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Walton (1902-1983) - Suite: "Henry V"

Film Music is a Twentieth Century art. When Saint-Saëns helped to pioneer the form in 1907, the only “tradition” he could follow was that of theatrical “incidental music”. Early on, producers typically used pre-existing music, not realising the advantages of “bespoke” music even while recognising the potency of symphonic music. In Britain, Bliss pioneered the involvement of “serious” composers, and was soon joined by such as Alwyn, Arnold, Bax, Ireland, Rawsthorne, Vaughan Williams and Walton. It was Arnold who took the medium most professionally, quickly acquiring an intimate understanding of the technicalities, and able to meet the film-makers on their own ground, as is obvious to anyone who “listens” to one of his films. 

However, that does not deny the achievements of the others. Walton in particular had a talent for producing concisely expressive music which reflected the period, atmosphere and action of the celluloid drama while, like Arnold, preserving his own strong musical identity. Vaughan Williams perceptively and prophetically observed, “[Film] has potentialities of which Wagner himself never even dreamed”. As I contemplate what these pioneers would make of today's mind-boggling special effects, I can't help but notice that when Lucas, Spielberg et al want musical effects of comparably devastating impact, they don't turn to those “any sound you like” computerised synthesisers, but the good, old-fashioned Symphony Orchestra! 

Olivier's film of Henry V is remarkable: not just because it was made in Britain in 1944, but more because it broke new ground in several artistic aspects. Not least of these was Walton's score, which brilliantly achieved a convincing “period” feel using utterly anachronistic forces, which were essential for the more spectacular scenes. The movements of the concert suite are arranged in a neat, symmetrical “arch” (any music that is well-written for the film will always need arranging for concert use!). 

1. Overture - The Globe Playhouse: Springing from expectant stillness, fanfares, drumming and vigorous, lusciously scored dancing with bags of “period” harmonies conjure the cheerful crowds rowdily assembling for the performance. 

2. Passacaglia - The Death of Falstaff: This mini-threnody is scored for strings alone, its almost Handelian steps compounding tender simplicity with soft nobility. 

3. Charge and Battle: In the film, this music didn't enhance the battle-sounds, it supplanted them, until the first salvo of English arrows took flight (prepare to duck!). There's admittedly a fair amount of “stock footage”, but after the furore subsides, an oboe lends an exquisite touch, musing on the tune of Bailero (also famously arranged by Canteloube). 

4. Touch Her Soft Lips and Part: is also for strings alone, a lilting lullaby for a different kind of parting. 

5. Agincourt Song: The suite ends as it began, in festivity, but now less earthy as brass chant in modal pomp amid excitable crowds of strings and woodwind.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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