After exploring a more modern coming of age story in 2017’s Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig turned her attention to a more period drama expressing the challenges of Alcotts’ March sisters in Little Women. The critically-acclaimed adaptation received 2 Golden Globe nominations and 6 Oscar nominations. In both cases, composer Alexander Desplat’s (Adults in the Room, Isle of Dogs, The Shape of Water) score was among them.
The album opens with a delightful title scherzo of scurrying strings. The open harmonic ideas here have a style that recalls an approach from Desplat’s earlier days in The Luzhin Defence (2000). A nice lyrical line wafts across the sort of gentle arpeggio patterns that would become more common later, but these here feel better integrated into the quick shifts and turns of phrase that hint at a more classically-oriented direction. Thematic threads also help add to the interest of the music as it bubbles along. (The score has a slightly more “serious” quality than what one hears in say Lunn’s Downtown Abbey work, of which this is a very close cousin; “Telegram”.) What Desplat captures in his score is a gentle joy and discovery that is like light, impressionistic brushes of color. While some of his signature minimalist arpeggiations appear throughout the score, it is far more interesting to hear how additional layers of color are added throughout the score. It provides another way for the ideas to spin forward. Along the way are some really amazing harmonic points that are striking (especially in “The Beach”). It is heartwarming and touching without being overly melodramatic. As the score progresses, there is just one moving, beautiful moment after another recalling some of the composer’s greatest work of the past. A bit of humor is instilled in the delightful writing of “The Book”. At the center of the score, things move towards slightly more dramatic writing and hints of darker moments (“Laurie and Jo on the Hill”; “Jo Writes”) (this central section of the score has parallels in Williams’ Stepmom and Marianelli’s Pride and Prejudice).
Little Women is certainly deserving of the praise it has received. The score is simply stunning in its blend of colors and unique harmonies and it seems to evolve as the story does as well. The orchestral style provides plenty of hints to an earlier age, often being more closely aligned to a cross between mid-20th Century English string music with slight nods to the dissonance one finds in lighter Shostakovich (“Dance on the Porch”; “The Book”). And yet, all of this is part of the wonderful musical tapestry that Desplat explores in this excellent score featuring a prominent piano line, strings, harp, and nice wind colors.