One of Fincher’s suggestions for the main title was a call to arms, or a militaristic feel. One of the elements Beal discovered in the main theme, especially within the orchestrations of low strings and French horns, was a dark heroism and gravitas. “That helped me find a core that really resonated with [Frank]. The thing about Frank Underwood is that he is an absolutely despicable human being, but the stakes are real. This is the leadership of the country, it’s not like trying to become CEO of a company. His music needed to have that sort of weight and importance.”
Beal initially made four sketches for Fincher based on four scripts by the series’ developer and writer, Beau Willimon. Three of those sketches eventually became major themes. One was a stripped-down sketch that had the seeds for the main title theme. Another sketch, casually called the “puppet master theme,” underscored Frank’s ability to meticulously undo and destroy his opponents. A final sketch was a more pensive and interior theme, which Beal unveils in the first episode during a two-minute sequence without any dialogue where Frank contemplates how he is going to build his political house of cards. Beal worked with Kirk Baxter, Fincher’s editor on the first two episodes, to find homes for these sketches and help create the foundation for all the music to come later.
Though Beal collaborated with a few of the directors throughout the season, like James Foley and Carl Franklin, Fincher was the creative point-person all through the 13 episodes, which Beal says that was great for him “because on any series it’s good to have a consistent relationship. Obviously, each director is going to have their own vision and their preferences.”
As the creative point-person, Fincher gave Beal a long creative leash, allowing the composer to spot the show to his liking. But Beal found much of his inspiration from Fincher’s indelible visual style. The director sets the mood in the first two episodes with his signature cold and sleek visuals, a grittiness reminiscent of classic 1970s thrillers, which the composer says, “had this cloud of dread hovering over the whole place. I was trying to do that, too, with the music, to put the audience in that twisted dream world.”
“Men rise from one ambition to another,” Machiavelli wrote, “first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” While Frank and company aren’t the most empathetic characters living in this fictional Machiavellian world, Beal worked to infuse some humanity into the show via the music. Instead of writing music that would allow the audience to empathize in any overt way with Frank, Claire, Zoe or Peter, Beal took a different approach by showing that the real human cost. During the second episode, Claire fires half of her staff at her nonprofit. Afraid her emotions will betray her, she asks her assistant to fire the staff. Once the staff has been cut, Claire turns and fires her assistant. Claire, in a rare moment, shows some empathy as she witnesses the consequences and Beal scores the moment with a tender anthem.
That same theme returns a few scenes later, now under a montage with Frank methodically destroying an opponent’s chances of becoming Secretary of State, Claire’s assistant packing up her belongings, to finally landing on Frank, like Deep Throat, discreetly meeting Zoe to prime her on who will be the next choice to be Secretary of State.
Beal says when he “tried that theme over it, I was really fascinated because I felt like what that music did wasn’t so much trying to humanize Frank, it made me feel that the human cost was real. The toll he takes on people is something you want the audience to feel. It’s really a tricky thing because you don’t want to make him into a monster, either.” Coincidentally, an analogy Fincher mentioned to Beal during one of the spotting sessions stuck with him: “A gila monster doesn’t know that it’s this horrible, voracious creature. It just is.”
Beal’s score is based around the four central characters: Frank, Claire, Zoe and Peter Russo. There was no shortage of material between Frank and Claire for Beal to find inspiration. “I think it’s one of the most fascinating relationships I’ve ever scored. It’s completely functional in one way, but then on another level it’s completely dysfunctional. It’s not what a traditional marriage is, though they do have these little rituals.”
Beal gave the power couple a “noirish sound with the piano. Slightly sophisticated.” Frank and Claire are like two sharks always on the move, chomping at the bit to get to that coveted top spot. Their matrimonial moments don’t mirror those of ordinary people; sharing a cigarette out their window on moonlit nights and plotting their rise is anything but simplistic. However, the two occasionally drop the facade and display genuine affection for one another.
Like an anthropologist observing this couple’s ritualistic behavior, Beal paints a musical tapestry that covers their Machiavellian scheming to their fleeting moments of affection. The noirish piano motif rolls and slinks over a groveling bass and slight electronic texture, creating an ebb and flow of tenderness and unease. “I like the idea of pushing things up against each other,” says Beal. “Like taking very sweet or melodic or very lyrical and then sort of putting something else up against it that’s like, ‘Something’s off here. Something’s wrong.’”
Peter and Christina (his Congressional aid) have the biggest arc throughout the season. While their relationship begins as a fling in the pilot, it evolves to a more bittersweet romance. Beal follows their evolution with piano growing into a full string orchestra as the season and their relationship progresses. Russo, a recovering alcoholic running for the governorship of Pennsylvania, is a classic fallen hero and Beal scores the character with a sense of troubled longing. To remind the audience of Russo’s fallibility, Beal creates a gesture of dissonance by using a minor third in the melody against a major chord in the harmony. “I did quite a bit of that in the string writing, whether they were minus ninths or plus ninths, wide spacings but very dissonant harmonies. Sometimes it sounds strange when you first play it, but when it’s played by real groups it can be really lyrical and beautiful but also very dark and twisted and sad.” Beal even introduces a duduk (which he learned to play while composing Rome) for Peter as he starts to descend down the rabbit hole.