For me, the phrase Merchant-Ivory conjures scenes from sumptuous period films like A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Howard’s End (1992), or The Remains of the Day (1993). I’ve always found the music for these films to be particularly haunting yet beautiful, as if disclosing the tensions that can exist beneath the veneer of perfection. When I learned that the Music Division had the papers of Richard Robbins, who composed the music for almost all of the Merchant-Ivory films, I couldn’t wait to explore.
Robbins came into film scoring almost by happenstance. The team that made many of these films—producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—began with the 1963 film The Householder. But a chance meeting in 1975 between Robbins and Jhabvala—who was looking for a piano teacher for her daughter—led to a partnership that lasted almost thirty years. Jhabvala introduced Robbins to Merchant, and the two quickly became close friends. The subsequent partnership between Robbins and Merchant-Ivory lasted almost thirty years.
Sifting through Robbins’ journals and correspondence, I was struck by how desperately he wanted to become a part of the production for the 1979 film The Europeans. His journal entries from as early as 1976 express Robbins’ desire to make a name for himself—but not necessarily as the film’s composer. At the time Robbins was trying to run an ice cream parlor, and questioned if Ivory even liked him: “I must try and understand him and be patient and not push myself—let things unfold slowly.” An earlier journal entry from April of the same year notes that Ivory and Robbins discussed the color and music of The Europeans, but that Robbins himself “must learn to approach subjects with Jim more carefully.” Robbins seems to have heeded his own advice, because Merchant suggested he score the film.
In many respects, the 1987 Maurice became Robbin’s breakout film score. I’ve always enjoyed how Robbins uses murmuring cross rhythms and glistening, ethereal textures to convey much of the secret passions with which the two young lovers (played by Hugh Grant and James Wilby) grapple. Yet in pouring over Robbins’ sketches, I began to recognize in Maurice the musical kernels that define Robbins’ subsequent and most well-known scores.
Intense desires, masked by a cool exterior, reach their zenith in Robbins’ Academy Award-nominated scores for Howard’s End and Remains of the Day. Both films feature characters who balance their own desires with what society expects of them.
Robbins’ music finds ways to express these sentiments with great economy. The mechanical—yet almost frenzied in its repetition—ascending gesture that bridges statements of the main theme in the opening titles to Maurice (pictured here) reappears in Remains of the Day as a balance to the melancholic descent of the film’s own opening theme. Repetitive rhythmic figures in the flute throughout Howard’s End likewise echo Maurice—with a touch of whimsy.
Robbins’ initial notes for Remains of the Day further this interpretation of his score: “develop calm and placid view of world – Stevens controlled view … it might have inner, rhythmic turbulence on-going.” A calm facade again masks the tension seething beneath the surface. As Robbins makes clear throughout his notes, he would visit the set, meet the cast, and view raw footage to begin assembling a sense of the film. Thereafter, he preferred to see an edited rough cut of the film before composing, so that, in his own words, he could “see the rhythm, atmosphere, mood, and pacing.”
Robbins continued to score Merchant-Ivory films into the 2000s. His final film, The White Countess (2005), was released months after Merchant’s own death, and marks the end of a long and fruitful partnership. Yet Robbins’ rich collection of musical sketches, scores, production files, journals, and photographs provides profound insight into how the films of Merchant-Ivory came into being, and how they continue to live on in the minds and ears of filmgoers.
Now readers, I’ll end these brief thoughts with a question: what are some of your favorite Merchant-Ivory films, and what makes their music so interesting or special to you?