Memoirs of a Geisha as told by John Williams
Prior to Memoirs of a Geisha, composer John Williams had never asked to compose for a movie before. Being the resident composer for Steven Spielberg and the man behind some of the most iconic movie music, one can begin to see why. However, when he heard that one of his favourite books, Memoirs of a Geisha, was being adapted for the big screen, he jumped at the chance to compose for it. He approached director Rob Marshall and asked him for the job, something which he had never done in his almost 50 years in the business. Marshall accepted Williams’ request and was thrilled to have him on board.
Instead of composing the score independently and submitting it to the director (as it is usually done), Williams wanted to work collaboratively with Marshall and compose music that completely reflected his vision. In particular, Williams followed Marshall’s direction when it came to what feelings needed to be portrayed musically at a certain time. With this input he found “the key that [he] was looking for,” a melody called ‘Sayuri's Theme,’ which served as the foundation for the entire score.
Memoirs of a Geisha describes the life of a young geisha during the WWII era. The film’s music used solo instruments to musically represent two characters in the movie. One of these characters is the protagonist, Sayuri, played by Yo-Yo Ma on cello. ‘Sayuri’s Theme’ is one of the first pieces heard in the movie, and Ma’s solo, apart from serving as the exposition for the movie, becomes a leitmotif used throughout the soundtrack.
The cello symbolizes her internal voice and is present throughout Sayuri’s journey. Williams had said that the use of a solo instrument emphasizes the isolation Sayuri feels throughout her life.
In the film, despite the isolation and hostility she experiences in her childhood, a nine-year-old Chiyo (who is Sayuri prior to becoming a geisha) meets the Chairman, whose unsolicited kindness impacts her life. The act of kindness that the Chairman performs motivates her to become a geisha despite the adversity she faces, simply so that she could have “a place in his world.” Here is the scene where Chiyo meets the Chairman for the first time:
He also has a solo instrument to represent him, and it is no coincidence that, being Sayuri’s love interest and she being represented by the cello, The Chairman is played by the violin via Itzhak Perlman.
The Chairman also has his own recurring theme, which is known as ‘The Chairman’s Waltz’.
Williams has described the piece as a valse triste but with a “loving feeling.” Just as ‘Sayuri's Theme’ was used to characterize her as isolated, ‘The Chairman’s Waltz’ characterizes him as affectionate but mysterious. The sad waltz establishes the tone of Sayuri’s relationship with the Chairman in the film; their mutual affection is the closest thing to happiness that she will ever experience because, though becoming a geisha will bring her closer to the Chairman, she will eventually learn that a geisha is not free to love.
After the Chairman meets Chiyo in the beginning of the story, the two meet on a few occasions after Sayuri becomes a geisha. One of these encounters is documented through the piece, ‘The Garden Meeting’. The piece begins as a reprise (almost a repeat) of ‘The Chairman’s Waltz’ with Perlman on violin. The repetition of ‘The Chairman’s Waltz’ brings this feeling of déjà vu, even though the girl that the Chairman met years ago has since changed her name and become a geisha. The fact that the reprise is almost identical to the original waltz reflects how Sayuri’s feelings for the Chairman have not changed.
As the Chairman’s reprise ends at around 0:40, the celli pick up the melody of the waltz, repeating it like an echo. Using the cello section to respond to the the violin lessens the isolation that the soloist evokes in Sayuri, and because the celli are playing The Chairman’s Waltz, it shows how Sayuri’s isolation is lessened by the Chairman. Following a brief interlude, the piece transitions into the solo violin, the Chairman’s “voice,” playing ‘Sayuri's Theme.’ The phrasing and key are different in the violin’s rendition of theme, which make this reprise seem more like a response to the cello. When the violin plays a melody that has become an integral part of Sayuri’s musical identity, it is like the Chairman is having a personal conversation with her. In fact, the very end of the violin solo can be heard in this scene (http://movieweb.com/movie/memoirs-of-a-geisha/the-lesson-of-the-cherry-blossom/), foreshadowing how the personal music conversation will reflect the actions of the characters.
Listening to the soundtrack in its entirety, one experiences the story as told by the music. One can hear that Sayuri grew out of the loneliness shown in track 1 (‘Sayuri’s Theme’) by the end of the story, track 18 (‘Sayuri’s Theme and End Credits), because her theme has matured and become more complex.
The music tells of how Sayuri ridded herself of her isolation through personal growth and finding the happiness she has always desired through her companionship with the Chairman. When the solo violin plays ‘Sayuri’s Theme’ at 2:55, it becomes an auditory representation of the Chairman’s positive influence on Sayuri and how his kindness towards her has become an integral part of her identity.
These were merely a few examples to how the music for Memoirs of a Geisha helped the film tell the story. This soundtrack is great on its own, but the depth of character that Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman added to Sayuri and the Chairman is immense. Rather than simply playing the music, Ma and Perlman infused the soundtrack with the same emotions and intentions as the actors on screen. The soundtrack takes one the most active roles in film that I have ever seen (considering that Memoirs of a Geisha is not a musical). The movie uses the music to fully immerse the audience in Sayuri’s world. This score and the film are almost like one; the characters (like cello Sayuri and the violin Chairman) have voices and conversation, and the cello “narrates” the soundtrack as Sayuri narrates the movie. The soundtrack that Williams composed really does reflect the movie that Rob Marshall directed, not only enhancing the artistry on screen, but being art in its own right.