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Hans Zimmer Says He Riffed On Mozart, Schubert & European Gypsy Music On 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows' Score

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by Todd Gilchrist
December 15, 2011 10:58 AM
2 Comments
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Since making a name for himself with the scores for films like “Rain Man,” “Backdraft” and “Crimson Tide,” Hans Zimmer has become one of the most in-demand composers in the entertainment industry. Remarkably, he’s not just prolific, but enormously acclaimed. In addition to composing sixteen scores -- in 2010 and 2011 alone - Zimmer won an Oscar for “The Lion King” and earned seven more nominations for everything from “Rain Man” to “Inception.” Amazingly, even when it comes to even sequels, Zimmer told The Playlist he’s not interested in resting on his laurels, much less his past accomplishments.

“I wanted to forget everything we had done on the first film, because I’d done it,” he said in an interview last week for “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I’ve never had a job in my life, I’ve never had repetition in my life, and it’s really important for me to sort of throw everything out that we had before, and a bit like distant family, occasionally have [those themes] come and visit and just stay a little bit. Or like a guilty pleasure, the occasional theme would be reprised, or the occasional motif would be reprised.”

Zimmer’s score for “Sherlock Holmes” was one of 2009’s most memorable, featuring a chamberlin that seems to rev up into a steam engine of symphonic bombast. While the music alternately evoked Ennio Morricone and John Barry, Zimmer indicated his earliest inspirations were not what you might expect. “It’s actually Kurt Weill and Hendrix, if you want to know,” he revealed. “I don’t know – somehow in my crazy German brain, I managed to make Victorian London into Weimar Berlin. There had to be a decadence to it, and there had to be a sense of a crumbling empire getting in there, and I thought the music of Kurt Weill was really sort of appropriate.”

Where on 'A Game Of Shadows' Zimmer was inheriting the world Guy Ritchie created with its predecessor, on the first “Sherlock Holmes” he was still dealing with the enormous legacy of Holmes adaptations that were produced through the years. “Just like everybody on this project knows, Holmes has been done in many different ways, and done successfully in many different ways. One of the things that stayed constant was that he was a violinist, but I think he always played classical music, but this age, the age he lived in, the age of colonization, the age of the Industrial Revolution, I thought, let me broaden his horizons, and let me go and have him play what I thought was the most flamboyant and virtuoso music, which was Romani violin players.”

“A Game Of Shadows” features a lead character who is a gypsy, and gypsy culture figures into its plot. Zimmer said he was pleasantly surprised to discover that he’d already laid the groundwork for that influence in the first, without quite realizing it. “The joy of this was reading, oh the gypsy fortune teller, and phoning Guy and going, road trip!” he remembered. “But part of the thing of the road trip was that in the first movie I’d hinted at some of the Romani music of some of the gypsy stuff, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually know what that was – I didn’t know much about that culture at all.” Not satisfied to simply flirt with the Romani sound, Zimmer said he immersed himself in their culture in order to get a better sense of how to integrate it into the story for 'A Game Of Shadows.'

“It really became sort of a mission to go and find out what it was like,” Zimmer explained. “We’d get up at 5:30 in the morning and get into our little van and drive to these settlements where you’d never seen this much poverty, and you’d never think this would exist in the middle of Europe. And partly what started to interest me was when France started having these problems with their Romani community. And it’s always nice when you can use a movie for something slightly more than just the self-satisfaction of writing a good piece of music or making a buck, but this was actually going to be a bit more than that. And we’re still trying to do that with this, so these musicians were very important to me.”

Simultaneously, star and producer Robert Downey Jr. said he wanted to use some classical pieces as themes for some of the key scenes, as well as key characters. “From Robert I kept hearing, we’re going to have the Schubert, we’re going to have the Mozart, we’re going to have all of these experiments to really stretch the music far.” He said that the end result became a mélange of original music and source compositions from classical composers. “There’s the big waltz scene, which is actually two Johann Strauss waltzes and a lot of Zimmer and a lot of Aleksey [Igudesman], my violinist friend,” he described. “It starts off as this glorious waltz, and as the scene goes on, you realize that things are not necessarily what they seem. And I wanted to play around with the idea of deconstructing this whole thing.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zimmer is steeped in classical composition. “I grew up with that music,” he revealed. “A little-known fact about me is that I didn’t pick the ‘Die Forelle’ for Moriarty, I think Robert did, but when I was a four-year-old, I could sing the whole thing, so I knew this thing. I went to this opera when I was two and a half or three years old.” He said that in the process of interpolating these iconic pieces into the score, he was intent on protecting the structure of their original composition, even if they were going to be woven into pieces he created himself. “I wanted to do the ‘not enough notes’ orchestration of ‘Don Giovanni,’ partly because I didn’t want to let go of the ‘Don Giovanni’ and at the same time, it would have to become score.”

“And then the Schubert idea was, remember, Schubert never finished a symphony,” he continued. “And I think the first movement of that symphony has a lot of great – I was going to try to avoid it, but I’m just going to use it – ‘riffs’ in it, and I always thought, there must be a dichotomy in his thinking, because he’s got the great riff, and then he’s got the great tune coming, so he doesn’t use enough of the riff because the tune takes over.” So great was his commitment to authenticity that his pieces ultimately adopted not just the larger themes, but even the idiosyncrasies of his predecessors. “It doesn’t finish, either,” he said. “I made sure that the last note is a note that says it’s not finished.” But despite standing on the shoulders of giants, and even mimicking their working methods, Zimmer remains humble about his work.

“I am no Mozart, I am no Schubert, I am not as good as these great composers,” he insisted. “But the idea of just playing in that great vocabulary a little bit was a lot of fun.”

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” opens nationwide December 16, 2011.

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2 Comments

  • Pat French | December 26, 2011 9:09 PMReply

    Could someone define the term "Not Enough Notes Orchestration?" I saw it in the credits of Game of Shadows, looked it up on Google, and this article is the only hit! Thanks.

  • evilnik | December 15, 2011 11:56 AMReply

    on a unrelated, but related (what) note, Zimmer's score for the TDKR prologue was mindblowing. Esp how he integrated the 'bane chant', is brilliant. you can hear snippets of inception here and there, but this one, the dark knight rises score, is completely a new beast!

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