Q & A with Howard Shore: Writing music from his Jewish upbringing

Howard Shore (Flickr/Sam Santos, Canadian Film Centre/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Howard Shore is the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the original musical director of Saturday Night Live and a frequent collaborator with David Cronenberg and Martin Scorsese. The CJN caught up with the Toronto native during a press tour for The Song of Names, a Canadian film coming out Dec. 25 about a Jewish musical prodigy who fled 1930s Poland.

What was your Jewish upbringing like? Were you raised in a very Jewish household?

My dad was a religious man – Mac Shore was his name. He started a synagogue in Toronto called Beth Sholom. He was the first president.

I also went to Camp Timberlane – that’s where I met Lorne Michaels. We did a show on Saturday nights called “The Fast Show.” It was a predecessor to shows like Saturday Night Live. They were wonderful summers, very memorable. A lot of friendships developed from that time in summer, at camp, because you’d get out of your routine. You’d be out of the city, away from your parents. You’d be meeting kids, boys and girls, from different parts of Ontario, sometimes from New York. It broadened your whole horizon. It had services on Shabbos. The owner wasn’t Jewish, but he kept the Jewish faith with his campers and his staff. So it had that centre to it.

I’m curious about two of your collaborators, Lorne Michaels and David Cronenberg, both prominent Jewish Canadians. Did you ever feel a connection with them because of your Judaism, or is it totally incidental?

I think it was just the neighbourhood we grew up in. We didn’t choose our friends based on their faith, but I think we connected in certain ways. Lorne and I connected at Timberlane. With David, I knew many of his friends. They’re both a little older than me, so as kids, you didn’t necessarily interact with them at such a young age.

Your earlier work, especially with Cronenberg, was very eerie and moody. What draws you to those types of sounds?

I’m interested in music, so film was a way for me to enter into different stories, and to tell different stories using music. Some of the darker themes opened up other areas of composition that I was interested in.

I was also interested in the technology, working in the recording studio, so working with David was very experimental, and he allowed me a lot of freedom to create music.

Your newest film features the eponymous “Song of Names,” sung by a cantor, reciting the names of deceased victims of the Holocaust. That song doesn’t really exist, does it?

I don’t know that it does, but in probability, it could have existed, or part of it could have existed. In Treblinka, 800,000 souls were lost. They mention in the film that it took five days to read all the names. It’s a song of remembrance, like El Maleh Rachamim. A prayer.

The film is based on a book that was written by classical music critic and journalist Norman Lebrecht. Did you feel any pressure writing a composition for something that a music critic had come up with? And if so, how did you handle that pressure?

Yes, I did, and I handled it by studying. I spent a long time studying. I spent more than two years working on the film. “The Song of Names” isn’t that long, but it took me probably a year and a few months to feel comfortable to sit down with my pencil – I write with pencil and paper – to write a piece that came from my heart, that I felt was truthful and that captured what might have been in that scene in the film from 1951.


How did you get involved in the film?

Robert Lantos is the producer. He connected me to (French-Canadian director) François Girard, and I knew François’ work from The Red Violin and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. So I knew his work; I was a great admirer of his work. I was delighted that Robert put us together – and it was a good marriage. It was a good match. It was smart.

Did you feel a personal connection to the film while working on it for so many years?

Yes. I grew up in a synagogue in the ’50s. In the film, there’s a scene that’s set in a small shul in Stoke Newington, outside of London, England, and it’s where a principal character discovers his faith. There’s a cantor that sings “The Song of Names” in that scene. So I had to go back into cantorial oral tradition and study recordings – there are quite a few old recordings – to be able to write that piece faithfully, follow the modes correctly and create a piece that could have been sung in 1951. That time period, after the war, it’s the exact period that I was in the synagogue, and it brought back that whole period up to my bar mitzvah in 1959.

What kind of emotions did it bring up?

Well, I had family that had been in the camps, and it brought back memories of my grandfather and my father’s past. It brought back memories of the family, which I had to put away, sort of, in a private room, you know. So I kind of opened the door and went into this room and reconnected with people from my past – my grandfather, my grandmother, my father, my mother.

I assume you don’t often get a chance to do that when you’re scoring films.

No, it’s very personal. This was a very personal piece.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity. You can hear the full conversation on The CJN’s podcast, The Canadian Jewish Shmooze, at cjnews.com/podcasts. The episode is called “Howard Shore and the Joys of Jewish Summer Camp.”