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MUSIC AND A.E.W. MASON

Alfred Edward Woodley Mason (1865-1948) excelled as a writer of detective stories, thrillers and adventure yarns (many of them historical ones), short stories, biography and history. He had wide interests and a varied life; a keen clubman, he was at varying times an actor, Member of Parliament and a wartime secret agent. He was a capable mountaineer and yachtsman. We may also deduce his interest in music, especially opera and operetta, as they play a not insignificant part in several of his detective writings.

The charming Lady Ariadne Ferne, the heroine of No Other Tiger (Hodder, 1927), is, as we learn early in the book, to take the title role in the light opera "Sonia the Witch" by "Walter Rosen" (of Viennese provenance, we assume). Whether she does so in view of the events of the novel is at best doubtful. Her friend Corinne, a professional dancer, somewhat contemptuously regards her as an amateur. Jill Leslie, who is not quite the heroine of The Sapphire (Hodder, 1933) scores a hit despite musical experience as a singer, in the musical "Dido", a clear reference to the 1932 revival of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène with music heavily arranged by Erich Korngold. Lydia Flight, heroine of They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen (Hodder, 1935) being an operatic diva, is perhaps a step above either of the former ladies. The necessity to rest her voice brings her into contact with the dark and, for her, tragic conspiracy Mason unfolds in the novel. Joan Carew of the long/short story "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" seems to be a tryout for Lydia, even sharing her curative properties for pearls. Several of Mason’s novels feature the Paris Surêté detective Inspector Hanaud; his sidekick Julius Ricardo is a patron of the arts and these include opera. We see him at The Covent Garden in They Wouldn’t Be Chessman and, with Hanaud, in "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" (the hotel, which reappears in The Sapphire, is fictitious) where they see, importantly, The Jewels of the Madonna (Wolf-Ferrari) and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (wrongly called "Un Ballo de Maschera") at which latter performance the tale reaches its climax.

When we come to music inspired by Mason’s writings this boils down to films. It is surprising that he never turned his hand to a comic opera libretto or lyrics as did crime writers Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace. He did write film scripts of which only one actually reached the screen: The Drum (1938), for Sir Alexander Korda, a celebration of the Raj which had a score by John Greenwood. This aimed, in very general terms, to imitate the style of Oriental music. Mason later novelised his script.

Several of Mason’s novels figured in screen adaptations for which others wrote the scripts. His two best known Hanaud novels, At the Villa Rose (Hodder, 1910) and The House of the Arrow (Hodder, 1924) were both filmed in "post-silent" days, but it is impossible for us to determine now who wrote the music for them. But two other adaptations had music of distinction. Fire Over England (Hodder, 1937), an historical secret service novel set at the time of the Spanish Armada, had a most attractive score by Richard Addinsell in what passed in the 1930s for historical pastiche, Addinsell made no attempt to write "real" Elizabethan music. A suite from this has been recorded in recent years.

Mason’s best known novel is The Four Feathers (Hodder, 1902) and this has been filmed for the large screen at least three times since "talkies" came in at the end of the 1920s. The music for these is not without interest. The 1939 version by Korda had music by the Hungarian-born Miklós Rózsa. Rózsa at that time was still resident in England, though he was soon to leave for Hollywood and even greater fame, but there is little that is "English" about his score. Admittedly much of the action takes place in the Sudan and at one point Rózsa’s music incorporated a Sudanese melody. When the film was re-made in 1956 (by Zóltan Korda) as Storm Over the Nile, Benjamin Frankel was commissioned to provide the score and there is evidence that he was expected to follow Rózsa’s example, even to the extent of using some of the cues from the earlier film and in general terms to imitate the breadth and colour of the scenes in the Sudan. Even the Sudanese tune incorporated by Rózsa reappeared. Frankel however, treated the scenes set in England with sensitive, and appropriate, use of dissonance, even atonality, thus stamping his own personality on the music. The earliest film sound adaptation was American, in 1929, and had music credited to the obscure William F Peters. It was also adapted for TV in 1977, possibly earlier, but I have no note of the music provider.

Philip Scowcroft


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