'War & Peace' Composer Explains His Fresh Approach to Scoring the Russian Classic

A still from the 2016 mini-series War & Peace
Courtesy Photo

A still from the 2016 mini-series War & Peace.

When it came time to score War & Peace, a four-part retelling of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian classic airing Monday night (Jan. 18) on History, Lifetime and A&E, British composer Martin Phipps wanted to stay away from the obvious classical period drama music.

He went to Russia to meet with director Tom Harper, with whom he had worked on Peaky Blinders, and played him some ideas. “I wanted to do a very Russian choral sound mixed with Rachmaninoff meets Vangelis and see if we could mix those elements together,” Phipps says.

The result is a score that captures the epic scope of the story about five aristocratic Russian families during the reign of Alexander I and Napoleon’s invasion in the early 1800s, but still feels fresh and new.

The production, a partnership between BBC Cymru Wales, The Weinstein Co. and BBC Worldwide/Lookout Point, is already a hit in England, drawing a 25 share when it began airing earlier this month, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The drama stars Gillian Anderson, Paul Dano, Lily James, James Norton and James Broadbent.

Using primarily electronic instrumentation, Phipps wanted the contrast of the human voices to give the score power and emotion. “They give a size and a scale to the piece and add a real human voice to highlight these personal stories told in a huge context,” he says.

London-based Phipps looked at recording with a Russian church choir, but the logistics didn’t work and found the Latvian State Choir through his brother, a conductor, who had worked with the collective previously.

“They can all sing in Russian and they’ve got that very Baltic, open-throated sound, not like a Western classical choir,” he says. “We went to Riga and did three sessions with them.”

A Russian advisor wrote the words for the chorus to sing. “I don’t know what they mean,” Phipps says with a laugh. “They’re all kind of loosely based on the book or ideas in the series.”

It took seven months for Phipps to complete the score and though he feared that so many chiefs would mean lots of different voices weighing in, “none of it filtered down to me,” he says. Plus, since he started writing just as filming was starting, he didn’t have to compete with any kind of temp score.

Up next, Phipps says he’d be quite content to step back into the 21st century and leave the period dramas behind for a bit. Or maybe he’ll get around to reading War & Peace’s source material, the 1,225-page novel. He preferred not to read it before he composed the music for the series, but adds that he definitely plans to one of these days. Just like the rest of us.


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