Starting with the idea of a waltz, Academy Award-winning composer Dario Marianelli created a score that captures the emotions, as well as the historical moment, of ANNA KARENINA.

For film composer Dario Marianelli, a collaboration with director Joe Wright begins not with a key or a melody but an idea. For their previous film, ATONEMENT, for which the composer won the Academy Award, Marianelli began with the staccato sound of typewriter keys, using the noise as both rhythmic element and sonic evocation of the relationship between the story’s novelist storyteller and the emotional world of her characters. For Wright and Marianelli’s latest film, a sumptuous and formally provocative adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s tale of doomed love among the 19th century Russian aristocracy, ANNA KARENINA, Wright’s concept for the drama inspired an immediate musical reference: the waltz.

Describing the musical form as “obviously aristocratic,” Marianelli remembers discussing with Wright “some ideas in the British historian Orlando Figes’ book Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, where the Russian aristocracy is portrayed as living on a stage, forever acting a part.” Explains Wright, “Figes’ thesis is that Russia has always suffered from an identity crisis, not quite knowing whether it’s part of the East or part of the West. During the period Anna Karenina was written in and about, Russians decided that they were definitely part of Western Europe and that they wanted to be cultured like the French…. Their ballrooms were often mirrored so that they could watch themselves and appreciate their own ‘performances’ as French people…”

It is in just such a ballroom sequence early in the film where Anna’s illicit love with Count Vronsky becomes obvious to members of high society. As filmed by Wright, it’s a bravura sequence, with dancers freezing in striking tableaux while the lovers, played by Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, glide across the floor. Early on, Marianelli decided to write a waltz for this key scene and then draw upon its compositional elements for most of the film’s remaining score.

But in addition to the waltz’s “aristocratic” qualities, there was another, more primal reason why Marianelli was drawn to the form. “I was also attracted to the idea that most of the score for ANNA KARENINA should be waltzing, one way or another, as it fit into my idea of Anna spiraling faster and faster towards her end, dancing herself into the path of a train.” Thus, the waltz — representing both social theater as well as frenetic emotion — became one of what Marianelli calls “points on a musical compass.”

There were of course other points on that compass for Marianelli, whose scores have always richly drawn from multiple musical traditions. In the case of ANNA KARENINA, those traditions were revealed by the composer’s study of the Russian classical music of the story’s era. “I tried to understand where the classical music we now consider ‘Russian’ comes from,” he explains. “And my understanding is that about halfway through the 19th century, first Glinka, then Balakirev and then a few more, decided that Russia needed its own national music. They thought a good way to create such thing was to base it on the vast heritage of folk songs that existed at that point. So, Russian national music was born of the desire of literally a handful of Russian composers who very consciously re-rooted their classical approach into the tradition of the Russian folk song. It didn't seem a bad idea for me to listen to a lot of Russian folk music, and find the original folk songs that had inspired Balakirev to write some collections of piano settings for them.”

This research process is one that Marianelli undertakes whenever he scores a period film. However, he says, it’s always important to allow a contemporary feel to seep in. “I think the extent to which musical history affects me is that I try my best, sometimes, to imagine myself as a composer living at that time, who has available certain references upon which to build a piece of music. But I try hard not to let it become a stifling costume that I have to wear at every moment.”

There’s one final influence that usually seems to find its way into Marianelli’s scores: tango. “That's probably my love of [Argentinian composer Astor] Piazzolla coming through,” Marianelli laughs. “It’s almost an almost knee-jerk reaction: Love 'n Death = Tango!” And while tango has appeared in other Marianelli scores, like ATONEMENT, there’s a specific reason a hint of the Argentinian dance genre appears here. A young Kazakh singer and musician, Aruhan Galieva, was a resource for songs from the period. “She brought to my attention a number of songs that have been sung for a long, long time in Russia, and with Joe we made a shortlist of the ones that caught our imagination most. One of them Tchaikovsky had already used in Onegin and in his Fourth Symphony, which seemed like a good omen.” Galieva can be seen in the film several times playing concertina and accordion and, as Marianelli says, “with a concertina in the score it is not difficult to be reminded of tango…”

Marianelli’s music played another role in ANNA KARENINA — as dance score. Anna Karenina has been famously adapted for opera and ballet, but the composer says he avoided being influenced by previous scores. “I kind of wish I was so incredibly knowledgeable to be able to make use of those influences,” he says, “but I am afraid the brutal truth is that I never saw any of the previous adaptations. When I became aware of how many there are, I took a decision not to peek, just in case I found something so overwhelmingly brilliant that I would have got a bit depressed…”

Marianelli instead drew on his own prior experience writing for ballet, beginning his collaboration with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui months before shooting. “I wrote four or five pieces for him to work on, made mock-ups with my samplers, and after a few weeks we met together with Joe,” he explains. “We discussed changes, mainly timings, to accommodate what Joe was foreseeing happening in the editing. A few more weeks, and then I went over to Antwerp to meet Larbi and the dancers with whom he was developing the pieces, to discuss any further changes to the music. So by the time we got to shoot those scenes, everybody was very familiar with the pieces, and there were no surprises. Later on… I had to make further adjustments, before orchestrating and recording the music for real with an orchestra.”

Concludes Marianelli, “I think the score of ANNA KARENINA buys completely into the idea that the world of the movie is completely made, that it is a world where everything is non-literal. In that respect I think it is probably one of my most ‘theatrical’ I have written — although very far from ‘theatre music’— as it is never hiding in the wings.”

Still, though, there’s another quality to Marianelli’s work here, an aching lyricism that can’t be simply tied to musical history or formal play. It’s a quality that recalls a statement of Wright’s about the movie. “The heart of the story is the human heart,” Wright said. “I am forever fascinated why and how love works, and how sincere we are as human beings with our emotions.”

Admits Marianelli, there was another statement he wanted to make with this music. “One more musical idea sprung up quite early on,” he says. “I was certain that between the pretense of the aristocracy and the roughness of the peasants there was room for one third point of the compass: one that hinted at something simple and beautiful and quite possibly not of this earth — an idealized aspiration, the object of Anna's and Levin's separate quests. I think of it as some call from without, a call to embrace a more honest existence. So I tried to find a voice for that as well, and provided me with a third route to explore musically a side of the story.”

Incorporating formal play and historical reference into work that is nonetheless aimed directly at the heart — it’s a quality that Marianelli and Wright both share, and one that makes their collaboration among the richest director/composer pairings today.