Sir Arthur BLISS
The Film Music of Sir Arthur Bliss
1. Welcome the Queen.
2. Things to Come Concert Suite arranged and reconstructed by Philip
3. The Royal Palaces Suite.
4. Caesar and Cleopatra Suite from the incidental film music edited
and arranged by Giles Easterbrook and Malcolm Binney.
5. War in the Air Theme.
Rumon Gamba conducting the
Chandos CHAN 9896
This exciting new Chandos CD provides a convenient cue for a survey of Bliss's
film music, with particular reference to the two feature films represented
on this recording: Things to Come and Caesar and Cleopatra. The
following is a shortened, adapted version of an article on Bliss's film music
written for a forthcoming Ashgate volume devoted to Sir Arthur Bliss.
* * *
In 1922, in an article entitled 'Those Damned Films!', Arthur Bliss
wrote: 'I must have sat through hundreds and hundreds of films, and of late
I have left their "gorgeous palaces" more and more convinced that the art
directors responsible for the accompanying music know not their job.' He
concluded the article with both a suggestion and a prophetic statement: 'There
are only two alternatives before the future music director of the films.
Either, if you are of a conservative disposition, choose music that is not
expressly written for the picture, but which is neither too good to overweight
the film, nor too bad to hurt your dignity as a musician .
. . or . . . get some composer to collaborate with the producer
and write those special cinema noises . . . What a proud day it
will be for some of us to be featured as the sound-producing experts on a
real live million-dollar movie!'
He was, of course, writing about the music chosen at that time to accompany
silent movies, music that was used not merely 'to drown the twittering of
the operator's lantern' but to underline the action or emotion of the moment.
He was not then to know that in five years' time sound would completely
revolutionise films, or that just over seven years further on his wish would
be granted and he himself would be making one of the most important contributions
to the cinema as a film composer. (How significant, too, that even before
the advent of sound, Bliss should recognise the importance of the composer
in the world of cinema.) Furthermore, his first film would be in collaboration
with one of the great literary figures of that period, H G Wells, whose prophetic
novel, The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution, first
appeared in 1933.
Wells, writing against the background of an increasingly dark world situation,
had offered his own vision of the future. Instead of following the pattern
of his earlier futuristic novels, such as The War of the Worlds and
The Sleeper Awakes, The Shape of Things to Come took the form of a
commentary on a manuscript for a 'Short History of the Future' supposedly
left by a Dr Philip Raven, an important (fictional) figure in the League
of Nations who, we are told, died in 1930. In Wells's Introduction we learn
that this History or 'dream book' had come to Raven in those moments between
unconscious sleep and waking (in a fashion suggested by J. W. Dunne whose
highly influential book, Experiment with Time of 1927, had dealt with
the relationship between time and space and had argued the co-existence of
past, present and future). As 'edited' by Wells, Raven's History offers the
reader a résumé of events up to 1933 and, with the spread of
Fascism and dictatorships, looks ahead to the outbreak of war in Europe in
1940 (a war, incidentally, in which England is not involved). Gas is a prominent
form of warfare, but still more devastating, in 1955-6 a plague or pestilence
sweeps the world, killing half the population. After the financial collapse
of America, civilisation steadily disintegrates, with areas ruled by crackpot
warlords and militia. Two world conferences are called. Out of the first,
a gathering of scientific and technical workers in 1965, emerges the World
State, with its main channels of communication controlled by Air and Sea
Police, quelling resistance with Pacifin, a gas of peace. The second conference,
in 1978, gives birth to the World Council. The novel finishes where the fictional
manuscript on which it is based supposedly comes to an abrupt end.
In March 1934, at weekly intervals, Arthur Bliss gave three illustrated lectures
on contemporary music at the Royal Institution, at least one of which H G
Wells attended. Both men were 'modernists' in their own fields. As Bliss
wrote in his autobiography, 'Something that I said on this occasion must
have caught Wells's attention, for he invited me to lunch, and there and
then spoke of his projected film based on his recent book, The Shape of
Things to Come, and asked me whether I would like to collaborate with
him by writing the musical score.'
At first sight Wells's earth-bound book would seem a rather unlikely basis
for a film, especially when it lacked the Space Gun and any suggestion of
space travel that provided both a dramatic climax and a key moral element
to the film. While the novel was a starting point from which the film script
for Things to Come was written, the two are in many respects quite
different. For one thing, there is no characterisation at all in the novel.
As Wells wrote in his Introductory remarks to the published version of his
film treatment: 'The book upon which this story rests . . is essentially
an imaginative discussion of social and political possibilities, and a film
is no place for argument. The conclusions of that book therefore are taken
for granted in the film, and a new story had been invented to display them.'
Characters were necessarily also invented to add a human dimension.
Before Bliss came on the scene, the Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda,
who had read The Shape of Things to Come soon after its publication
in 1933, had met Wells and the two men got on well when they discussed a
possible script over cakes, sardine sandwiches and pots of coffee in Bournemouth.
Right from the start Wells saw music as an integral part of the film. As
he himself wrote:The music is a part of the constructive scheme of the film,
and the composer, Mr. Arthur Bliss, was practically a collaborator in
its production. In this as in many other respects, this film, so far at least
as its intention goes, is boldly experimental. Sound sequences and picture
sequences were made to be closely interwoven. This Bliss music is not intended
to be tacked on; it is part of the design. The spirit of the opening is busy
and fretful and into it creeps a deepening menace. Then come the crashes
and confusions of modern war. The second part is the distressful melody and
grim silences of the pestilence period. In the third, military music and
patriotic tunes are invaded by the throbbing return of the air men. This
throbbing passes in to the mechanical crescendo of the period of reconstruction.
This becomes mores swiftly harmonious and softer and softer as greater efficiency
abolishes that clatter of strenuous imperfection which was so distinctive
of the earlier mechanical civilisation of the nineteenth century. The music
of the new world is gay and spacious. Against this plays the motif of the
reactionary revolt; ending in the stormy victory of the new ideas as the
Space Gun fires and the moon cylinder starts on its momentous journey. The
music ends with anticipations of a human triumph in the heroic finale amidst
It cannot be pretended that in actual production it was possible to blend
the picture and music so closely as Bliss and I had hoped at the beginning.
The incorporation of original music in film production is still in many respects
an unsolved problem. But Bliss's admirable music has also been separately
performed and gramophone records of it are obtainable.
Wells's description of the music corresponds only obliquely to the final
film score. Both his script and the music had to undergo considerable
modifications before the film was completed. As Korda's nephew Michael has
related, Alex 'did everything he could to please Wells. He agreed to let
Wells write the script. He agreed that the movie should be a collaboration.
He hired Frank Wells, H.G.'s son [as assistant designer], and he even let
Wells do most of the talking at story conferences.' Wells's close involvement
was in some ways the film's undoing. Unfortunately, the novelist's vision
and that of the film-maker did not always concur. Even when agreement on
the script had been reached, constant alterations were being made right up
to the last moment. Furthermore, when it came to writing a film-script, Wells
was a mere novice. He confessed himself:
Alexander Korda offered to make a film which was, as far as humanly possible,
exactly as I dictated. The task of putting my imaginative story into screen
form was, however, far more difficult than I had imagined, and took much
longer than I thought.
It is only now that I realise how little I knew about the cinema when I wrote
the scenario. Many of the sequences which slipped quite easily from my pen
were extremely difficult to screen, and some were quite impossible. But that
did not matter.
The film has emerged spiritually correct, despite the fact that it now embodies
many alterations suggested by Alexander Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and
a score of other people.
Elsewhere, an embittered Wells was even more frank, and liberal too, in
apportioning the blame for what he saw as the film's failings:
For me it was a huge disillusionment. It was, I saw plainly, pretentious,
clumsy and scamped. I had fumbled with it. My control of the production had
been ineffective. Cameron Menzies was an incompetent director; he loved to
get away on location and waste money on irrelevancies; and Korda let this
happen. Menzies was a sort of Cecil B de Mille without his imagination; his
mind ran on loud machinery and crowd effects and he had no grasp of my ideas.
He was sub-conscious of his own commonness of mind. He avoided every opportunity
of talking to me. The most difficult part of this particular film, and the
one most stimulating to the imagination, was the phase representing a hundred
and twenty years hence, but the difficulties of the task of realisation
frightened Menzies; he would not get going on that, and he spent most of
the available money on an immensely costly elaboration of the earlier two-thirds
of the story. He either failed to produce, or he produced so badly that
ultimately they had to cut out a good half of my dramatic scenes. Korda too
disappointed me and above all I disappointed myself. I was taken by surprise
by difficulties I should have foreseen. I did not take Korda's measure soon
enough or secure an influence over him soon enough. I have called him congenial
and he is - insinuatingly and untrustworthily congenial. I grew tired of
writing stuff into the treatment that was afterwards mishandled or cut out
again. In the end little more of The Shape of Things to Come was got
over than a spectacular suggestion of a Cosmopolis ruled by men of science
It proved not to have been a wise decision to entrust Wells with the script.
For all his success as a novelist, his inexperience in handling the medium
of film showed through. His first version was unfilmable, and it required
two further attempts before a workable script emerged. Even that was subjected
to constant revision. The ending in particular seemed to cause difficulty.
From the start Bliss had been enthusiastic about the project, writing to
Wells on 12 April 1934: 'I have started work and am getting more and more
impressed with the possibilities that your vision is opening. I believe I
shall do a big thing with this, if unhampered . . .' Soon, on the piano
at his home in Hampstead, Bliss was playing to Wells the work in progress.
In June Wells wrote:
Of all the early part up to and including the establishment of the Air
Dictatorship I continue to be confident and delighted. But I am not sure
of the Finale. Perhaps I dream of something superhuman but I do not feel
that what you have done so far fully renders all that you can do in the way
of human exaltation. It's good - nothing you do can fail not to be good -
but it is not yet that exultant shout of human resolution that might be there
- not the marching song of a new world of conquest among the atoms and stars.
I know that you say 'This is only provisional' presently something will come
- between sleeping and waking, or when you are walking in the country, or
in a railway train - or shaving - which will be the crowning air of Whither
Mankind ? [the film's provisional title] Biró [Lajas
Biró, who worked on the script] I think is very much of my mind on
this. Trumpets ?
Musically, the problem of the Finale was not to be easily resolved. Neither
was everything else going smoothly. On 16 October Wells wrote to Bliss:
I am at issue with Korda and one or two others of the group on the question
of where you come in. They say - it is the Hollywood tradition - 'We make
the film right up to the cutting then, when we have cut, the musician
comes in and puts in his music.'
I say Balls! (I have the enthusiastic support of Grierson, who makes Post
Office Films, in that). I say 'A film is a composition and the musical
composer is an integral part of the design. I want Bliss to be in touch
I don't think Korda has much of an ear, but I want the audience at the end
not to sever what it sees from what it hears. I want to end on a complete
sensuous and emotional synthesis.
Consequently I am sending you Treatment (Second Version). It is very different
from the first and in particular the crescendo up to the firing of the Space
Gun, which is newly conceived. I think we ought to have a Prelude going on
to the end of Reel 1, but I won't invade your province.
Will you read this new Treatment and then have a talk with me sometime next
week. Then when we two have got together a bit, we will bring in Biró
the scene artist, and then Menzies and my son who are busy on the scenes.
I have already a definite scheme for drawings and models.
So far from regarding the music as trimming to be put in afterwards I am
eager to get any suggestions I can from you as to the main design.
Bliss wrote to Wells: 'I have got the new scenario, and the end is fine.
It must be very dignified - no Hollywood frills . . .' It was not
until 5 September 1935 that Wells could write to Bliss: 'We are really getting
the Film in shape at last . . .'
In true Korda fashion this was a lavish production, filmed first at Elstree,
then at Worton Hall, Isleworth before moving to Denham, with huge sets that
were designed principally by Alexander Korda's brother Vincent, although
Wells's son Frank takes a screen credit as assistant designer. It was produced
under the aegis of Korda's own company, London Film Productions. Visually,
the most spectacular part of the film are the scenes set in Everytown of
the future, realised on screen by a combination of models, miniatures, full-size
sets and special photography, including the 'split-screen' technique. The
strong cast included Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman, Margaretta
Scott, Cedric Hardwicke and Ann Todd. Playing the child in the final scenes
was Anne McLaren, the twelve-year-old daughter of Christabel MacLaren, dedicatee
of Walton's Viola Concerto.
The film covers three time periods: the present, 1940; the immediate aftermath
of a world war, 1966-70; and the future, 2036, with the early attempts at
space travel. It culminates in a conflict of ideals, with the human conservative
instincts of the aesthete and the artist challenging man's courage and
adventurousness as embodied in the advancements of science.
There are 14 sequences in the film where music is used. (These are indicated
in square brackets, together with their approximate duration.) Altogether
they represent 31 minutes of music in a film lasting (in its final cut) 90
minutes. After a brief but heavy peal of bells the film opens with the
Prelude [1: 2' 20"]. It is Christmas 1940 in Everytown, but
the busy festivities are constantly interrupted visually with newspaper placards
warning of the threat of war: 'Europe Arming', 'War Scare', 'World at the
Brink of War'. The Prelude is intercut with familiar carols, The First
Noel, While Shepherds watched and God Rest You Merry,
Gentlemen, but even these are punctuated by heavy brass outbursts. A
quieter contrast follows with an interior scene, at the home of John Cabal
(a pilot in the coming conflict, played by Raymond Massey) where the conversation
highlights opposing views. Passworthy dismisses the war rumours; Cabal takes
a more serious viewpoint, voicing disquiet about the way life has progressed.
The Ballet for Children [2: 2' 45"] accompanies the children
playing with toys around the Christmas tree, toys that too closely resemble
war. Soon, noises that sound like distant guns are confirmed to be the outbreak
of war, and the Ballet takes on a markedly military tone at the mention
of mobilisation, and the music cuts to the news on a radio. The exciting
March [3: 1'04"] - the motto, as it were, for the whole film
score - is heard (without the trio) as everyone mobilises for war. Its opening
bars alone suggest the tramping of soldiers' feet, ominously presaging the
jackboot. The crowds are forced off the streets by the military authorities.
With the next hearing of the March [4: 0' 50"], gas masks
are being distributed, and the March soon changes to part of
Attack [0' 38"] amid scenes of bombing and devastation. Instead
of music the drone of aircraft and the sound of bombing underline the destruction
of Everytown. The March and Attack resume [5: 0" 54"],
war is waged on a wider scale, with a film montage of tanks and ships, together
with the shadows and silhouettes of marching soldiers. The futility of war
is shown in a pathetic episode between two opposing pilots. Cabal, having
shot down an enemy pilot dropping gas, lands his aircraft and goes in vain
to rescue the trapped pilot who sacrifices his own gas mask to a passing
young girl and then shoots himself with the pistol that Cabal leaves him.
The next scene depicts the World In Ruins [6: 2' 02"]
and a sequence of dates indicates the progression of time from 1945 up to
1966 when there is now Pestilence (both times running into
Attack) [7: 1' 33" and 8: 1' 50"]. Medical
supplies in the hospitals are running out and anybody seen roaming the streets
with the wandering sickness is shot [at which point the Pestilence
music changes to Attack]. Over half the world's population dies from
the plague; none who caught it has survived. The years pass until May Day
1970 when the pestilence is over and Everytown is under the control of a
self-appointed warlord or patriot chief, in dress more mediaeval than futuristic
and played with splendid swagger by Ralph Richardson. His appearance is announced
by the March [9: 1' 05"], this time with the Trio. In
due course an aeroplane of ultra-modern design lands and from it emerges
in space-like garb an older grey-haired John Cabal, a member of 'Wings over
the World', a fellowship of survivors who, through science and reason, are
restoring order worldwide. Cabal unsuccessfully tries to reason with the
Chief and is imprisoned instead. A flurry of war-like fanfares and the
March [10: 2' 35", its most substantial hearing,
although much of it almost inaudible in the background] proclaim the Chief's
successful attack on the 'Hill Men', gaining control of the coal pits and
so obtaining a supply of oil for his grounded and antiquated biplanes. A
engineer sympathetic to Cabal's cause manages to restore one machine and
escapes to inform Cabal's forces of his imprisonment. An air attack is
successfully launched to gain control of Everytown with the use of the gas
of peace. The invasion by paratroops, prefaced by trumpet fanfares, is
underscored by an untitled section of music [11: 2' 19"] that was
not included in the Suite. This film sequence closes with fanfares that Bliss
was also to use in his Fanfare Jubilant first heard in a broadcast
in May 1935 to mark King George V's Silver Jubilee.
With the last vestiges of barbarism overthrown, the way is now clear for
Cabal and 'Wings over the World' to restore civilisation. During the transition
of time to 2036 as a new world is built, the music for this long sequence
[12: 5' 44"] is in three connected sections: the first, which
underscores Excavation, is driven by a pounding rhythm (which persists
throughout the whole sequence) and the metallic beating of machinery (echoes
of Mossolov's Iron Foundry that employed realistic effects with metal
sheets?); it then leads first into The Building of the New World which
is a shortened version of what later became the Entry of the Red Castles
in Checkmate (1937), and then, after some dramatic, climactic chords,
into Machines, closing with a repeat of the fanfares. For this, the
longest music sequence in the film, the on-screen images show underground
blasting, the construction of the new city with huge sheets of steel for
the walls of its buildings, chemical factories, vast machinery dwarfing men,
and mass production everywhere. This was the one section of the film for
which normal procedure was reversed and the film was cut to match the music.
(When Bliss first played the music for this scene to Wells on the piano,
Wells's reply was: 'I am sure that all that is very fine music, but I'm afraid
you have missed the whole point. You see, the machines of the future will
By 2036 Everytown is not a skyscraper city but instead, with a prescient
concern for conservation, a subterranean Utopia dug into the hills. Scientific
progress does not stop here. There are plans to send two humans round the
Moon by means of a space gun, but there is an undercurrent of unrest at the
way scientific progress is shaping life. The spokesman for the artist class
incites the people to destroy the gun. Raymond Passworthy questions Oswald
Cabal about the value of continued progress and of this venture into space
(both are grandsons of the earlier characters and are portrayed by the same
actors). Cabal, the scientist, sees no other way. Cabal's daughter and
Passworthy's son offer themselves as the astronauts for the moon mission
and as the space gun is in danger of being destroyed by the crowd, the programme
is rushed forward. (Here we have one of the many incongruities of the plot:
two volunteers with no training are sent into space at a moment's notice.)
The Attack on the Gun [13: 1' 40"] comes too late to stop
the launch, and as the rocket hurtles into space, the film closes with the
Epilogue [14: 2' 37"] as Cabal, against a background of the
starry heavens, throws out the rhetorical challenge: 'All the universe -
or nothingness . . . Which shall it be,
As Bliss has written - and against Korda's better judgement - 'a great deal
of the music was written and pre-recorded before the film really got under
way' and 'many later modifications had, of course, to be made'. This slightly
ambiguous statement refers not to the soundtrack but to substantial sections
of the score that were recorded on 78s in the Decca Studios in Thames Street,
London, on 3 March 1935, six months before Wells could write of 'getting
the film in shape'. Bliss conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. Almost
a year later four of the movements recorded were issued commercially, in
February 1936, coinciding with the film's release: Ballet for Children,
Pestilence, Attack and The World in Ruins. According
to the record sheets for those 1935 Decca sessions, Bliss also recorded other
movements that were not issued. The sections themselves were not named but
listed merely by number up to 12, with the curious omission of 8 and 10.
There were two takes of each section. When the test pressings of three
unpublished sections, Prelude (Prologue), March and
Reconstruction were discovered in 1991 among Sir Henry Wood's effects
at the Royal Academy of Music they threw much light on the way that the film
- and alongside it the music score - developed.
It would seem that at the beginning Bliss went ahead, blocking out whole
sections in music, perhaps in the hope - or assumption - that the film would
be cut to fit the music. Because at that stage the final shape of the film
was far from settled, he could not have worked from a shooting script that
would have told him precisely how many minutes and seconds of music were
required for each section. Even when he went into the Decca recording studios,
Korda and Wells between them had not finalised a script and he had no clear
idea of how the music would be adapted to the film. When the Decca recordings
are compared with the music conducted on the film's soundtrack by Muir Mathieson
(also with the London Symphony Orchestra), it becomes clear that many
modifications had to be made after those sessions. As Lionel Salter wrote
when reviewing their partial issue on CD: 'Bliss wrote much of his Things
to Come score - which many regard as the finest British film music yet
- in advance of the shooting (let alone of the film editing). I was charged
with "tidyings-up and surgery", a job I felt privileged (and somewhat overawed)
to do, as he had been one of my musical heroes. Well in advance of the Suite
later drawn from the score, Bliss himself conducted some extracts for Decca.
. . They include the World in Ruins sequence not in the Suite - which,
however, does contain three extra movements, one of them, the
Reconstruction, cobbled together (not by me, I hasten to add) from
the film's epilogue with chorus.'
None of the movements that Bliss recorded (nor for that matter those in the
Suite) corresponds precisely to what is heard on the soundtrack. The nearest
is The World in Ruins which, as recorded by Bliss [2'36"], closely
follows the soundtrack, although the latter has the telling addition of side-drum
taps. Bliss recorded Ballet for Children in full [3'35"]; in the film
it runs complete up to the return of the 'Tempo di Valse' section, and then
much of the opening section is repeated before jumping ahead to the Alla
Marcia reprise, only to be terminated abruptly five bars before the end.
Pestilence in Bliss's version [4'54"] follows closely its second
exposition in the film , although there it is cut short by an abridged
version of Attack.
The takes that were not issued are more fascinating and show substantial
divergences from their later versions. The longer original Prelude
as conducted by Bliss ('I think we ought to have a Prelude going on to the
end of Reel 1', Wells had suggested) is almost identical to that in the film
up to the entry of the carols. The original version brought in a gong stroke
at that point after which the music became broody and more contemplative,
ending on a repeated held chord and another gong stroke. At 2'44" it is much
longer than the section on the soundtrack [1'06"] up to the carols. Bliss's
version of the March [3'38"]is similar to Mathieson's recorded version
[3'38"] but as a performance it does not quite have the urgency that Mathieson
brings to it either on disc or on screen with the dramatic suggestion of
tramping feet in its opening bars that Bliss's 1957 stereo recording of the
Suite also lacks.
But the most substantial differences are in Reconstruction. As Bliss
recorded it, it was clearly intended to underscore a sequence in the film
much longer than the closing section where its big theme makes its only
appearance. In an introductory talk to a BBC broadcast of the Suite on 15
November 1950, Bliss explained that 'the first attempts to regain order and
sanity are accompanied by the following Theme of Reconstruction' and
he went on to describe how next Machines accompanied gigantic machines
that were rebuilding the world anew. Lasting 7'15", this version of
Reconstruction opens with sixteen dramatic chords that lead directly
into two full statements of the familiar Utopian hymn-like Epilogue tune
(with prominent gong). It then makes much use in expanded form of the music
used to depict John Cabal's rescue and the end of the Chief's rule of Everytown
[The untitled music of sequence 11]. Further dramatic chords lead
into the return of the Epilogue theme, again heard twice, but with
a purely orchestral close without any of the Hollywood choral frills heard
in the Epilogue, either in Mathieson's recording [2'23"] or in the
soundtrack [2'37"] which has a different choral ending. The confusion in
the Suite with the Epilogue music (without chorus) being called
Reconstruction would seem to suggest that this theme (almost certainly
what Wells referred to as the 'gay and spacious' music of the new world)
was intended to be used earlier on and not just for the film's closing section.
Reconstruction in the Suite lasts 1'48" in Bliss's 1957 recording.
It is probable that Bliss's recordings were made, not with commercial release
in mind, but to give the film production staff some idea of the scale and
the placing of the music to which Wells attached so much importance in the
overall scheme. It is unlikely that they were considered for actual use in
the soundtrack which was, after all, Muir Mathieson's domain. The expense
of the recording sessions was not something that would have unduly worried
Korda. However, issuing them commercially just before the film was released
provided excellent publicity, although it is rather curious that the
March, what might be regarded as the theme of the film, was not issued
at the same time. Was it for lack of a suitable coupling or because it was
not impeccably played? Whatever the reason, three days before the first showing
of Things to Come, two movements, the March and
Reconstruction, were transferred by Decca onto a commercial disc from
what has been referred to as the soundtrack, with Muir Mathieson conducting
the LSO and an unnamed chorus. These transfers, made in the Chenil Galleries
Studios in Chelsea on 18 February 1936, raise a few puzzles. Firstly, the
music on these two sides is quite clearly not from the final soundtrack.
As has already been stated, the March is not played complete anywhere
in the film, and the Epilogue in this commercial release was given
a different choral ending from that on the soundtrack. 'Lo the starry sky,
the eternity' sings the choir on disc while in the film it echoes Cabal's
challenging question 'Which shall it be?' The choral ending was presumably
supplied in accordance with Wells's insistence on an 'exultant shout of human
Unanswered questions remain about the soundtrack and the origin of Mathieson's
78 sides. John Huntley, in British Film Music, writes that the recording
of the soundtrack required fourteen full orchestral sessions in a London
theatre (the Scala Theatre), with Muir Mathieson conducting the London Symphony
Orchestra. While certain scenes were recorded and synchronised 'live' to
the film, much of it was quite likely dubbed onto the soundtrack. It is possible
that, with magnetic tape not yet in general use, Mathieson recorded 'a
soundtrack' on optical film that included the March in full (and its
variants as heard in the film) together with alternative versions of the
Epilogue. This would have made easier the dubbing of the final soundtrack,
and Mathieson's two commercial 78 sides could well have originated from such
a film track - which might explain their noticeably poorer sound quality
when compared with Bliss's sides.
Critics were oddly dismissive of the 78s that were issued. 'Only in the turbulent
parts and in Desolation is it good in the way Bliss is usually good;
in the other parts it is fair in the way Elgar used to be very good,' thought
the Musical Times. W.A. Chislett, in the Gramophone, was of
a similar opinion: 'The theme of the March is not a good one, and
I do not think the composer has been very happily moved here. Doubtless something
with a "popular" appeal was needed, and this is scarcely Bliss's line. There
may, of course, be some intention in the dance-theme shaping of the first
tune, with its flattened third, that has become so tiresome a cliché;
but judged as a musical theme, it is cheap. [In the Epilogue] there
is here something of the optimistic warmth of the Elgarian temperament, which
I see as a good hope in Bliss's future.' Neither critic saw in the
March the ominous relentless tread of the Nazi storm-trooper.
In addition to the extracts commercially released on 78 rpm records by Decca,
there was further advance publicity for the film in the form of a suite made
for concert purposes. This was first performed, with Bliss conducting, at
a Henry Wood Promenade Concert in Queen's Hall on 12 September 1935. The
film's title was then still uncertain. Whither Mankind? was one being
considered, One Hundred Years Ahead another. So the suite was simply
called Suite from Film Music, 1935. It consisted then of seven movements:
2. Ballet for Children
5. Melodrama I - Attack
6. Melodrama II - Desolation
A note by Bliss explained that the suite 'deals almost entirely with the
scenes during and following the future World War, and only Nos. 3 and 7 refer
to the final sections of the film. After the Prelude, which accompanies "shots"
showing the menace of unrest and war, the scene shifts to a children's nursery
. . . Nos. 4 and 5 deal with the mobilisation for war, and a night bombing
attack. No. 6 accompanies scenes showing the world in ruins. No. 3 is an
idyll of pastoral peace in the reconstructed era, and No. 7 states the theme
of Reconstruction itself, on which the last scenes are based.'
When Sargent programmed a performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
for 4 January 1936 it was still known as a 'Suite from Film Music 1935'.
On 14 May 1936 Bliss, writing to Julian Herbage, one the BBC programme planners,
about a forthcoming broadcast on 12 June, stressed that Things to Come
was 'always to be played in the following order (slightly different to the
2. Ballet for Children
3. Melodrama - Pestilence
4. Melodrama - Attack!
5. Melodrama - World in Ruins
6. Theme of reconstruction
Unfortunately, the autograph film score has not survived. All that has survived
are those sections as published in the rather different 1946 Suite from which
the Prelude (or Prologue), The World in Ruins, The
Building of the New World, and the Idyll are missing. As will
be seen, the last-named section raises further questions.
The film Things to Come had its world première in London at
the Leicester Square Theatre on 21 February 1936. Although financially it
was not a box-office success, it was generally received with great acclaim.
The Daily Telegraph critic, writing of its 'sheer immensity and daring',
found only 'minor faults in a masterly production':
Memorable, unforgettable, though it is, 'Things to Come' is inevitably not
without its flaws. The dialogue is a trifle literary, relying too much on
direct statement instead of the implications of ordinary speech; and the
characterisation in places is oddly flat. Ralph Richardson, as the Boss,
shouts too much on the same key - after all, Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini,
whatever their other qualities, are both marvellous mob orators.
The Times review on 21 February made no mention of Bliss, but a later
review in the same paper was more critical, particularly of the sound quality
of the music track:
One hoped that at last a director of a big commercial film was going to allow
music to contribute its legitimate share to the sum total of our entertainment.
In this respect Things to Come is yet another disappointment. It is
the greater pity, because this film happens to provide exceptional opportunities
for music to deploy itself at reasonable length.
As we know from the concert performance, Mr. Arthur Bliss has not failed
to make good use of his opportunity, but another power has intervened to
nullify his work. For the sound in this film is so grossly over-amplified
that the music becomes mere noise. In the war scenes it is admittedly a
terrifying noise, heightening to an almost unbearable degree the emotions
aroused by the spectacle of horror and destruction. But there was no point
in engaging a distinguished composer to write special music. Anything would
have done, thus amplified so that it is impossible to detect what instruments
originated this uniform, brazen din. . . We still have hopes, based
upon the experience of less ambitious productions, that music may yet take
its legitimate place in the cinema; it remains for the musicians to stake
out a claim for their art as something more than one among many forms of
The first showing of Things to Come in America was a private screening
in Washington in April to an 'audience of diplomatists [sic] (including the
British Ambassador and Lady Lindsay), members of the Cabinet, senators,
representatives and journalists.' Wells spoke by a Transatlantic telephone
'of the aims of the film. He said it was a serious attempt to answer the
question of the world's future. They were not alone in trying to answer that
riddle, but they had tried to show what they considered were its possibilities.
He thought the wild storm of war was probable throughout the world, but not
inevitable; he also thought that America could not keep out of such a storm.
The film was an experiment. Its producers did not profess to show the world
as it would be but merely as they thought it was likely to be.'
Bliss remembered his experience of working on the film as 'six months of
adventure'. In a broadcast talk he spoke of Wells as a man of tireless curiosity.
For him, as for me, it was a plunge into a new world, and he was always
interested in the new. He was constantly in the studios, suggesting, criticising,
stimulating all and sundry. Although he knew next to nothing about musical
technique, he had a genius for putting his finger on a weal spot, for pointing
out a slack thought.
On its initial showing Things to Come had a running time of about
110 minutes. The version seen today, as issued on video and shown on television,
is about 20 minutes shorter. The opening credits list one or two minor characters
not to be seen in the cut version. The most substantial cut is of the scene
involving Oswald Cabal's ex-wife Rowena, played as credited, like her descendant
Roxena, by Margaretta Scott who can vouch for that scene having been shot.
Her costume for that role had been an elaborate one designed by the Marchioness
of Queensberry. On seeing it, however, Korda rejected it, plucking instead
a simple costume from one of the extras. Perhaps the Idyll accompanied
Rowena's scene or another episode set in the future Everytown that was cut
either before or after the film's release. Almost right up to the moment
of the film's release changes and cuts were being made: Lionel Salter remembered
it as being a 'shambles'. The full facts may never be known.
* * *
The history of the recordings of music from Things to Come is in itself
quite a story. For a while, with the long-deleted Bliss and Mathieson 78s
(Decca K810-811 & K817) becoming collectors' items, Bliss's own 1957
recording of the Suite (RCA SB2026; SDD255; CD re-issue Dutton
was all that was available. It was not until that indefatigable film enthusiast
Christopher Palmer started to recreate some of the other sections of the
film score did more of the music appear on record. Bernard Herrmann's rather
ponderous readings of five movements in Decca's Phase 4 sound (PFS4363; CD
release 421 261-2DA), released in 1976, included the Prelude, The
Building of the New World and the Attack on the Moon Gun. The
following year Sir Charles Groves' much fuller compilation for EMI (ASD3416)
added The World in Ruins and two movements from the published suite
that Herrmann had omitted. In his sleeve-note, Palmer explained how he had
orchestrated the Prelude/Prologue himself from a printed piano
arrangement, using the film soundtrack as a guide. The Building of the
New World was extracted from Checkmate, the Attack on
the Moon Gun was fortunately discovered in manuscript among Bliss's papers,
and he completely reconstructed The World in Ruins from the soundtrack
alone. He also rescored the last few bars of the Epilogue to conform
more closely with the film version (though without any chorus).
Both Dutton (CDLXT2501) and Symposium (Symposium 1203) have issued on CD
those of Bliss's 1935 recordings that had been commercially released on Decca
78s, Symposium adding the March and Epilogue under Mathieson's
direction. Following the discovery of more acetates from those 1935 sessions,
all the extant movements, seven in number lasting about 25 minutes, were
released last year by Pearl in the second volume of their British Film Music
This added the Prologue (Prelude), March and Reconstruction
(this last movement, here named Epilogue, occupying two acetate
sides). In 1995 Christopher Lyndon-Gee and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra
recorded for Naxos a five-movement suite, mainly of Palmer's reconstructions
lasting just over 11 minutes. A far more extensive 16 minutes' suite has
been assembled by John Mauceri, conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (Philips
446 403-2 - nla). This attempts very successfully to simulate the soundtrack
by starting - as the film does - with the chimes of Big Ben and including
the carols sung. Sound effects of explosions, aircraft, machinery and the
lift-off of the moon rocket all add atmosphere. Most skilfully edited and
abridged by Mauceri, in one continuous suite it goes from the Prelude
(called Main Title), to portions of the March and Attack
(War Montage), The World in Ruins (mistakenly called
Pestilence), part of section 11 of the soundtrack that then, unlike
the film, leads into a reprise of the March, section 12
(Excavation, Building of the New World and Machines),
the Attack on the Moon Gun, and a choral Epilogue.
This new suite on Chandos (CHAN 9896), effectively a definitive version,
has been arranged by Philip Lane in whose debt we are for so many film-score
reconstructions. At about 32 minutes it is the most extensive, containing
almost all the music that appears on the soundtrack. It recreates the sides
that Bliss himself recorded in 1935 but until recently had remained unissued,
most importantly the uncut Epilogue (again without chorus). The following
table shows the order of the movements and their comparative track numbers
and timings against Bliss's own version on Pearl. (Track One on the Chandos
CD is Welcome the Queen which precedes Things to Come.)
||1 2' 38"
||2 2' 27"
|2. Ballet for Children
||2 3' 28"
||3 3' 33"
||3 3' 32"
||4 3' 33"
||6 2' 46"
||5 1' 49" *
|5. World in Ruins
||4 2' 34"
||6 2' 36"
||5 2' 03"
||7 2' 48"
||7 7' 03"
||12 7' 28"
* Gamba takes this much faster than Bliss and the opening section
is not repeated. (For some reason the Pearl playing times are about 6 seconds
shorter than indicated on the CD cover).
The remaining Chandos items are as follows, with their equivalent on the
soundtrack. (The soundtrack numbers relate to the synopsis above.)
||8 1' 53"
||12 1' 52"
|8. The Building of the New World
||9 2' 15"
||12 2' 17"
||10 1' 26"
||12 1' 18"
|10. Attack on the Moon Gun
||11 1' 18"
||13 1' 40"
* Bliss's only recording of any of these movements, in SDD255 (1957)
Rumon Gamba offers fine performances in splendid sound. Perhaps familiarity
has robbed the magnificent March of some of its menace. Both Mathieson's
and Bliss's accounts, with that muted trumpet call at the start not too forward,
sound more threatening; Gamba is a shade hasty - as some may feel he is in
one or two other places, but still exciting. While this new version cannot
replace Bliss's performances (especially the 1935 ones with their war-weary
sound that adds an extra feel of authenticity) it is an essential complement.
The BBC Philharmonic is in excellent form and one of the truly great film
scores is at last available, effectively complete.
* * *
Bliss's next film, The Conquest of the Air (1937), was subjected
to even more directorial disruption and is in itself a sad story that leaves
several unanswered questions. The music, butchered on the soundtrack, would
not have survived had not Bliss made a concert suite (available on Silva
Screen FILMCD713, with Kenneth Alwyn conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra).
The next film project brought Bliss into contact with another giant of the
cinema and another lion of the literary world. On 6 June 1944 he signed a
contract to provide music for an elaborate screen treatment of George Bernard
Shaw's stage play Caesar and Cleopatra. Its director was Gabriel Pascal,
another Hungarian who, like Korda, worked on a large canvas. Pascal had already
made films of Shaw's Pygmalion in 1938 for which Honegger provided
the score and Major Barbara in 1940 to a score by Walton. The invitation
for Bliss to provide the music score came from Shaw himself who, in his other
role as a former music critic, offered him serious advice before the contract
was signed. First, he strongly advised Bliss to retain the copyright of his
film score and make an orchestral suite from it:
Be careful not to let yourself be placed in the position of an employee of
Pascal or of the film company, as anything you compose for them in that capacity
will belong to them and not to you. If I were a composer writing for a film
I should make a skeleton piano score of an orchestral suite consisting of
overture, nocturne, barcarole, intermezzo and finale. I should copyright
this in my own name in England and America. Then, being in an impregnable
position as sole owner of the music, I should license the film people to
use the material as an accompaniment to their film for a stated period on
stated terms, giving them no rights whatever. . . Remember that
an orchestral suite by you will long survive Pascal's film and become a standard
concert piece quite independently of my play, like Grieg's Peer Gynt.
Let no parasite fasten on it.
Following Shaw's advice, Bliss started work on a score, sketching out music
for designated scenes, such as 'Memphis at Night', 'Ftatateeta', 'Soldiers'
Chorus' and 'Barcarolle'. And although Shaw had pleaded 'In Heaven's name,
no Egyptian music', the instrumentation did call for a buccina, a Roman wind
instrument. However, the project progressed no further after Bliss had met
Pascal. He later recalled: 'I have had unforgettable experiences with one
director who, where music was concerned, was a certified lunatic, and I had
to discontinue collaboration.' As he explained in his autobiography, 'One
look at him made it self-evident that he would never be a sympathetic
collaborator, and I withdrew from the assignment.' Georges Auric eventually
provided the music for the film which was released in December 1945.
Fortunately, what Bliss had written before abandoning the project was fairly
extensive: 100 numbered pages of score, some blank and some missing, totalling
about 80 either fully scored or in shorthand. A suite, edited by Giles
Easterbrook and Malcolm Binney and consisting of eight short movements lasting
17 minutes, receives its première recording on this Chandos release.
It opens with an Overture, a martial allegro in Bliss's recognisable ceremonial
style. This is followed by The Sea, a most effective piece of scene
and mood painting, with predominantly woodwind above divided strings and
harp arpeggios, perhaps representing calm waters at night. Next come three
short Dance Interludes written for the Banquet Scene, the middle one a lively
allegro ending fortissimo, and the last a waltz of some charm. A relaxed
Barcarolle is followed by further mood painting in Memphis at
Night. The final section, a vigorous allegro that could almost have come
out of Checkmate, also saw service in a Ministry of Information film,
Présence au combat, an Anglo-French production released in
1946. With its quiet ending one feels that a reprise of a snatch of the Overture
would perhaps have made a more fitting ending to the Suite. This is not major
Bliss, not even to be frank important Bliss, but one is nonetheless grateful
for the opportunity to hear it.
* * *
For the sake of completion Bliss's other major films should be briefly mentioned
here. He had a much happier involvement with the next film, Men of Two
Worlds (1945). In sharp contrast with Pascal, Bliss found its director
Thorold Dickinson 'a man of imagination, sensitive to music, and serious
in aim.' This was followed in 1949 by Christopher Columbus, and in
1953 his version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera was brought to the
screen with Laurence Olivier in the leading role and Peter Brook directing,
a spectacle probably designed to match the mood of Coronation Year.
The most obscure of his feature films has been Seven Waves Away (known
in America as Abandon Ship), released in 1957. Rarely (if ever) shown
on television here, it has been available on video in the U.S. Fortunately,
extracts from this film and also from Christopher Columbus and Men
of Two Worlds are available on a Marco Polo CD
* * *
One other notable piece written for the films was his march Welcome the
Queen, very much in the Elgarian-Waltonian mould, composed for a 1954
Associated British Pathé film that commemorated the return of Queen
Elizabeth II from a Commonwealth tour. The remainder of the music for the
50 minutes travelogue was written by Malcolm Arnold; Muir Mathieson conducted.
Bliss twice recorded this march himself, and Rumon Gamba gives an excellent
account to open this new Chandos CD, capturing well the swagger and the ceremony
of a fine march that ought to be heard more often.
This CD also includes music written for the small screen: a five-movement
suite for the joint BBC/ITV 1966 documentary The Royal Palaces of
Britain that was narrated by Kenneth Clark. Half Bliss, half pastiche,
this is the sort of music that he executed with such efficiency and
professionalism: waltz measures for The Ballroom in Buckingham Palace,
heraldic trumpet and horn calls for the Jousts of the Knights in Armour,
a grand ceremonial tune for The Royal Palaces theme with which the
Suite ends. This is not to down-grade the music for it transcends its original
purpose. It is often heard in its wind-band version (and has been recorded
as such), but here we have the première recording of the full orchestral
score and most welcome it is too.
The CD concludes with the theme or title music for the 1954 BBC television
documentary series War in the Air, a short stirring piece as the titles
roll, its opening fanfare (no doubt unintentionally) bearing some similarity
to the beginning of Walton's 'Spitfire' Prelude and Fugue that must
have been in the air at the time. Not a piece of great substance but a very
suitable way in which to conclude a marvellous disc of Bliss's film music.
* * *
Bliss's contribution to the cinema has been a significant if uneven one.
None of his later film scores quite matched the excitement and range of
Things to Come, and while The Conquest of the Air has
left an effective suite, only Men of Two Worlds provided him with
a challenge to produce the best within him. Even he was frank enough to suggest
that there were 'at least two films where the pull was distinctly a financial
one. So I suppose a graph would show a downward slope: enthusiasm and curiosity
for the new thing - admiration for a particular picture - greed'. Recognising
what he called 'the healthy competition' from sound effects technicians,
he never doubted the role of the serious composer in films:
I do not seriously think we are in danger, as pure musical sound will always
have a wide importance on the films. It is powerfully expressive. It can
bring nostalgia to a landscape, drama to any hour of day or night; it can
express undercurrents of human emotion, when the actors involved show little
of it outwardly. It can suggest what is going to happen, it can recall what
has happened; most important of all, perhaps, it can make what has turned
dead and dull in a picture come alive and exciting. . . The music should
do its work so smoothly and perfectly that it is only when you see the same
picture run through in the studio without it, that you realise its irreplaceable
See also review by Gary Dalkin