The Shining – Legacy of Balance In Horror Film Scores.

While writing about a perceived pivoting moment in horror film scores for a research essay last year, I briefly mentioned towards the end of what I termed “a legacy of balance” within horror film music and film scores.  With the word limitations on that essay meaning that the point was only vaguely surmised with a handful of explanations, I wanted to go further into what I meant by this, specifically as an excuse to look at the score of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980); a jewel of beautiful rarity in a genre that had already started to cannibalise its sellable parts to feed its addiction to low rent VHS profit.

The legacy of balance spoke of a mixture of different sources of music in horror film.  Instead of vying for a particular avenue or simply leaving the nondiegetic score to be born within the hands of one creator, the legacy of balance that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s is an even handed approach between composed music and pre-sourced music of all genres and styles.  1968 opened the door for proper with electronic and popular music within horror scoring through Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby yet it took another ten years to find the right mixture of these genres with the, already well established, classical tropes applied since the days of the Universal horror and arguably even before.

Kubrick’s film is the bastion for this principle; when both the budgetary and technological restraints were lifted to allow an almost perfect film score to be formed.  Its mixture is so varied and effective that each type of segment is worth exploring in detail, though after recently viewing the excellent Room 237 (2012), that detail will be kept strictly out of the realms of conspiracy theories.

The score can roughly be split into three sections though even this misses some of finer details.  These are the electronic composed score by Wendy Carlos, the previously sourced classical music and the previously sourced popular music.  Some are more prominent than others, though the balance between their uses is minute and absolutely key to the rhythm of the film.

Carlos’ electronic is sadly mostly missing from the picture.  Similar to the fate of Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), it was similarly omitted and replaced with the pre-existing classical music.  Some elements are however present and Carlos’ music has the honour of opening the film amidst the passing mountainous vistas and supposedly deliberate helicopter shadows.  The piece is called Rocky Mountains and though this describes its visual accompaniment, it does little to describe its melodies and intentions.

The main melody for the piece is an almost direct rip from a motif from the 5th and final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique Op.14 (which itself takes the melody from a traditional latin hymn, Dies Irae which can be heard in Ken Russell’s The Devils for a cinematic example).  With this in mind then, it instantly resembles Carlos’ previous work for Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange (1971) that explicitly recontextualised classical pieces by Beethoven and Rossini into horrifically ironic, electronic nightmares.  The rest of Carlos’ music for the film is available through compilation CDs and it is interesting to compare the two with different scores.  Of course, years of exposure to the original choices creates an obvious bias, though there’s no doubt that Carlos produced some of her best work for the film.

The second and most prominent use of music in the film can be found in the use of early 20th century modernist music, chiefly by Penderecki, Bartók and Ligeti.  The most famous of course is the use of the third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste yet it is a misnomer that this is the predominant music in the film.  It is perhaps more easily remembered than the other uses simply for its signifier of the episodic nature of the film.  It is often allowed to build to its inevitable crescendo in order for the title cards for days and times to hit its loudest kick; almost like a nondiegetic Lewton Bus.  It’s not used for all of the time cards but its lack of use later instantly lulls the viewer into feeling the tension of a false build up in the most archaic of audio based practical jokes.

Instead the majority of the nondiegetic score is taken up minute pieces of music by Penderecki who has over 6 pieces quoted in the soundtrack.  When music does appear, it comes in for grand, epic moments of horror, most famously for the finale of the hotel spiralling into chaos and ghostly horror.  As Wendy runs with increasing terror, she comes across a number of horrific and odd scenarios but the most fulfilling is the visual leitmotif that the film has been using since early on; the rivers of blood gushing out of the lift.

This scene has been coupled with various soundscapes throughout the film but here it is a culmination of the horror built up for the last one hundred or so minutes.  It is the final stage in Wendy’s acceptance of the hotel’s evil and its occupant’s presence and so can be seen as the high point in the film’s arsenal of horror.  For this scene, Penderecki’s Kanon Paschy from Utrenja plays and its vocals almost give the scenario a voice.  From what has been seen in the last half an hour of film, the voices that Penderecki’s choir possess nondiegetically could equally be diegetic voices of the ghosts screaming as they release the blood from the lift.

Penderecki’s The Awakening of Jacob is also used to great effect. Early on in the film, the pulsating piece of music is mixed with some electronic heart beat effects (whether this is more of Carlos’ work is debatable) to accompany Jack’s visit to Room 237 where he meets a women who is not what she seems.  The piece is fitting for a number of reasons; chiefly because it shows the awakening of the film’s first, obviously malevolent force.  Lloyd the bartender, who appeared in the scene before is a character who is never given attention in terms of evil.  As The Awakening of Jacob reaches its climax, the false identity with which the ghost has taken is cast aside and the music reflects the inescapable grotesqueness that cascades over Jack.

These are just two examples of Penderecki’s music from the film.  There are a number of others as well as Lontano by Ligeti but the point here is to address the legacy of balance and not fully analyse every piece of score from the film.  Instead, the final focus can move its use of popular music.

Now when using the term popular music, it can conjure up images of modern pop and the like.  Here it is strictly to represent the music used that is overtly non-classical.  The popular music used falls into the category of 1920’s dance hall jazz; a genre fitting for the film’s period flippancies and its eerie atmosphere.  Ray Nobel’s orchestra with Al Bowlly provide the most obvious examples, especially as one of their songs closes the film.

Midnight with the Stars and You re-appropriates Jack back to the 1920s in the same way as the final shots glide in to the picture showing him to be there.  This is used earlier on too during his entry into The Gold Room at the height of a party, giving an early signifier that this is an established musical connection to the past.  It’s All Forgotten Now is also used to this effect though is nowhere near as emphasised or as successful.

The legacy of balance isn’t a literal perfect ratio of different types of music within horror.  What it is can be seen at its best in The Shining; an equal amount of importance and emphasis put on each use of music whether it is electronic, classical or popular.  Whether they affect any of the readings of the film is besides the point (a rare aspect for a film read so deeply and by so many).  The influence of this balance can be seen instantly in the likes of The Evil Dead (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) to name just two but most of all, it can be seen as the high water mark for uses of music in horror film; one that has still yet to be surpassed.

Adam Scovell

3 thoughts on “The Shining – Legacy of Balance In Horror Film Scores.

  1. The opening theme, a section of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique Op.14 can also be heard in the movie, The Screaming Skull from 1958. The difference is a layer of key beds under the original score not found in the older film. It is definitely a peice that screams ‘horror’ (pardon the pun) and sets the tone for both films.

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