“I do like the idea of having a theme and a melody, I’ve always enjoyed writing melody, and I do think that something magical happens if you start a melody at the beginning of a film... and it is able to develop. It somehow adds to the story, sort of like it’s another character.” -- Rachel Portman
Rachel Portman is one of the UK’s foremost composers, best known for her music composed for films such as “Emma” (1996), “The Cider House Rules” (1999), “Chocolat” (2000) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010). She was the first female composer to win an Academy Award, i.e. for her score for “Emma”. Quite often her music is used to support films that are an adaptation of literary novels.
Born as Rachel Mary Berkeley Portman on December 11th 1960 in Linchmere (Sussex), Rachel is the daughter of Sheila Margaret Penelope (née Mowat) Portman and Berkeley Charles Berkeley Portman. She is the youngest of five children, having three sisters and a brother. From an early age her mother supported her interest in music, when Rachel took lessons playing piano, violin and organ.
She was educated at Charterhouse school, where she studied music with Roger Steptoe, who encouraged her to write her own music, beginning composing at the age of 14. During that time she was also influenced by the composer Benedict Mason.
After finishing school, Rachel continued to study music with Robert Sherlaw Johnson at Worcester College in Oxford. Although he was great at teaching orchestration, she found it discouraging that at the time he was looking for composers to write academic music, while she was more interested in writing tuneful music. It was then that she turned to writing for (student) theatre productions, and that’s also how she got involved in composing music for film, when she wrote the music for the student film “Privileged” (coincidentally also the first film starring Hugh Grant). It was after this experience that Rachel knew that she wanted to become a film composer.
“I had a break from David Puttnam through Alan Parker, whom I sent a cassette with music I had done for a student film. He literally gave me my first job, writing the music for a Channel 4 film” -- Rachel Portman
After her initial break in 1982, composing the music for the TV movie "Experience preferred... but not essential", Rachel Portman continued to write music for television productions for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, such as “Sharma And Beyond” (1984 David Puttnam), “Four Days In July” (1984 Mike Leigh) and “The Storyteller” (1987 Jim Henson). The latter is a TV series consisting of 9 episodes, which body of work helped her to win the Anthony Asquith Award from the British Film Institute as a young composer in 1988.
With continuing work for television movies and series more success came with “The Woman In Black” (1989) and “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” (1990 Beeban Kidron) both of which earned her a BAFTA nomination.
In 1990 Rachel worked again with Mike Leigh, this time on “Life Is Sweet”, her first time to compose for a cinematic film. Only two years later she was commissioned to compose for her first Hollywood production: “Used People” (1992 Beeban Kidron).
From then many more cinematic productions followed, for instance “Benny and Joon” (1993 Jeremiah Chechik), “The Joy Luck Club” (1993 Wayne Wang), “Sirens” (1994 John Duigan), “The Road To Wellville” (1994 Alan Parker), “Only You” (1994 Norman Jewison), “Smoke” (1995 Wayne Wang) and “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar” (1995 Beeban Kidron).
In 1995 Rachel Portman married film producer Uberto Pasolini, with whom she raised three daughters.
“When I won, that was extraordinary, a bit of a shock” -- Rachel Portman
In 1996 Rachel Portman received well deserved recognition for her music with a nomination for the Academy Award for the score of “Emma”. When she won the award, she was the first female composer to win in the Best Original Score category. That just opened doors, the phone started ringing and projects “just flowed”.
In 1997 Rachel was commissioned for Disney’s animation movie “Beauty And The Beast: An Enchanted Christmas”, and a year later she scored Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved”. This score required her to go into new areas, using African instruments, percussion and a children’s choir.
The next few years gave Rachel the chance to work on several interesting films which turned out to be defining in her career. First are two films by director Lasse Hallström, “The Cider House Rules” (1999) and “Chocolat” (2000), both scores earning her Academy Award and Grammy nominations. Also the music for Robert Redford’s “The Legend Of Bagger Vance” (2000) is a highly appreciated signature score.
“I came to a point where I thought, I really want to diversify more, and work outside film. By this time I had three young children, and was really interested in writing an opera that you could take a child to.” -- Rachel Portman
In 2003 composer Philip Glass suggested an adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” to Rachel Portman. She set out together with British playwright Nicholas Wright to write the music and libretto. The opera is carefully composed to be performed as well as enjoyed by children. It was first performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 2003, and has since been widely performed in the USA and Europe.
While producing the scores for “The Human Stain” (2003 Robert Benton) and “Mona Lisa Smile” (2003 Mike Newell) in that same year, she worked again with Jonathan Demme the next year on “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), a suspense thriller requiring an unusually dark score compared to her earlier work.
More projects flowed, including “Because Of Winn-Dixie”(2005 Wayne Wang), and “Oliver Twist” (2005 Roman Polanski), an adaptation of the classic tale by Charles Dickens.
“I wanted to write a piece with the poet Owen Sheers, and we’re both very passionate about ecological issues and climate change in particular.” -- Rachel Portman
In 2007 Rachel Portman was commissioned by the BBC Proms to create an hour long oratorio titled “The Water Diviner’s Tale”. It is described as a choral symphony, or rather an ecological music drama, including a chorus of 40 children, 5 soloists and a huge youth choir which addresses the subject of climate change.
After that, work continued with filmscores for “The Duchess” (2008 Saul Dibb) and “Grey Gardens” (2009 Michael Sucsy), followed by another collaboration with director Francesca Zambello (with whom she also worked on “The Little Prince”) creating the music for the musical “Little House On The Prairie” (2009).
2010 turned out to be a rewarding year for Rachel Portman, when first she was appointed Officer Of The Order Of The British Empire (OBE) in the New Year Honours. Also she was given the Richard Kirk Award at the BMI Film & TV Awards for her contributions to film and television music. Rachel Portman is the first woman to receive this honour.
“It is one of my favourite scores, I was deeply affected by this film.” -- Rachel Portman
In 2010 Rachel Portman produced an hauntingly beautiful score for “Never Let Me Go” (2010 Mark Romanek), a film based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The story is a dystopian romantic tragedy “about being human, about love, and about how much time we have, to be with somebody else, and how much time we have to love them. My music was very much concerned with that”.
In the early 2010s more film projects followed, with “Snow Flower And The Secret Fan” (2011 Wayne Wang), “One Day” (2011 Lone Scherfig), “The Vow” (2012 Michael Sucsy), “Private Peaceful” (2012 Pat O’Connor), “Still Life” (2013 Uberto Pasolini) and “Belle” (2013 Amma Asante).
To celebrate World Environment Day in June 2013, Rachel was invited by the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing to make a contribution. Her composition “Endangered”, addressing the position of endangered species, was first performed by the Symphony Orchestra of the NCPA on June 5th.
After delivering scores for “The Right Kind Of Wrong” (2014 Jeremiah Chechik) and “Dolphin Tale 2” (2014 Charles Martin Smith), Rachel was commissioned by HBO to write a score for “Bessie” (2015 Dee Rees), a biopic about legendary blues performer Bessie Smith. The music, unfortunately never released, was awarded a Primetime Grammy Award, again the first time for a female composer to receive the honour.
“I’ve always felt that my job in writing score for film is to serve the film, and the director in particular.” -- Rachel Portman
At the end of 2015 the TV commercial “Mog’s Christmas Calamity” for Sainsbury premiered, the first with a composition provided by Rachel Portman. The next year another commercial would follow, “Christmas With Love From Mrs. Claus” for M&S.
Other projects included film scores for “Despite The Falling Snow” (2016 Shamim Sarif), “Race” (2016 Stephen Hopkins), “Their Finest” (2017 Lorne Scherfig) and “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017 Lasse Hallström).
"I have a deep interest in environmentalism and protecting the natural world that surrounds us. I've written quite extensively and been involved in concert work about the environment and about listening to the earth.” -- Rachel Portman
In 2019 Rachel composed “Earth Song”, a 20 minute choral work with text by the poet Nick Drake that addresses the climate emergency. It quotes lines from Greta Thunberg's speech at Davos the same year. Commissioned by Radio 3 for BBC Singers, it premiered on 27th September 2019 at St Paul’s Knightsbridge, and was broadcast on BBC 3 (Afternoon concert) the 23rd of October.
In the same year Rachel also composed the music for three short films, “See The Silence” (2019 Gianluca Sodaro), and two animation films: “Archie” (2019 Ainslie Henderson) and “Mimi And The Mountain Dragon” (2019 Vincent James). Both animation films were broadcast by the BBC.
“Mimi And The Mountain Dragon” is based on a story by the acclaimed author Sir Michael Morpurgo, with whom Rachel worked on other projects as well. The film is telling the story of a little girl called Mimi who, with her song and her courage, saves her village from its fears.
“These pieces are a personal reflection on the beauty of the earth around us - the trees, flora, rivers, birds, animals and all her gifts to us. I hope you enjoy exploring them as much as I loved being inspired by the natural world.” -- Rachel Portman
On May 8th 2020 Rachel Portman released her first solo album ‘ask the river’ on Node Records. While she usually chooses not to perform her own music, this album is the first time that she performs her own music, playing the piano. The album is inspired by nature and the connection of humanity with the natural world.
Later that year she worked again with Disney on the score for “Godmothered” (2020 Sharon Maguire), a fantasy comedy set at Christmas time. Due to the pandemic it was a difficult process to get all the music recorded.
Despite the ongoing pandemic Rachel continued work on several projects during 2021. Apart from her film score for “Julia” (2021 Julie Cohen, Betsy West) she also contributed to “Incidental: Music For The Stage”, a charity initiative to support the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton.
In 2022 Rachel contributed a composition to Joyce Didonato’s album “Eden”, named “The First Morning Of The World”.
At the moment Rachel is anticipating the release of her second solo album “Beyond The Screen – Film Works On Piano” (to be released on March 3rd 2023). The album is a compilation of 20 re-recorded themes from her favourite film scores, such as “Emma”, “The Cider House Rules”, “Chocolat”, “Never Let Me Go” and “Life Is Sweet”.
“I am really looking forward to that, because I will be working in a musical language that’s completely new to me: Zulu music. My intention is to celebrate and to collaborate” - Rachel Portman
Rachel Portman is commissioned to compose the score for “King Shaka” (2023 Antoine Fuqua) , a mini TV series for Showtime, later this year.
Awards and honours
1988 Anthony Asquith Award British Film Institute (BF) Young Composer of the Year
1989 Schneider Trophy Tric Celebrity Awards for “Precious Bane”
1996 Academy Award (Oscar) Best Original Score for “Emma”
1996 Carlton TV Rank Films Labs Creative Originality Award Women in Film
1997 International Prize For Film And Media Music
1999 Georges Delerue Prize, Flanders International Film Festival for “Ratcatcher”
2000 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for “The Legend Of Bagger Vance”
2000 Muse Award Women In Film and Television
2001 Touchstone Award, Women in Music
2010 Richard Kirk Award / BMI Career Achievement Award
2010 Officer Of The Order Of The British Empire (OBE)
2015 Primetime Emmy Award for “Bessie”
2022 Career Achievement Award Zurich Film Festival
Honorary fellow of Worcester College, Oxford
Honorary fellow of The Royal College of Music in London
1990 BAFTA Award nomination for “The Woman In Black”
1991 BAFTA Award nomination for “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”
1994 Australian Film Institute Award nomination for “Sirens”
1997 Annie Award nomination, International Animated Film Society for the song "As Long As There's Christmas" from “Beauty And The Beast: The Enchanted Christmas”
1999 Golden Satellite Award nomination, International Press Academy for “Beloved”
1999 Academy Award nomination for “The Cider House Rules”
2000 Academy Award nomination for “Chocolat”
2000 Golden Globe nomination for “Chocolat”
2000 Golden Satellite Award nomination for “The Legend Of Bagger Vance”
2000 Chicago Film Critics Association Award nomination for “The Cider House Rules”
2000 Grammy nomination for “The Cider House Rules”
2001 Grammy nomination for “Chocolat”
2001 World Soundtrack Award nomination for “Chocolat” and “The Legend Of Bagger Vance”
2005 Primetime Emmy Award nominations for “The Little Prince”
2009 Primetime Emmy Award nominations for “Grey Gardens”