KNOWING THE SCORE

By

ROB HARRIES

A look at the music used in some

BBC2 Trade Test Colour Films

Generations of composers from Haydn to Harrison Birtwistle have written incidental music for stage plays, and the genre has produced at least two popular classics: Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Grieg's Peer Gynt. Nobody suggests that these composers demeaned themselves by collaborating in an art form where music was just one of many elements. But sadly, music composed for the screen is often held in low regard. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Viennese wunderkind whose early works were admired by Mahler and Puccini, moved to Hollywood in the 1930's and wrote ground-breaking scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and many more. His reputation as a `serious' composer plummeted. He once said, "A film composer's immortality stretches all the way from the recording studio to the dubbing room." Only now, more than forty years after his death, are his operas and concert works getting a fair hearing.

Korngold is by no means an isolated case. Wilfred Josephs (1927 - 1997) was particularly active for the BBC in the 1970's, writing music for among others The Great War, I,Claudius, The Voyage of Charles Darwin and, most famously, Horizon (his distinctive theme has given way to several forgettable replacements). He became pigeon-holed as a screen composer and none of his other works have yet appeared on CD. They include operas, ballets, a Requiem which won the La Scala Prize, and twelve symphonies.

There is a tantalising glimpse of Josephs the symphonist in his continuous 24 minute score for The Shadow of Progress. This is unusual among Trade Test colour Films because of its downbeat mood. Its subject is the pollution of natural resources and the misuse of technology (a surprisingly enlightened theme for a BP film from 1970). The main musical idea is heard at the beginning and end of the film on the alto flute, in between it is developed symphonically to generate new musical material. There are two subsidiary themes: a pounding, Stravinsky-like idea on brass, and a leaping allegro. Throughout Josephs contrasts bright instruments - flute, harp, celeste - with darker ones - cello, clarinet, muted trumpet - to suggest a beautiful world spoiled by mankind's carelessness.

Sir John Betjeman's documentaries contain beautifully photographed buildings and landscapes, as well as urbane scripts written and spoken by Betjeman himself. An extended musical score would be too intrusive here. Beauty in Trust has a few snippets of music that stay in the background and make little impact. The music for A Journey into the Weald of Kent is more substantial, perhaps suggested by Edmund Blunden's line, "A symphony of sounds, sights and scenes" which Betjeman twice quotes approvingly. The music is a clever pastiche of various styles. It opens and closes with a concertina solo in folk style to characterise Kent's hop-pickers. Organ music accompanies a church scene, and a harp imitates the sound of a lute. For most of the film a chamber orchestra plays music of the English pastoral school, reminiscent of Vaughan Williams and others, in a moderate tempo with gentle woodwind solos. This kind of music was derided by some composers as backward-looking, insular and dull. One, Elizabeth Lutyens, called it "cow-pat music". It's a tribute to her professionalism, then, that she imitates the style so convincingly in her score for A Journey into the Weald of Kent. Lutyens (1906 - 1983) wrote dozens of film scores in whatever idiom was required. Her own personal music is uncompromising and atonal - she was the first British composer to use Schoenberg's twelve-note system, and stuck doggedly to this style even though it consigned her to the musical wilderness for decades.

Musical fashion is as fickle as any other kind. Lutyens' music was considered too radical; Malcolm Arnold's was considered too conservative (and his two Oscars, for The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness only reinforced this charge). Fortunately Sir Malcolm (B. 1921) has lived long enough to see his music triumph over his critics - in recent years there has been a steady stream of performances, broadcasts and recordings. Arnold believes that music is `a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is'. Like another great communicator, Dmitri Shostakovich, his output ranges from the frothiest miniature to the mightiest symphony, and includes prodigious amounts of film music.

Arnold's music appears in two Trade Test Colour Films, Divertimento and Coupe des Alpes. Other Arnold dances have been used as television theme tunes for What the Papers Say, The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and Rick Stein's Tastes of the Sea.

Malcolm Arnold composed his six-movement Divertimento for flute, oboe and clarinet in 1952. In effect it's a series of short character pieces ingeniously written to showcase each instrument. By dropping one movement and juggling the order of the rest, the makers of the film Divertimento provided themselves with a ready-made score (and title). The visual content of the film is explained only by a caption at the start: "To those seeking wider knowledge of the ways and uses of oil, the microscope reveals a world of beauty". Thus what we see on the screen can be enjoyed as a kind of mobile abstract art. The images are cleverly edited to fit the music: a rapid growth of `something' is accompanied by a vigorous clarinet solo; `something' shrivels up to the sound of slightly sour harmony; a rotating `something' catches the light to a whirling tutti.

Articles


Aviemore