How ‘Shogun,’ ‘The Crown’ and More Dramas Pulled Off Historically Accurate Sounds (2024)

Historical dramas often demand a specific musical approach: Music that suggests the time and place, along with reflecting the (often real-life) characters and the unique circ*mstances of their lives. Five of the past season’s miniseries featured outstanding scores along these lines.

For producers Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, “Masters of the Air” marked the completion of a World War II trilogy (after “Band of Brothers,” about American soldiers in Europe, and “The Pacific,” about Marines in the Pacific theater), and composer Blake Neely worked on all three.

Neely orchestrated for Michael Kamen on “Band of Brothers” and was one of three composers on “The Pacific.” For “Masters of the Air,” despite his busy schedule scoring multiple CW series for producer Greg Berlanti, Neely composed, orchestrated and conducted all six hours of music in the nine-part Apple TV+ drama.

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“I wanted to honor the men, but I also wanted it to take flight and soar,” Neely says of his heroic main-title theme, played by a 62-piece Nashville orchestra and 25-voice choir. “The strings are playing the aerial acrobatics.”

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There are secondary themes for “brotherhood,” “going home,” “honor,” “taking flight” and multiple themes for the many air battles in the series. He had one firm rule: use no instruments that weren’t around during World War II. So there are no electronics.

The score is also a tribute to Kamen, Neely’s mentor. Kamen played the oboe, and the main theme begins and ends with that instrument. “It’s my thank-you to Michael,” he says. It was an ideal situation for a composer: he got to watch the entire series before starting work, and he spent six months writing it all.

Paul Leonard-Morgan’s music for “Fellow Travelers,” the Showtime series that follows closeted gays through the political minefields of Washington, D.C., from the ’50s through the ’80s, didn’t allude to the period at all. It’s written primarily for string quartet and piano.

The composer didn’t want “a big glossy Hollywood orchestra, noting that “the love story between Tim (Jonathan Bailey) and Hawk (Matt Bomer) is this really intimate thing. Every time they’re with each other, it’s very tender, just piano and cello.” Hawk’s theme is built on a descending scale because “his life is descending into chaos,” and the music never resolves “because his life never resolves.”

The “Fellow Travelers” score was the last one recorded at the legendary United Recorders studio in Hollywood before it closed. Leonard-Morgan wanted the warmth of that ’60s room, he said. He added the occasional woodwind, such as the bass flute (“the sound of seduction”), but it’s mostly string quartet and the composer himself at the piano.

Leonard-Morgan began work before shooting, so creator-producer Ron Nyswaner sent the music to the actors to help them “visualize” the characters and their relationships before setting foot on the set.

Piano, cello and strings also figured prominently in the music of “We Were the Lucky Ones,” the story of a Polish Jewish family separated during the Holocaust and trying to reunite after the war. English composer Rachel Portman and American Jon Ehrlich collaborated on the score for the eight-part Hulu series.

“I prefer to work from the inside out,” says Portman. “Once we had established where we were going with episodes 1 and 2, we really had the language to go through; things continue to mature, get richer and develop.”

The main title theme needed to be “compelling and emotional, but not overtly sad,” Portman adds. “It needed to have real forward motion, because the whole story has a forward trajectory all the way through.” One of the main characters, Addy (Logan Lerman), is a pianist, Ehrlich notes, another reason to incorporate the piano.

There are subsidiary themes that represent the family desire to stick together, Passover, courage in the face of endless hostility, hubris that threatens to kill one or more, and a love theme for various characters. But much of the score isn’t downbeat, despite the backdrop of the Holocaust. “It’s a story of hope,” Ehrlich adds. “Hope is what pulls us through the story.”

There was a personal connection for Ehrlich, too. “This story, in so many ways, happens to parallel the story of my wife’s grandmother. She was from the same town, Radom; she was 19 years old when she ran away in 1939, which is the same age that Halina (Joey King) was. She ended up in Russia eventually, and her husband was murdered there. Coming to work was almost like a spiritual experience.”

For FX’s lavish remake of “Shogun” — about a shipwrecked Englishman trying to survive in the feudal-warfare era of 17th-century Japan — Atticus Ross, his brother Leopold Ross and their collaborator Nick Chuba worked for more than two years and took an unconventional approach.

“We wanted it to be less about place and period and more about scale and psychology,” Leopold says, “not only the psychology of the characters but also the psychology of the audience. We felt that if you went the traditional Japanese route, the audience would feel very comfortable. When the Erasmus washes up on the shores of Japan, we wanted the audience to feel this incredible kind of wonder and unease that the crew feels.”

They did months of research into traditional Japanese music and sounds, notably Gagaku, the imperial court music of the time, and recruited California-born, Japan-based arranger-producer Taro Ishida to visit multiple sites around the country and record this ancient music.

“We had a sense of the palette of sounds and an idea of how we could bring that into our world in an interesting way,” Leopold says. The trio wrote various themes and musical ideas, sent them to Ishida to have them recorded, but also sent atmospheric pieces for the Japanese ensembles to improvise upon.

The trio employed classic Japanese material in a modern way by processing the sounds and incorporating them into an overall, electronically created soundscape that fulfills the story’s dramatic needs. Some of the traditional instruments that can be heard from time to time are the zither-like koto; the shakuhachi, ryuteki and hichiriki flutes; the stringed shamisen, biwa and kokyu; and the massive traditional taiko drums.

For the final season of “The Crown,” composer Martin Phipps says “it’s all about getting the right tone. We had to be more precise as we got closer to modern day” with the stories of Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana, and Prince (now King) Charles. “Music tells you so much about a character, about the emotional truth of a scene,” he says.

With the Chamber Orchestra of London performing the score, Phipps was reminded that creator-producer Peter Morgan sought “suppressed power” from the music, “never too overt or in your face.” There were big orchestral moments, but restraint was mostly the order of the day. Using solo French horn, he found, was useful as “it has the sense of power but also the intimacy and emotion” needed for many scenes.

The final episode, which featured a bagpipe tune chosen for the queen’s eventual funeral, was especially challenging as it required Phipps to build an orchestral track around it for the series’ moving final moments with the Queen in a church.

How ‘Shogun,’ ‘The Crown’ and More Dramas Pulled Off Historically Accurate Sounds (2024)
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