Hugo (Howard Shore)

Final Musings: Howard Shore delivers a magical score that is infused in French culture. The abundance of charming themes and the wealth of magical material puts this as arguably one of the best fantasy scores of the year. This is no Lord of the Rings, but it is a touching score with heart and soul in its innocence and childish whimsy. The heavy French elements may be deterring to some, but bear in mind that this is a score that requires time to appreciate. In the end, Howard Shore once again masterfully proves the extent of his versatility.

Brian Selznick’s 2008 historical fiction novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret may seem intimidating in its size, but it is really more pictures than words. Regardless, the novel’s touching story of a young boy who tries to understand his purpose in the world while wandering as an orphan in Paris’ infamous Gare Montparnasse has gained great levels of popularity amongst mainstream audiences. Inspired by the works and life events of early film pioneer Georges Méliès, the novel creatively portrays the narrative against a beautiful Parisian backdrop. Martin Scorcese’s 2011 film adaption of the novel would be his first 3D venture. Considering Scorcese had rarely done a family film (if ever) of such vibrant tone and childish whimsy, audiences took the 3D and the overbearingly buoyant nature of trailer as a sign dictating that the legendary director had finally sold out. However, Scorcese ended up proving that even when out of his comfort zone, he continues to maintain his excellent standards in filmmaking. This of course meant that critics loved it and by no means did the 3D hinder the great experience (unfortunately the same cannot be said of the majority of films these days). Arguably Scorcese’s most colourful film, the movie is a touching piece that is immersed in the man’s own childhood and premature fondness for films. Accompanying the film musically is the Academy Award winning composer Howard Shore who has emerged from the recurring collaboration between Scorcese and himself.

Howard Shore’s name has become synonymous with the success of the Lord of the Rings scores. Having created arguably some of the greatest scores of all time for the epic trilogy, the man grew in fame and fortune (along with plenty of awards). Yet those who take the time to look at Shore’s extensive career will easily apprehend that he is one of the most versatile composers working in the industry at the moment. From his operatic heights in The Fly and The Lord of the Rings, to his dark brooding atmospheres in The Silence of the Lambs to his tango style in The Departed and the Russian tones of the melodramatic Eastern Promises, the composer has proven his flexibility time and time again. Along with his colourful career, the Canadian composer is also arguably one of the most intellectual composers in the industry and his brilliantly conceived leitmotivic structures for the Lord of the Rings stand as testament to that. And now he supports these claims again with his delightfully charming score for Hugo.

Shore delivers a score that is saturated in the Gallic stylings of music and acts as a tribute to French culture. With a variety of French instrumental colours, Shore proves again his expertise in different ethnic musical flavours. We’ve got a cimbalom, gypsy guitar, guitar bass, a musette, an Ondes Martenot and of course, an accordion. This results in a vivid score in terms of instrumentation. The atmosphere the score presents is not unlike that of Michael Giacchino’s score for Ratatouille back in 2007.

In addition to the lovely instrumentation, the score also demonstrates Shore’s mastery of themes, which of course cannot have been better exemplified by his magnum opus for the Lord of the Rings. The main theme is a very attractive idea that makes its debut at 1:12 in The Thief. Its  secondary material follows this at 1:57. This theme is really a bewitching musical identity for Hugo that will grow on you with its innocence and childish whimsy. Its appearances in cues like The Clocks, Purpose, The Message and in A Train Arrives in the Station are all delightful moments. Shore manipulates this theme quite well throughout the score. Its emotional moments at times like the end of The Clocks will connect with listeners. To go on, the theme receives some menacing and ominous treatment in cues like Ashes and the theme even reaches heroic heights as Hugo rescues Isabelle at the second half of Bookstore. The secondary material for this theme also receives extensive treatment in cues like Bookstore, The Movies and the Plan. The next major bright theme is the station inspector’s theme. A ridiculously fun idea that receives considerable treatment throughout the score after it first appears in The Chase. Considering the major screen time the inspector receives on film, it is not surprising to notice the many transformations the theme receives in The Station Inspector, The Armoire and other cues. The B phrase of this theme is a chord progression that is rather consistent in the score. It usually is accompanied by a flourish of colours with piping woodwinds and flurrying accordion figures that will easily entice the interest of the listeners.

What may interest others more is the more mysterious fantasy themes. A major idea that is prevalent in the score is the clock motif. This motif is comprised of broken octave notes in a manner that literally represents the ticking of a clock. It is intelligently used to represent the almost omnipresent nature of the automation and the massive clocks of Paris (specifically Gare Montparnasse) that Hugo works with daily. It opens up the score at the beginning of The Thief and receives its final transformations in The Magician. Another important motif is the mystery motif, which altogether represents the mysterious automaton and the secrets that it is trying to reveal to Hugo. This descending motif made of 3 note groups debuts at 0:39 in the clock. It’s mysterious nature is highly appropriate for its designated concept and can be highly entertaining in its musical applications. The mystery motif receives its positive variations in Papa George Made Movies when Hugo manages to solve some of the mystery. These two elusive ideas work to create a strong sense of cohesiveness in the score musically. When played out by celestas and glocks, both the clock motif and the mystery motif convey a genuine sense of wonder, fantasy and whimsy (take for instance The Movies). Among other ideas, Shore includes some more sentimental phrases. For instance, Hugo’s father receives a theme. The father theme is a touching idea on the guitar that debuts on; you guessed it, Hugo’s Father (1:01 to be exact). It is a touching theme that is used at the mention of Hugo’s father and it returns on album at The Message. Finally, there is something that one may call is the bonding theme which debuts at the beginning of The Clocks. It’s a more subdued and somber theme that stands for the bonding relationships between Hugo, Isabelle and Papa Georges. The theme plays beautifully against the portrayal of the bustling train station. The ingenious of it all is how Shore brilliantly weaves these many themes together into a great children’s fantasy score. With clever manipulations and intelligent portrayal of the story musically, one can clearly tell his well known talents for thematic ingenuity clearly cross over here.

While the abundance of themes is a clear highlight for most fans, there are other factors to take into consideration. The composition features many of the composer’s trademark sounds while still pushing at a fresh musical direction for the composer. A great feature of the score is how it’s playing at a constant fluid motion rhythmically. With lovely pulsating woodwind accents that are prominent tracks like The Thief, The Clocks, The Magician, etc. Some of these mannerisms are not unlike Alexandre Desplat’s work. This is not to say that this is a Desplat score because this score is clearly rooted in Shore’s sounds. The rhythms from cues like Snowfall are not those that will be unfamiliar to Shore fans. The lovely woodwind passages in cues like The Plan are not unlike his more thoughtful material for the hobbits in his career. Yet the absence of his dark, challenging passages will result in a very pleasing score to most ears. The blending of all these instrumental colours once again deserves praise. There is truly an abundance of enchantment in this score. With suspense and wonder being built from the very start of the score, this score doesn’t fail to entertain. From the more thoughtful moments like the first half of Trains, to some of the ominous woodwind lines that will bring some back to some of Philip Glass’ material (ex. the beginning of Bookstore), to the childish whimsy in cues like Papa Georges Made Movies; this score is a work to admire. Some of the action and necessary comedic sequences can either be entertaining or irritating for those who abhor heavy French elements or cannot stand a score like Ratatouille. I personally find cues like A Ghost in the Station and A Train Arrives in the Station to be delightful (although some may find the overbearingly positive tone of these comedic sequences to be ridiculous)!

For those looking for Shore’s sound for Lord of the Rings here, you’re not going to find it. This is a lighthearted score of a sense of childish innocence. However some of the booming brass figures at 2:41 in A Ghost in the Station may remind some of Shore’s Mordor material (although that’s a bit of a stretch). Perhaps more so, the textural orchestral clusters and chaotic crescendo at the end of Hugo’s Father and the textures of certain moments in cues like Bookstore may remind listeners of some of Shore’s more textural material for Lord of the Rings. On that note, the climax of Bookstore is indeed a notable highlight in the score. When listening to cues like The Invention of Dreams, listeners should bear in mind that Shore pays tribute to the silent films of old with the piano riffs and even seemingly irritating comedic nature of the cue in general (although the score’s darkest portions do ironically lie at the end of this cue). On another note, album closes with a great French song known as Coeur Volant. This song is fantastic translation of Shore’s main theme and its secondary ideas. Zaz’s beautiful voice is alluring and this is really a fantastic way to close off the album. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to this song often.

There are some fantastic moments in this score, so narrowing it down to a top 5 may be a bit difficult. But here goes:

Muse on these:

The Thief

A fantastic opening that summarizes the main theme in a very fantastical manner. Very enjoyable!


Opens up with some beautiful statements of the secondary ideas to the main theme. It also has a fantastic crescendo from 1:03 that portrays a great sense of fantasy with some beautiful textures.

Papa George Made Movies

Here is a magical cue that portrays a genuine sense of magical nostalgia. With a variation of the main theme and the mystery motif, this cue goes on to end up with some lovely accordion passages.

A Ghost in the Station

This is arguably one of the best cues on album (unless you’re not fond of the French elements in this score). The cue opens up with great variations of both the A and B phrase of the Station Inspector’s theme in its fun pulsating action material. The cue ends on a thoughtful note.

Winding it Up

This is a great closing summary of the general feel of the score. You may find yourself returning to this often with its touching statements of the beautiful main theme.

The song Coeur Volant is also a must buy if you enjoyed the score!

In the end, this score is just another monument to Howard Shore’s versatility in film scoring. He delivers a magical score permeated by the lovely sounds of Paris. The plethora of themes will be a big selling point for most listeners. The thoughtful themes, the mysterious musical ideas and the crazy fun themes (perhaps some will enjoy the Station Inspector’s theme as much as I did) all vary to offer a score that is abundant in colour and flavour. However people expecting an epic score on the scale of Lord of the Rings (which is ridiculous considering the matter of the film) should be warned to expect a much more lighthearted score of delightful playfulness. This score is recorded with a small orchestral ensemble and the French elements may really repel those not fond of the Gallic sounds, but in the end there is heart and soul to this lovely composition. However, this score does take time for it to grow on you. Regardless, this is truly amongst the more enjoyable and refreshing entries of the year. Don’t be surprised to see the charm of this score and the appeal of this film to gain some attention during awards season.

Rating: * * * *


2 Comments on “Hugo (Howard Shore)”

  1. Thomas Allen says:

    Again, excellent review! I read through this as I previewed the score on youtube. Spot on!

  2. K E E Ramsay says:

    If I may say, your reviews are getting better and better! Very in depth reflection, and professional language.

    I think I’m gonna go buy this now… 😉

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