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From the 1930s to the 1950s, Britain's finest classical composers - including Britten, Vaughan Williams and Walton - wrote music for movies. Find out more here about some of their finest achievements.
Benjamin Britten began writing music for documentary short films in the 1930s. The most famous is The Night Mail, about a mail train from London to Scotland, produced by the GPO Film Unit. A poem by W. H. Auden was written for it and used in the closing few minutes, as was Britten's music.
Also known as Love from a Stranger, A Night of Terror was adapted from an Agatha Christie story about a lottery winner who breaks up with her fiancé to marry a fortune hunter who proves to be dangerous. Britten, who was paid £200 - roughly £40,000 in today's money - was reportedly not happy with his score.
We have one Muir Mathieson (1911 – 1975) to thank for so many great British films scores. He was the 'Tsar of music for British films' who conducted on the soundtracks of more than a thousand movies. Mathieson's genius was to chose first rate composers to write soundtracks, and then arrange and conduct them himself. During his wartime service with the Ministry of Information, Mathieson commissioned film scores from Arthur Bliss, William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Arnold.
In the 1940s, the shortage of trained music teachers in schools was filled in part by educational films. The first and most well known was Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Mathieson, for which Britten wrote his Variations on a Theme of Purcell, now known as 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'. Filmed at Pinewood, Sir Malcolm Sargent takes viewers through each section of the orchestra before playing the fugue that engages the whole ensemble.
Considered by some to be the greatest of all scores, Things to Come was the first to be written by Arthur Bliss. The film was devised by H. G. Wells who originally wanted the score to be recorded in advance, and have the film constructed around the music, but this was deemed too radical and so the score was fitted to the film afterwards in the more conventional way. The film itself had a mixed reception, but the music was a sensation.
Commissioned by the government's Air Ministry, this documentary followed man's attempts to fly from ancient times, through the first balloons and pioneering aviators, using dramatic re-enactment and working models of early flying machines. Bliss firmly believed that film music should be able to stand alone and his Conquest of the Air score, which included a 12-minute suite, went on to be popular in concerts.
Muir Mathieson invited Vaughan Williams to write the first of his 11 film scores for 49th Parallel. The film was part of the government's wartime policy to use cinema to rouse the nation's spirits. Vaughan Williams was one of many big name composers who were keen to support the cause.
Vaughan Williams' film scores often ignored narrative and visual detail, but intensified the drama with through-composed music, which was sometimes written before filming had even started. This was the case with Scott of the Antarctic, of which one critic said, '[it is] the function of music to bring to the screen the hidden and spiritual illustration into which the camera... is unable to peer'.
The First of the Few was directed by and starred Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire, alongside co-star David Niven. William Walton composed the score and later incorporated major chunks of it into a concert work, 'Spitfire Prelude and Fugue'.
Always anxious about his finances, William Walton scored his first film, Escape Me Never in 1935 for a fee of £350. The war effort offered him more fruitful opportunities to score patriotic films, notably Olivier's Henry V. The score clearly demonstrated Walton's ability to deploy musical techniques as inherently dramatic tools.
Master of the King's Music Arnold Bax was not a fan of Dickens' book and had tremendous difficulty writing the score for David Lean's movie adaptation. The music became very popular however thanks to a ‘Suite’ extracted by Muir Mathieson, the conductor on the film, for concert performance. Check out Fagin's Romp for magnificent orchestral fun.
Malcolm Arnold started composing for films in 1947 and only stopped in 1970 with more than 100 scores under his belt, not to mention incidental music for radio, TV and theatre. Arnold described film work as ‘an immensely liberating experience, an invaluable asset to professionalism’ and said he always wrote the kind of music he would want to hear as a member of the audience.
The Sound Barrier was Malcolm Arnold’s first David Lean film, and his first important film score. Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick starred in a story of jet planes and their attempt to fly faster than sound. This is music of the wide open spaces of the sky.
Malcolm Arnold won an Oscar for the third and final David Lean film he scored. Ironically most of Kwai’s popularity is due to ‘Colonel Bogey’, a march written not by Arnold but by Kenneth J. Alford as far back as 1914. Arnold devised his own march - ‘The River Kwai March’ - to go along with Alford’s as a counterpoint.