Soundtrack: Picnic at Hanging Rock

The soundtrack to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is an excellent example of a film that employs the use of pre-existing music to supplement the underscore. I never knew until recently that the haunting title theme of the film was actually an artful combination of two traditional Romanian panpipe pieces Doina: Sus Pe Culmea Dealului and Doina Lui Petru Unc. Performed by Romanian Gheorghe Zamfir playing the panpipe and Swiss born Marcel Cellier the organ, this music is at once delicate, ethereal and intensely ominous. A perfect choice for the film adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name. The pan pipes hint at a lightness and piquancy while the sustained chords of the organ invoke sinister solemnity.

‘What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream’ Edgar Allan Poe

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fictional story of a group of Victorian schoolgirls who go missing on Valentine’s Day in the year 1900. Whilst set in a real place, Hanging Rock is near Mt Macedon in the Australian state of Victoria, the story is purely fictional. Although its appeal was heavily based on the ambiguity of its historical accuracy, the story remains an excellent piece of Australian literature and film. Reflecting the mystery and rugged beauty of the land, Weir’s film visualises the incongruity of Victorian sensibilities against the harsh and uncivilised Australian landscape, perhaps the perfect analogy for the story’s theme exploring innocence and evil.

Along with the use of pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach,  there is a small original score composed by Bruce Smeaton. The piano theme used throughout the film is melancholy and wanders fugue-like, up and down the keyboard as it modulates upward, representative of the girls’ ascent. This piece had to have inspired Michael Nyman’s soundtrack to Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and is an excellent original contribution amongst a soundtrack comprised of classics.

If you’d like to read more about the musical analysis on this film I found a good essay on the subject by an unknown writer that describes the film as ‘unsettling and seductive’. If you’ve never heard of this film or story before, check out the trailer  Watch the trailer for Picnic at Hanging Rock .This film is an early example of the experimental ways in which music was increasingly used in cinema in the seventies. A true trailblazer, the mood and splintered narrative of Picnic At Hanging Rock well precedes the work of David Lynch (Blue Velvet came out over ten years later) who is masterfully aware of the power of music and sound in film. Picnic at Hanging Rock has an almost Lovecraftian fascination for the mysteries of nature and the forces lurking beneath.  It has a similarly abstruse and sensual nod to the innocence of youth suggested in Sofia Coppola’s interpretation of Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

The soundtrack to Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fine example of how folk music and classics can supplement the score to a film. In this case, and in most cases, well known pieces are used to dramatic effect to highlight certain themes within the narrative. Using well-known pieces might perhaps be a crafty way to anchor the film in the viewer’s reality and use the mood of an existing ‘story’ to enhance and complement the telling of a new story.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Christopher Thomas says:

    Nice write-up. I recall also a proggy synth theme that pops up once or twice for dramatic effect when we return to rock, as we see its crags shot from underneath. I don’t have a copy of the DVD at hand to be more particular, but I found it very effective.

    The whole soundtrack really is gorgeous and it’s one of my very favorite films. (Having said that, it does have one or two more red herrings in it than it absolutely needs, but what the heck.)

    Was a soundtrack album ever released commercially? I’ve certainly never seen one. I got that Zamfir LP with the picture of a mountain on the cover, but that’s in no way the OST.

    All the best!

    1. LT says:

      Hey Christopher, thanks for reading and reminding me about that synth stuff on the soundtrack. It is a shame, but there doesn’t seem to be an official OST for Picnic at Hanging Rock.

    2. Bruce Smeaton wrote music for the film and you might be thinking of his track “The Ascent,” which has some urgent, ominous piano music along with synth effects, especially an effective, electronic “whoosh” sound. Just look it up on YouTube and you’ll find it. There are also compilation vids there which gather all the music used in the filmed, including the classical and baroque pieces.

  2. The quote at the beginning of the film is not really a quote, but is extended and altered in couple subtle ways. In the poem, the line reads: “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream.” The film opens, instead, with: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.”

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