John Corigliano Wins Oscar For 'Red Violin' Film Score

Classical composer praised violinist Joshua Bell in acceptance speech.

When composer John Corigliano accepted the Academy Award for Best Original Score for his work on the film "The Red Violin," he seemed nonplussed at his surroundings.

"I'm from another world ... of classical music," Corigliano said as he began his acceptance speech in the sumptuous environs of Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium on Sunday.

Indeed, this is only the third film score written by Corigliano, who is generally known as a contemporary classical composer. His first score, for the 1981 fantasy "Altered States," also earned him an Oscar nomination.

"The feeling right from the start was we had to get a classical composer and not just a film person," Daniel Iron, the co-producer of "The Red Violin," said. After consulting with Sony Classics to find the right composer, Iron said that Corigliano quickly came to the top of the list because of his earlier film work.

Part of the classical sensibility also came from Rhombus Media, the Canadian company that produced the film. Rhombus has been taping performing arts programs and creating classical composer biographies for film and television for more than 20 years.

The film's director, François Girard, said that Corigliano was brought in early in the filmmaking process.

"He read every draft of the script, and he dealt with all of the issues of structure, unity and time along with us," Girard said in a statement.

The film follows the life of a particular violin, created in 17th-century Italy, through its owners around the world. Over the course of the film, the violin travels from an 18th-century Austrian monastery through the cultural revolution of China and across the Pacific to modern-day Canada.

Creating a thematic thread that would weave itself through the various owners of the violin, Corigliano said he "composed a single theme, hummed by the violin master's wife, Anna, which mutates into a solo violin melody. Underpinning the theme is an inexorable seven-chord chaconne, evoking the Tarot and the fate it signals."

This thematic approach — similar to the development of musical motifs in classical music — set Corigliano's score apart from those of many of his counterparts in the soundtrack field.

Past Original-Score Oscar winners such as Maurice Jarre and John Williams have established their reputations in the film world. Others, such as Burt Bacharach and David Byrne, have come from popular music.

Rarely has a classical composer found himself at the awards ceremony. In 1949, Aaron Copland won the award for his score of the motion picture "The Heiress."

While Corigliano's soundtrack output has been modest throughout the years, it has generally met with rave reviews. His scores for "Altered States" and "The Red Violin" also earned Grammy nominations, and the latter won a Genie award in Canada.

Not that Corigliano has been left unscarred in the cinematic world. His second soundtrack, for the unsuccessful 1985 film "Revolution," earned him a nomination for worst score from the annual Golden Raspberry (Razzie) Awards, which annually "dis-honors" what the organization calls the "worst achievements in film."

At the Oscars ceremony, Corigliano was content to bask in the praise of his cinema peers. He even handed out some of his own in his acceptance speech, praising violinist Joshua Bell. "You could write all the notes you want," Corigliano said, "but if someone doesn't play them like a god, they'll never sound that way."

Corigliano's latest composition, Tambourine Man: Seven Poems by Bob Dylan, premiered on March 15th at Carnegie Hall in New York with soprano Sylvia McNair and pianist Martin Katz.