The Price of Curiosity

for orchestra

Richard Baker

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Composer Richard Baker
Year of Composition 2019
Duration ca.9'

Categories (all composers)
Catalogue ID ce-rb1tpoc1


When the news broke of Doris Day’s death in Spring 2019, I found myself thinking of my late mother and grandmother. She was a particular favourite of theirs. One of my earliest memories is of my mother singing to me ‘Whatever will be, will be.’ The next day, I sang it to my primary school music teacher (who, I think, was charmed and amused in equal measure). My grandmother gave me her 78rpm disc as a contribution to my burgeoning collection. I used to play it repeatedly on a portable Mono turntable at high volume, either during the school holidays or when off school with illness.

But the song, of course, has a context: it was composed by Jay Livingston with lyrics by Ray Evans, and originally commissioned by Alfred Hitchcock for his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock gave the songwriters no directions about what kind of song he wanted, but declared himself delighted when first presented with it. It helps to establish the close bond between Day’s character, Jo, and that of her son Hank; it reappears at the film’s tense denouement. It also hints at the life as a stage performer Jo left behind to become the wife of Ben, a successful doctor (played by James Stewart). Of course, music plays a further pivotal role in the film, in a scene where a hitman attempts a murder during an orchestral concert at the Royal Albert Hall, his gunshot covered by a climactic crash of cymbals.

In perhaps the film’s most suspenseful and disturbing scene, Ben coerces Jo into taking a sedative against her will in an attempt to blunt her reaction when he tells her the news that Hank has been kidnapped. Throughout Ben’s long exposition, he is waiting for signs that it is safe to deliver his devastating news, and even though the sedative has already begun to take effect, Jo’s justifiable rage at being manipulated, and her grief at the thought of losing her son is explosive. It is a remarkable performance by both actors, and an example of Hitchcock’s masterful pacing.

If this scene was disturbing in 1956, it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing over sixty years later. Again, I think of my mother and grandmother (and of so many other women) whose emotional lives were subtly or openly policed, and the ways in which their reactions to trauma were pathologized.

All of these ideas fed into the piece. At its heart is a very literal kind of interference between pitches taken from the melody of ‘Whatever will be, will be’ and melodies transcribed from the actors’ speech patterns during the sedation scene. After a short introduction in which a repeated chord (based on an analysis of a recording of crash cymbals) transforms into an expanding and quickening chorale, we cut to the scene in the Marrakech hotel, as James Stewart presses the tablets on a reluctant Doris Day. They represent, he says, ‘the price of curiosity’.

The 2020 BBC Symphony Orchestra premiere of The Price of Curiosity has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  For more information please contact the composer.