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FRANCIS CHAGRIN (1905-1972)

Throughout its history - or at least since around 1700 - British music has been enriched by incomers from the Continent who have settled here. There was Handel, of course, a number of his lesser known contemporaries and then a host of figures from the 20th Century, among them Franz Reizenstein, Hans Gál, Allan Gray (Polish despite his name) Mátyás Seiber, Vilem Tauský, the Goehrs, Walter and Alexander, and doubtless many more.

Here I would like to outline the career of Francis Chagrin, composer, conductor and administrator, born in Rumania on 15 November 1905, but when he died on 10 November 1972 he had lived in the UK for some 35 years.

Born Alexander Paucker, Chagrin qualified as an engineer in Zurich in 1928 and then returned to his Bucharest birthplace and the family business. Soon afterwards he braved family disapproval to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas. To support himself while doing so he played the piano in night clubs and began writing light music. That was in 1933-4; shortly after he moved to London to study with Seiber and settled there in 1936. He remained fond of France and French music; he later arranged dozens of French songs, including some very popular ones, familiar to us from our schooldays (like Au Clair de la Lune and Sur le Pont d'Avignon). He also retained his connections with light music ­- a large proportion of his prolific output may be reckoned as such. He married an English girl, by the way, and they had two sons.

During the Second World War, between 1941 and 1944, he was a music director (and composer) for the French section of the BBC Overseas Service, for which the French Government later decorated him. At about the same time (1943) he founded the Committee for the Promotion of New Music (later SPNM) and ran it for nearly thirty years, thus providing a platform for young or unknown British composers to have their works performed. In this his energy was matched by his unself­ishness.

Not that Chagrin's music, even his "serious" music, was avant-garde. He completed a Piano Concerto in 1948 and two symphonies (1959 and 1970) which latter were powerful and picturesque works, with, unsurprisingly, a pronounced French musical accent. No.1, published by Novello in 1967, is undeniably tonal (the key is G Major), is timed at 28 minutes and is scored for a conventional orchestra (double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, strings, harp and percussion, including a vibraphone and a xylophone. Other more or less serious works included a Wind Octet and perhaps some of his various pieces for string orchestra: (portraits of five children), Lamento Appassionato, Elegy, the Aquarelles, Three Bagatelles, a Prelude and Fugue (premiered at the Henry Wood Proms in 1947) and a Suite Medievale. Chagrin was often preoccupied with old dance forms, examples being the Sarabande for oboe and strings, or piano (1951), the. Orchestral Suite No.1 whose movements were styled Toccata, Fughetta and Finale, and a Renaissance Suite for chamber orchestra comprising Intrada Marziale, Pavana a Gagliarda, Canzon and Rondo Giocosa, and very similar in aim to Peter Warlock's Capriol. Chagrin also made an edition, scholarly for its time, of Handel's Water Music.

Several of the pieces listed in the preceding paragraph lay on the cusp between light and more serious work, and it should be reiterated that Chagrin composed a lot of the former. Film music is light music most of the time and by his own account he wrote scores for over 200 films including half a dozen Hoffnung cartoons, feature films, among them An Inspector Calls based on J B Priestley (1954), The Four Just Men and The Clue of the Twisted Candle, a number of wartime and post-war documentaries including Colditz Story (1954) and, latterly, for TV. Occasionally some of this large corpus of music was adapted for concert use, examples being The Beggar's Theme from the film Last Holiday (arranged by Cecil Milner) and the Yugoslav Sketches which came from a documentary film of 1945.

As I said at the outset he was a conductor and indeed he waved the baton in front of a fair variety of orchestras, several being those attached to ballet and theatre companies, like Roland Petit and the Ballet de France (he composed music for several ballets) but also, and most importantly his own Chagrin Ensemble, which played generally what we would call light music. His port­folio of light orchestral work included a Nursery Suite (Daybreak, Mischief, Daydreams and Playtime) of 1951, the comedy overture Helter-Skelter (also 1951) probably also a reworking of film music and certainly an example of the lively British comedy overture frequently to be encountered, dance movements such as the tango Mirage, the Concert Rumba and Castellana (a Spanish dance) plus other miniatures like Chanson d'Amour, Reverie, Thrills of Spring, Promenade (1953), Berceuse, Clockwork Revels, Alpine Holiday (1949, arranged by Ronald Hanmer, a major figure in British light music at the time), Trickery and Ilonka. In 1956 he was commissioned to write the Roumanian Rhapsody for harmonica and orchestra, for that year's BBC Festival of Light Music, one of a distinguished corpus of pieces from the 1950s which cashed in on the virtuosity of the harmonica player and composer Larry Adler.

I have alluded to Chagrin's film music but he also contributed to theatre music, whether on stage or on the radio, examples of the latter being The King Stag, The Bronze Horse, The Marriage of St. Francis, Volpone and Danton's Death. Apart from specially commissioned incidental music for broadcast plays he also penned "production music" for radio; examples are Dutch Signature Tune, Two Fanfares and Focus - Opening and Closing Theme Music, medleys compiled by him (including, unsurprisingly, one of French National Songs), were also originally for broadcasting.

So far I have attempted to summarise Chagrin's orchestral output in an almost bewildering variety of directions. His portfolio of instrumental pieces generally mirrors his orchestral achievement. Again most of this is light, or at least tuneful, and very approachable. Not for Chagrin, despite his advocacy for the SPNM, the astringencies of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, et al which from around 1960 were over-revived by the BBC (and others), probably at the expense of less avant-garde British composers like Bax, George Lloyd and so on. Most serious was a Prelude and Fugue for two violins; less so were the Divertimentos for wind and brass quintets, Four Lyric Interludes (1969) for solo instrument and string quartet, All Together Now for full wind band, Improvisation and Toccatina for clarinet and piano, the Olympic Sketches for a quartet of clarinets and a considerable quantity of recorder music, inspired no doubt by Carl Dolmetsch's tireless work for that family of instruments. Many of these varied instrumental pieces were ideal as superior teaching material.

Nor did Chagrin neglect the voice. I have noted his French song arrangements and he set French texts on his own account. At least some of his English settings - Cradle Song (done also for three part female voices), Only Tell Her That I Love Her, Time of Roses and We'll Go No More a Roving seem to me to be updated drawing room ballads. Other songs - Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind, It Was a Lover and His Lass and Come Away Death - were salvaged for publication from his Shakespearean incidental music and one published song even re-surfaced from The Colditz Story.

It is time to sum up. Chagrin's music, light or more serious, is little heard nowadays. Light music went into decline in the 1960s and has only gradually made a comeback during the past two decades; he needs the kind of systematic treatment others have received on CD to revive his fortunes. It does help the cause of his music that so much of his output comprise incidental music for films and the like. I suppose we should not be too surprised that his Piano Concerto and symphonies made relatively little headway, especially on the BBC (despite Chagin's connection with the Corporation) in the Glock and post-Glock periods. But tunes are now coming back and perhaps these works should be dusted down.

At all events we should salute his energetic achievement, not only as a composer but as a conductor and administrator.

Philip L. Scowcroft

January 2009


 


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