Variations: Max Richter’s “My Brilliant Friend” Soundtrack and the Contemporary Classical Movement Towards the Mainstream

Don’t judge a piece of music by its genre. It’s as simple as that. Atwood Magazine’s ‘Variations’ column discovers and discusses pieces, composers, conductors, old and new, all of which have contributed to the growth and expansion of the Classical genre. Turning grey from misrepresentation and preconceived notions, engaging with Classical music can dissolve the elitist, rule-bound confines of its historical origin and remind the mainstream of its relevance and significance.


Bum bum bum buuuum— Bum bum Bum…Bahhhhhhummmm.

That is a two-bar phrase from the first movement of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 5th symphony, the hallmark of the classical genre.

But Classical music is not just Bach and Beethoven, not only Sonata and Symphony. Consisting of many sub-genres (baroque, chamber, choral, minimalistic, impressionistic, operatic and soundtrack to name a few), Classical music is extremely diverse, and often misunderstood and misrepresented in our modern day music culture. Don’t judge a piece of music by its genre. It’s as simple as that. Atwood Magazine’s Variations column discovers and discusses pieces, composers, conductors, old and new, all of which have contributed to the growth and expansion of the Classical genre. Turning grey from misrepresentation and preconceived notions, engaging with Classical music can dissolve the elitist, rule-bound confines of its historical origin and remind the mainstream of its relevance and significance.

Max Richter is an exemplary contemporary classical composer worth highlighting. As he mentions in an interview for Deutsche Grammophon, he actively works to de-emphasize genre by embracing instead “a musical language which [can] incorporate the best things from [various] worlds [read: genres].” His compositions are diverse, ranging from solo works to re-compositions to soundtracks for film and tv— an area where we see classical music contributing greatly to the mainstream.

'My Brilliant Friend' Soundtrack

HBO’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Soundtrack – Max Richter

Richter’s score for HBO’s My Brilliant Friend illustrates the modern approach to composing classical music. A twelve piece soundtrack so captivating it can be appreciated independently from its intended context. An adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, an award-winning series of novels, HBO’s My Brilliant Friend follows Elena and Lila as the grow up in a tight knit neighborhood in post-World War II Naples. Made up of deeply rooted familial hierarchies, inherited behaviors and cultural violence that cycle from generation to generation, Elena and Lila struggle to separate themselves from their environment.

The narrative of My Brilliant Friend has been translated from Italian to English to Screen to Score. A feat that seems nearly impossible, each iteration, each variation has provided a new articulation of the story’s original essence.

Emily Nussbaum says it best in her review of the HBO series for the New Yorker: “Ferrante’s book confides more than it describes — that’s both its technique and its insinuating power.” It is this extraordinary writing that lends itself to the careful interpreter. Ferrante’s first novel, and thus, the HBO series, rarely ventures beyond the confines of the neighborhood, a motivating and restricting reality both Lila and Elena are constantly at odds with. Richter’s composition humbles itself to the story’s limited, and limiting, environment painting with the same colors over and over, utilizing only a handful of tones and textures — piano, strings and some electronic elements — but still managing to create a soundtrack with darkness, depth and dimension.

My Brilliant Friend © HBO

My Brilliant Friend © HBO

Richter colors the ephemeral elements of the story elaborating on fleeting, yet significant, moments. What Elena describes in the novel as devoting herself to “keep[ing] pace” with Lila, the tracks “Elena and Lila,” “In Spite of It All,” and “She Was Running,” musically abstract on the phrase. Through weaving piano melodies that at times work together in ascension and at others seem to contradict each other and follow separate patterns, Richter’s music mimics the ebb and flow of Elena and Lila’s ever-morphing friendship. Other tracks, like “Whispers,” the main melodic theme of the series featured in the title sequence, captures the prideful, march-like perpetuity of how the neighborhood behaves in the public sphere and, through abrasive, staccato strings that violently saw through chords, offers a glimpse into the darkness that lies in the neighborhood’s private spaces. Richter’s soundscapes, the tracks on the album that incorporate electronic elements, like “In The Dark” and “Brilliant Clouds,” plays into the dramatic undertones of the novel without imposing an interpretation with an excess of sound. The soundtrack is at once a classical composition, an electronic exploration, and a respectful retelling of a special story.

Echoing the ethos of Variations, Richter shares his take on how we judge music in his interview for Deutsche Grammophon: “When we listen to music, we are bewitched and enchanted by music we love. That [innate reaction] bypasses the frontal lobes of your brain and goes straight for the heart.” As a composer who experiments outside of the Classical confines in order to create the sonic experience he desires, Richter works to create variations proving genre is not the reason we love the music we love, nor should it dictate or limit the way in which we explore and discover.

Listen to the My Brilliant Friend soundtrack below, and before you begin the HBO series, be sure to pick up Ferrante’s first novel. Although an inseparable component of the HBO series, the soundtrack pairs nicely with the novel, too.

— —

Atwood Magazine logo

Discover music with Atwood Magazine

Coco Rich

Coco Rich is a 22-year-old goof who recently graduated from Muhlenberg College where she studied English and Music. Originally from Seattle, WA, she is currently living just outside of Boston eating, writing and wandering.