that's truly spectacular. It's as perfect a musical depiction of "all's well that ends well" as one could hope to hear.
Although Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps too frothy to qualify as Doyle's greatest Shakespeare score (Henry V and Hamlet are both more substantial and powerful), it would take a hard heart not to be won over by it. As with the film and Shakespeare's original play, it takes an irrepressibly sunny and optimistic view of human nature, so much so that even the more despondent moments remain listenable. The score demonstrates not only Doyle's formidable skill with melody but also his ability to adapt to a host of different films. First and foremost, he recognises that Much Ado is a happy play, and doesn't pretend that his score is anything otherwise. However, Doyle's skill resides in the way that he's able to keep the optimistic tone fresh and less than overbearing throughout. Although as a listening experience it may prove too cheerful for some, it nevertheless demonstrates that Doyle is one of the best and most undervalued composers in the business.
The score can sometimes reach astronomical prices as a CD release on Amazon, though imports are cheaper and it is also available as a cheaper MP3 download. Check out available versions and prices at these links on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.