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AVIATION IN BRITISH MUSIC: Three articles by Philip Scowcroft




by Philip L Scowcroft

This short survey follows much the same pattern as those I have written about music and railways, road transport (not confined to the music of the British Isles) and shipping. Generally speaking, aviation is a more recent mode of travel than any of the other three, so it is reasonable to expect fewer titles.

A large proportion of the titles we do have relate to military aviation. Quite a few of them come from the Great War when aviation, military or otherwise, was very new. Sir Hubert Parry produced A Hymn for Aviators, which appeared in 1915 in solo and choral versions, but it did not achieve the same popularity as his Jerusalem. In 1918 Eric Coates' Four Songs of the Air Service ('Ordered Overseas', 'Five and Twenty Bombers', 'Billy' and The First Job of All') appeared, and in the same year Howard Carr's Three Heroes suite managed a number of performances, including one at the Proms; the third 'hero' was Sub-Lieutenant R A J Warneford of the Royal Naval Air Service, the first British airman to destroy a Zeppelin in flight. Still in 1918, the Royal Air Force was formed and its March Past soon followed. Its opening section was composed by Henry Walford Davies, the first Director of Music to the new service; the broad central melody was added by his successor George Dyson.

The second War inspired much more 'aviation music', a lot of it in films for which often many of our ablest composers were engaged to write the incidental music. One thinks of Malta G C (music by Arnold Bax), Coastal Command (music by Vaughan Williams), the Douglas Bader film Reach for the Sky and the Arnhem film A Bridge Too Far (both with music by John Addison), The Way to the Stars (with evocative music by Nicholas Brodzky) and Target for Tonight (music by Leighton Lucas). Finest of all in this category came from Sir William Walton, with the broad "Spitfire Prelude" and the busy "Spitfire Fugue" composed for the film about the Spitfire The First of the Few (1942). Walton returned to similar territory a quarter of a century later when he was commissioned to compose the music for the definitive Battle of Britain film. Owing to a shameful volte face by the film company only one fragment of his score (the evocative sequence Battle in the Air depicting the events of 15 September 1940) was actually used in the film and that only as a result of strenuous pressure by Sir Laurence Olivier, who was playing Sir Hugh Dowding in the film, but recent recorded performances of the rest show us what the film missed. This is not to say that Ron Goodwin's music, which was actually used in the film, is not effective enough in its tuneful, if rather obvious, way and parts of it have earned popularity in the concert hall in their own right. Another concert item on the same theme Is The Battle of Britain suite by Wilfred Josephs.

For surely the most famous piece of 'air' music we turn again to Eric Coates and the march he wrote for The Dam Busters (the rest of that film's music is however by Leighton Lucas). In the last year of his life Coates penned his last march, for the film High Flight (1957), about the peacetime RAF. It, too, is a fine one. Many of the pieces relevant to our theme are in fact marches and other examples include Cavalry of the Clouds and Eagle Squadron (both by Kenneth Alford), The Beaufighters (Maurice Johnstone), 633 Squadron (Ron Goodwin again), Malcolm Lockyer's The Pathfinders, Hubert Bath's Out of the Blue and Fighter Command by Kenneth Alwyn. The air warfare of the future had figured back in 1935 in the music Arthur Bliss wrote for the H G Wells film Things to Come.

Not all 'air' music is however warlike. Again films inspire some of it, whether light-hearted, such as that for Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (Ron Goodwin, yet again), or more serious like The Sound Barrier, of which Malcolm Arnold wrote a superb score, and the quasi-documentary The Conquest of the Air which had music by Arthur Bliss. From the concert hall we can point to Robert Farnon's broad, stirring 'Concorde' march, in the best light music tradition, Fred Jakeway's march for brass band, The Astronaut, and the first two movements of Richard Rodney Bennett's Travel Notes, for woodwind quartet, which respectively depict travel by balloon and - the scherzo of the suite - Helicopter. Balloon ascents in the 19th century often inspired music, popular songs and even dance movements; as late as 1890 a parachute descent at South Shields produced a ballad entitled Shipley's Drop frae the Cloods. A song for schools entitled The Aeroplane, with words and music by Thomas Facer, appeared in 1909, its cover depicting a Wright biplane. In the 1930s a song reflecting many people's nervousness at a new form of travel was featured by Jack Payne - the title was Airman, Airman Don't Put the Wind Up Me.

Several of the pioneer flyers of the inter-war years were celebrated in music. Charles Lindbergh's solo Transatlantic flight (New York to Paris) in 1927 inspired several songs, an orchestral work The Lindbergh Flight, by Kurt Weill, and a foxtrot entitled Lindy. Lindbergh was an American and the music about him was largely written by Americans. An English counterpart was Amy Johnson, whose historic solo flight to Australia in May 1930 inspired several songs: Johnnie, Heroine of the Air, Aeroplane Girl, The Lone Dove and, best known of all Amy, with its refrain, "Amy, Wonderful Amy". More recently, I seem to remember a song about a flying saucer in Julian Slade's 1954 show Salad Days. Finally we must mention Vaughan Williams' motet A Vision of Aeroplanes, one of his more astringent works. It dates from 1956, but as the words are from Ezekiel it is 'visionary' indeed.

© Philip L Scowcroft




By Philip Scowcroft

My previous paper contained many omissions; this short addendum is an attempt to fill in at least some of the gaps. Some of them are or were popular songs, like the anonymous Ad Astra (The Airman's Hymn), Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, popular in World War II, and Thomas Smart's The Air Balloon. More serious composers have also penned vocal pieces, like Ralph Vaughan Williams with his Airman's Hymn (1942), Alan Gray with his The Airman's Song, featured in the film No Reply from F.P.I. and Martin Shaw with his song The Airman. Three more marches are worth listing, even if none of them quite challenges Coates' The Dambusters: The Airborne March by R Casson, Air Crew on Parade (J Haywood) and Trevor Duncan's Citizens of the World, written for the TV series The Plane Makers. It is practically impossible to keep track of aviation film music, but as a holding operation, let us note Malcolm Arnold's marvellous score for The Sound Barrier, later made into a concert-piece, Nicholas Brodsky's music for the immediately post-war The Way to the Stars, Gerbrand (Gerard) Schurmann's for The Man in the Sky (1956), Geoffrey Wright's for Ships with Wings (1942), about the Fleet Air Arm and Kenneth Woolridge's for Angels One Five, a 1952 effort on the Battle of Britain. An earlier film (1933), Flying Down to Rio included music by Vincent Youmans. Among orchestral concert works, we may cite the two genre pieces Airport by Clive Richardson and Happy Landing by H L Stevens and the movement Flying Saucers from the Suite Charade by George Lloyd, who has confessed that the former title was just an excuse to write the scherzo of the suite! The military band work Days of Glory by Richard Harvey has been recorded by the RAF Band.

To put British aviation music in some kind of context, here are some notes on non-British music on the subject. Around the World in Eighty Days, was an American film; its music, highly praised, was by Victor Young who also wrote the score for Strategic Air Command (1955). Jerry Goldsmith wrote music for Tora! Tora! Tora!, about Pearl Harbor, and The Blue Max with its First War ambience; Alfred Newman did the honours for Airport the film version of Arthur Hailey's novel.

The French composer, Claude Debussy, who died in 1918, once said, "The century of aeroplanes deserves its own music. As there are no precedents I must create anew." (I am not aware of any aviation music by him, however, whether openly as titled or not.) John Philip Sousa's march The Aviators is dedicated to the memory of Admiral William A Moffatt, Chief of the USN's Aeronautical Bureau when he was killed in an air crash. The Russian composer Serge Prokofiev's opera The Story of a Real Man was about the heroism of Second World War pilot Alexei Meres'yev; unfortunately for Prokofiev the music fell foul of the Stalinist regime and the opera was not produced until 1960, seven years after the composer had died. Another Soviet composer, Aram Khachaturyan, wrote the music for a film, later arranged as an orchestral suite, on The Battle of Stalingrad (1952), which was more than marginally an air battle.

By the same token we can perhaps also include William Alwyn's march from the film Desert Victory concerned with Alamein, a battle contemporaneous with Stalingrad. The present author recalls pummelling out its stirring strains on his domestic upright piano during the 1940s.

The American Marc Blitzstein composed an Airborne Symphony. And as the fleet-footed finale of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony has been likened to the Sun God Phaeton driving his carriage through the heavens, this, too, can perhaps earn a mention here. Composed in the 1820s, the symphony obviously pre-dated the Wrights and Bleriot, even Cayley, but not Montgolfier or Leonardo.

Philip Scowcroft

Bohuslav Martinu wrote an orchestral work called P38 Thunderbolt celebrating the twin-tailed Second World War US fighter plane.



By Philip L Scowcroft

This occasional paper is a footnote to my previous writings on the subject of Aviation in British Music (1). Whilst reading a biography of the brass band composer and arranger Denis Wright (2) I came across a fascinating entry in the list of Wright's many arrangements for brass (3) namely March for the Flight of an Air Balloon by Samuel Wesley (1766-1837). A footnote observes that it was composed for the flight of Mr Lunardi's Air Balloon, at the request of Sir Walter Lewes (4). the march's dedicatee.

Wesley was a member of a distinguished family in 18th and 19th Century England, the nephew of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. and an organist and composer, of church music, orchestral works, songs and instrumental pieces. The March, a rarity indeed, does not appear, certainly as such, in the detailed list of Wesley's works appended to the entry on him in The New Grove (although this does note another Wesley composition of aerodynamic interest, The Sky Rocket, a "Jubilee Waltz" of c. 1809) and is not clear for what instrumental forces it was composed, maybe for just piano or harpsichord solo.

Lunardi's flight, indeed flights, are of course well documented. Born in Lucca in 1759 and, by 1794, on the staff of the Neapolitan Embassy in London, Vincenzo Lunardi made an ascent in a hydrogen-filled balloon from the Moorfields training ground of the Honourable Artillery Company (whose commander was Sir Watkin Lewis) on 15th September 1784. He landed first at North Mimms (Herts), then, after jettisoning some weight, flew on to Ware, also in Hertfordshire: the first balloon ascent in Great Britain. Lunardi made other ascents in 1785-6.

It is interesting to hear of the first one being celebrated in music, just as later, heavier-than-air, flights by Lindbergh and Amy Johnson, among others were to be a century and a half later. One assumes the piece dates from 1784, when its composer was only 18.

Philip Scowcroft


(1) Previous Aviation Music articles No. 1 (October 1993) and No.2 (March 1995).

(2) Roy Newsome Dr Denis: The Life and Times of Dr Denis Wright (Egon, 1995)

(3) Ibid p.259. The arrangements was apparently made in 1946.

(4) Sic; really Lewis.

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