Classical Music on the Web

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Several crime writers have had musical associations. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was a practising musician, a violinist, as was Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey (Sayers herself played the violin and sang in the Oxford Bach Choir), while Edmund Crispin was, under his real name Bruce Montgomery, an organist and composer. Many other crime authors, among them Ellis Peters, Cyril Hare, V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, Robert Barnard, Mary Kelly and A.E.W. Mason, reflected their own love of music in their writings. This is true also of the "Queen of Crime" herself, Dame Agatha Christie, who in her early life cherished hopes of a musical career, both as a pianist and as a singer. The first option had to be abandoned on account of her innate, shy and diffident nature, the second because her voice had not the power to sing operatic roles. She did however compose a few things, notably a waltz for piano, One Hour with Thee, which was published, and a set of early Harlequin poems of her own set to music as solo songs.

Music crops up in her detective writings, though less then it does in those of Sayers, for example, and considerably less than it does in some of the straight novels Christie published under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, especially Giant's Bread (1930) and Unfinished Portrait (1934), both of which are to some degree autobiographical. Her operatic aspirations are reflected a number of times, especially in the short story Swan Song (from The Listerdale Mystery (1934)) whose ambience is a performance of Puccini's Tosca and in the Miss Marple novel Nemesis (1971), when Miss Marple, who has come into money, thinks she will indulge herself going to the opera. Two alibis in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) are musically based, a steel band figures as local colour in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), a ukulele string in a murder weapon in "The Bird With a Broken Wing" from The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930) and a flute is suspected of being one in Death in the Clouds (1935). Nursery tunes are used as book titles in several instances. Finally, in They Do it With Mirrors (1952) the murder weapon is found in the piano on top of (scarcely used) copies of Shostakovich (possibly the Opus 34 Preludes), Hindemith (possibly Ludus Tonalis), Czerny and the ballad I Know a Lovely Garden by Guy d'Hardelot (Helen Guy), composer of Because.

The first two are unusual compositions for the domestic grand, the latter two are much more what one would expect.

We come finally to music inspired by Christie's writings. Her stage plays, by and large, dated from the period when composers had ceased to provide live incidental music, otherwise we might how have concert suites from The Mousetrap and Witness For the Prosecution, for example. But films, whether for the small or large screen, are another matter. The title music for the ITV Poirot series agreeably recalls the popular music of the 1930's, while that for BBC TV's Miss Marple adaptations is distinctive - I have heard this in the concert hall, successfully adapted for an ensemble of two oboes and cor anglais. For the large screen Ron Goodwin composed the music for all of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films of the fifties: Murder She Said (4.50 From Paddington), Murder Ahoy, Murder Most Foul and Murder at the Gallop, also for The Alphabet Murders (The ABC Murders) (1965) but did not achieve the popularity of his other film music. The three Ustinov Poirots of the late seventies and eighties went to various sources for their music. Death on the Nile (1978) had a score by the veteran film composer Nino Rota, Evil Under the Sun (1982) adapted Cole Porter tunes, Appointment with Death (1988) had specially written music by Pino Donaggio. John Cameron wrote music for The Mirror Crack'd (1980), Malcolm Lockyer for Ten Little Indians. The Ten Little Niggers (1966):The earlier American make of this, sub nom And Then There Were None (1945) had music by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Most distinguished and most distinctive was the score by Richard Rodney Bennett for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), the catchy Waltz having enjoyed a modest life of its own in the concert hall during the twenty years since it was heard on the original sound track.

P L Scowcroft

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