Carter Burwell: “Fargo, North Dakota” (based on the folk melody, “Den Bortkomne Sauen”)

Was I excited to find sheet music for Carter Burwell’s “Fargo, North Dakota”? In the words of Frances McDormand’s famously mild-mannered police chief, Marge Gunderson — but with considerably more zeal: “You betcha!”

I’ve hoped to find a proper piano solo arrangement of this ominous, sweeping, and majestic opening music to the Coen Brothers movie, “Fargo,” since I first saw the film in 1996. You could even say that I pursued it doggedly.

You When I’ve searched for Carter Burwell sheet music, though, I’ve mainly come across notation for his music from the “Twilight” movies (particularly “Bella’s Lullaby”). There are arrangements from Burwell’s score for the Todd Haynes film, “Carol,” and from “In Bruges.” A couple of Coen Brothers titles had managed to make the cut (“Miller’s Crossing” and “Blood Simple”), but not, apparently, “Fargo.”

On Carter Burwell’s official site, the composer reflects on how he developed the music for “Fargo” and the challenges of balancing the film’s dark comedy with its grim drama. Because the movie was set in Minnesota and North Dakota, he researched Scandinavian music, which led him to a mournful Norwegian folk tune called “Den Bortkomme Sauen.” This melody had later become a hymn known as “The Lost Sheep,” and in Burwell’s hands, it became the basis for his “Fargo” theme. (A post on the blog Inglenookery points out that the melody of “Den Bortkomme Sauen” was later used on the soundtracks of the BBC Radio show, “Pilgrim,” and the Netflix TV series, “Lilyhammer.”)

Of the bumbling criminals at the center of this made-up “true” crime story set amidst a harsh northern winter, Burwell explains, “I wanted to contrast the smallness of their humanity with the endless white landscape by playing them with fragile solo instruments: harp, celesta, and hardanger fiddle.” “Fargo, North Dakota” begins with these solitary instruments calling out — in some moments even bleating out — into the surrounding quiet, and then the opening theme widens as the orchestra sweeps in, a gorgeous, dispassionate, elegaic wave.

The opening credits of the Coen Brothers movie, “Fargo”
(collage from the excellent blog, Art of the Title)

What finally broke the “Fargo” case for me was checking out YouTube videos in which musicians had posted their own piano performances of the “Fargo” theme. Music notation associated with such videos is often a slippery slope, copyright-wise. But one of these videos (posted by Piano Palt) linked to an arrangement available for purchase through a legitimate sheet music retailer. In this case, Sheet Music Plus has a section called SMP Press, where musicians can publish their arrangements not only of public domain songs and their own original compositions, but also their arrangements of songs for which Sheet Music Plus has secured the rights.

Finally, here it is! A song that has been on my “Holy Grail” list of sheet music that I’ve been hoping to find, in this case for about 25 years.

While a link posted on YouTube had pointed the way for me, I later realized that if I had simplified my earlier web searches, I might have also had luck. The Piano Palt arrangement currently shows up for a web search on “Fargo North Dakota sheet music,” but not when I add what should be a clarifying phrase: “Carter Burwell.” Though the notation itself credits Carter Burwell, the SMP Press web page for the music sheet does not — as of this writing —seem to be including the composer’s name as searchable metadata. So, when you’re combing the web for hard-to-find sheet music, experiment with including more or fewer specifics in your queries.

I can finally check this one off my wishlist. Which means, more importantly, that I can finally enjoy playing it. I can sit down, a solitary figure in a cozy, book-filled home, and conjure up a winter storm on my piano.

Where to find it: piano solo sheet music for “Fargo, North Dakota,” by Carter Burwell, arranged by Piano Palt, available for purchase as digital download at (!!!)

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