Agatha Christie’s Poirot
Music composed, orchestrated and conducted by Christopher Gunning
Christopher Gunning is a British composer, who is relatively unknown to the larger film music fandom, but whose career spans several decades of film and television music, over 100 scores and a considerable repertoire of concert works. The composer has received recognition for his work and awarded with numerous British film music accolades including several BAFTAs (the last win was for La Vie en Rose/La Mome Piaf) but his career has firmly stayed in British Isles and working on British films and television productions instead of travelling to Hollywood, which might explain his relative obscurity to the larger public, which is a shame as he is a composer of indelible ability and passion and skill.
One of Gunning’s most popular and enduring creations has been for television, the scores for the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels featuring her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with incomparable David Suchet in the title role. Gunning was hired for the series in 1989 and stayed as the show’s composer-in-residence until 2005, when a new production company took over and during this time composed some 40 odd scores for both the short 50-minute and feature length 90-minute episodes of the series. The varied subject matter of Christie’s detective stories featuring murders, thefts, espionage and a whole host of puzzling mysteries offered the composer a chance to explore it all through colorful musical expression and all of this was to be rooted in a central theme that would capture the capricious, slightly humorous but brilliantly intelligent central character of Poirot, “the world’s greatest detective”.
Gunning toiled quite a bit before he finally discovered his central theme, the iconic main title music featuring soprano saxophone and which has since become emblematic of Poirot himself and is so well remembered by fans of the show throughout the world. This main theme seems all at once to capture the setting of the stories, the Europe of 1930’s with its urbane and elegant melody and hint at the turbulent and darker undercurrent of the stories themselves, while also lending a debonair, witty and refined air to the main protagonist with just the right amount of mystery to it. This theme was used by Gunning in most of the episodes in fragments and endless variations that mirrored the mood and disposition of Poirot and the plot as he was solving the conundrums set before him.
As mentioned above the mood and style of the scores vary widely because of the events, places and times these plots take place and Gunning takes up the opporturnity to form almost self contained musical worlds for each episode with new themes for the individual stories but everything is tied together by Poirot’s theme and the certain stylistic traits, the moody, tradegy and mystery tinged atmosphere reflected in the orchestrations. The work is mostly orchestral with subtle use of electronics applied here and there for unusual effect and employs numerous soloists besides the saxophone. Gunning's work for the series is intelligent and highly thematic and has a suitably old fashioned orchestral air about it with even lingering hints of film noir in its often mysterious and darkly romantic musical style. As usual for a television production the orchestra was of moderate size, numbering less than 30 players most of the time but the composer’s skill in orchestration and eliciting nuanced and powerful performances from his ensemble add a touch of class to the scores, setting them worlds apart from most TV-music. The music is big, dramatic and thematically driven but without enormous forces behind it. I feel that the chamber sized orchestra works to the benefit of the show in that it doesn't drown the often intimate and small scale of the stories while still retaining enough size and scope to support the biggest scenes in the episodes.
Despite the popularity of the show the music from the series has not been widely available. A soundtrack album was issued in 1993 featuring a selection from the first 4 seasons of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot. This was a re-recording that contained suites and concertized themes from several episodes of the series but it soon sold out and became a collector’s item. In early 2013 the composer re-released some of his music from Poirot on a new album on Discovery Music & Vision label that contains selections from the previous re-recording album but adds several new tracks to the programme from the newer episodes, which are all taken from the actual film recordings. This release at last gives the film music audience a new chance to explore Mr. Gunning’s wonderful music for Poirot.
The album opens with an extended performance of the main theme in The Belgian Detective featuring sultry and dexterous saxophone solo by Stan Sulzmann, who was the “voice” of Poirot through the entire run of Gunning’s association with the show. The piece presents a series of variations on the main idea and casts the saxophone in central role, not only in this piece but also in the soundscape of the whole series, the voice of the times, place and character. This theme is part of nearly all the episodes in some way and accompanies the main character much of the time while he is on-screen and thus it can also be heard making appearances on many of the tracks on the album.
As majority of the stories take place in England, the composer explores many allusions to British musical tropes in his scores. The pastoral A Country Retreat (from The Mysterious Affair at Styles) with lovely clarinet and viola solos paint a sunny and carefree idyll of British countryside and the gentle folk song stylings of To the Lakes! (from the opening episode of the series The Adventure of the Clapham Cook), where lilting strings and solo clarinet conjure a lyrical portrait green rural England with hints of Poirot’s theme thrown in for humour as the thoroughly urbane character can’t actually stand the untidy and disordered countryside. Some welcome humour and lightness of touch is also heard in The Height of Fashion (from A Wasp’s Nest) which presents a breezy and jazzy 1930’s styled saxophone solo over urbane orchestral accompaniment that simply shouts snooty worldly elegance of the times.
Gunning also created an independent secondary theme for Poirot’s mental powers of detection heard in a long concertized version Grey Cells, which is derived from the main theme, where the saxophone once again takes the lead role in a smoky and mysterious exploration of the idea, which is heard in the series whenever the Belgian sleuth is solving the crime, thinking and pondering alone. The constant repeating motion of the motif seem to evoke a more moody side of the character, the hint of dark elegance and melancholy inherent in his persona. This same melancholic atmosphere infuses The Double Clue, but here it is of Slavonic origin as Gunning creates a passionate piano and saxophone led love theme for Poirot and the Russian aristocrat (and jewel thief), countess Vera Rossakoff, the piece full of longing and bittersweet romance as the two characters are diametrically opposed but share a mutual admiration for each other.
The series offered the composer fair share of chances for heightened drama, where the music carried the implications of the murders and lead the action and enhanced foreboding and suspense and was allowed to be bold and larger than life. Good examples of this come from music of The Mysterious Affair at Styles when the composer introduces a brooding melody on track called War that originally underscores the curtain raising scene where captain Hastings, Poirot’s friend and associate, is recovering from war wounds in a military hospital during WWI but later we realize that this music actually represents not war but murder when Gunning transforms it into the agitated and frenzied death throes of an old rich woman in The Death of Mrs. Inglethorpe. Similarly the ABC Murders grows from the simple ominous basis of the notes A-B-C repeated in various orchestrations into a forceful musical hunt that keeps building as Poirot and Inspector Japp try to catch a devious serial killer. The Victory Ball features solo cello but the tension is built not on fast pace or thunderous orchestrations but rather on a languid yet threatening melody that winds ever on in smoky register punctuated by rhythmic jabs of piano and xylophone for suspense.
Agatha Christie often chose English nursery rhymes or children’s poems as the titles of her novels and short stories. Christopher Gunning likewise chose to incorporate these rhymes into his music, and if there was a melody, to integrate it in the underscore as well. Two examples, One, Two Buckle My Shoe and How Does Your Garden Grow can be found on this album. One, Two Buckle My Shoe is a ghostly piano and whispering children’s chorus evocation of the English hopscotch rhyme, that underscores a brutal murder and forms a good part of the underscore of the episode in question.
How Does Your Garden Grow is a long suite from the episode of the same name, where a Russian au pair is suspected of murdering her employer in hopes of inheritance. The music is a mix of highly dramatic and romantic Slavonic colourings interspersed with playfully orchestrated interpolations of the children’s rhyme melody and the violent orchestral convulsions for the murder of the old rich woman and the capture of the real villains of the story.
The new additions to the album’s programme are three selections from 2004 episodes of the series. The Innocence of Caroline Crale (from the episode Five Little Pigs) carries childlike simplicity in its sad, halting piano melody full of nostalgia and sense of loss, a warm and affecting piece that still ends mid-phrase to imply a tragic conclusion to the tale. Amyas’s Last Painting (also from Five Little Pigs) is a mix of supremely lyrical clarinet and violin led melodies and intense and driving rhythmic and jabbing music for scenes where an obsessed artist feverishly paints a portait of a young woman unaware that she has in her jealousy poisoned him. It is a wonderfully inventive, beautifully flowing and balanced piece with two entirely contrasting moods mixing effortlessly.
The final new piece, a suite from Death on the Nile, also contains the only example of the album of the more exotic music composed by Gunning for Poirot’s numerous adventures abroad. The suite opens with a delicious fatal sounding musical allusion to the Near East before settling in on a very tragic love theme for two of the main characters of the story. Soon follows some faux-Arabic travelling music for the river boat Karnak that goes into the various supenseful and intense cues for mysteries and murder on the luxury-boat and the suite wraps up with dramatic, tragic and ominous musical evocations of the finale of the film, all done with supreme confidence, sense of melody and drama by the composer.
The 2013 album is well put together with welcome additions of new music from the 2004 episodes. Gunning also had to excise two tracks from the old programme of the 1992 album, The Plymouth Express and Death in the Clouds, to make room for the music from his newer work. This of course is unfortunate but at least to me the inclusion of the new music more than makes up for the loss. The sound quality is top notch and the performances are nuanced with solo instruments, saxophone, piano, clarinet, cello and various others shining in the recording. Christopher Gunning himself provides informative liner notes where he not only tells how he became associated with the series, how his famous main theme came together and how he and the producer Brian Eastman slowly worked on the musical style of Poirot but also gives short track-by-track commentary on the music. The 2004 pieces were recorded with an audibly larger orchestra (the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) but blend effortlessly with the overall aesthetic of the sound of Poirot’s world. In the final analysis the album is a winning mix of romantic orchestral sensibilities, mystery and suspense. Let’s hope that the composer is inclined in the near future to release more of his music from the series as this album barely scratches the surface of the musical bounties found in the 40 plus episodes Gunning scored for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Highly recommended to all fans of great orchestral film music and especially to the fans of the show.
© Mikko Ojala
1. The Belgian Detective 2.30*
2. A Country Retreat 4.53§
3. The ABC Murders 4.34
4. Grey Cells 4.21*
5. To the Lakes! 2.18
6. The Double Clue 5.09†
7. War 2.29
8. The Innocence of Caroline Crale 5.30±
9. Amyas’s Last Painting 4.22±
10. How Does Your Garden Grow? 9.05
11. The Death of Mrs Inglethorpe 2.27
12. The Height of Fashion 2.08*
13. One-two, buckle-my-shoe 1.58
14. The Victory Ball 4.55¤
15. Death on the Nile 13:45
* featuring Stan Sulzmann, soprano or alto saxophone
§ featuring David Emmanuel, viola and Nick Rodwell, clarinet
† featuring Leslie Pearson, piano and Stan Sulzmann, tenor saxophone
± featuring Viktor Simcisko, violin
¤featuring Anthony Pleeth, cello
Tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14:
Executive producer, Maggie Rodford/Air Edel Associates Ltd.
Recorded and Mixed at the Lansdowne Recording Studios, London 1992
Tracks 8, 9 and 15
Produced by Christopher Gunning
Recorded by members of Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bratislava
Mixed at Lansdowne Recording Studios, London August 2004
Link to the composer's site and soundclips from the album