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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


THE BEST YEARS OF BRITISH FILM MUSIC, 1936 - 1958 Jan G. Swynnoe The Boydell Press, 2002: xvii, 243pp

ISBN 0-85115-862-5 Ł40 hardback

In 1934, a twenty-three-years-old former student of Arthur Benjamin and Malcolm Sargent at the Royal College of Music, Muir Mathieson, was appointed musical director of London Film Productions, a company set up in 1931 by the Hungarian film director and producer Alexander Korda at Denham studios on the outskirts of London, with the express aim of reinvigorating a declining British film industry. Two years later, Korda released Things to Come, a prestigious, futuristic fantasy film starring Raymond Massey and featuring a musical score by Arthur Bliss composed especially for the film and structurally inherent in it.

Bliss’ score for Things to Come heralded the advent of what Jan Swynnoe describes as a golden age for British film music, which peaked in the decade of the 1940s, both during and after the Second World War.

Mathieson, whose example was followed a little later by Ernest Irving at Ealing studios, recruited leading serious composers of the day for his projects, not only providing them thereby with much-needed employment in difficult, austere times, but in the process lending the distinction of their musical personalities to an industry whose artistic reputation was notably enhanced in the process. International recognition of the outstanding quality of the best British film scores of the period was eventually gained by the world-wide success of such films as Laurence Olivier’s masterly Henry V, with unforgettable music by William Walton, and Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, which in 1948 won, for the first time by a British composer, an Academy Award for the best original film score.

The first three chapters of this lucidly written book are concerned to trace in outline the differences in approach to the musical scoring of films in Britain and America during the period under discussion, namely the 1930s and 1940s - the first two decades of sound-film production. In simplified terms, these differences can be traced by way of national traditions: on the one hand American film-making: extravert, visual, favouring sensation and melodrama, and employing formulaic musical scoring by a team of largely German/Austrian/Jewish refugee composers steeped in the late-Romantic leitmotivic techniques of such European masters as Wagner, Strauss and Puccini; and on the other, British film-making: inward-looking, drawing on a long-established background of educated, literary and theatrical endeavour, favouring complex character exploration at the expense of visually-driven, cinematic exposition, and employing the creative talents of largely native composers distinguished by their uniquely recognisable musical personalities.

There follow three chapters exploring in analytical fashion specific examples of feature-film scoring by British composers: William Alwyn, Bernard Stevens, Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax (a single chapter on David Lean’s Oliver Twist), Vaughan Williams, Lord Berners and Grace Williams; two chapters examining dialogue-scoring in British films of the 1930s and 1940s - that describing the impact of the Second World War is particularly interesting; a chapter investigating the contribution of foreign composers, such as Miklós Rózsa and Georges Auric, to British films of the period; and finally a chapter discussing British cinema of the 1950s, and composers (Alan Rawsthorne, Alwyn and Arnold again, Benjamin Frankel) involved in what may now be seen as a period of decline preceding the ‘new wave’ revival of the early 1960s, which saw the arrival on the scene of specifically ‘film’ composers such as Ron Goodwin and John Barry, who quite swiftly replaced their older, ‘serious’ colleagues.

The book is completed by the inclusion of three appendices, two of which are transcriptions of conversations recorded between the author and, respectively, Roy Douglas, who worked as arranger and orchestrator so notably and extensively with both Vaughan Williams and Walton, and Doreen Carwithen, Alwyn’s widow and a film composer in her own right. The third appendix is a reprint of a short article by Roy Douglas on the background and genesis of Richard Addinsell’s famous ‘Warsaw Concerto’, featured in the wartime movie Dangerous Moonlight.

There is much of interest in this book for those drawn to its subject. Some of the films discussed in more detail are now rather obscure, and not available to view, for instance, on video e.g. Blue Scar, the first feature-length film scored by a female composer, Grace Williams; and there is often a rather wearisome ‘British is best’ assumption underlying the text, particularly in the earlier sections where American film music is included in discussion. Nevertheless, a good read.

John Talbot

This appears courtesy of the BMS

Details of membership of the British Music Society from

Stephen Trowell, 7 Tudor Gardens, Upminster, Essex RM14 3DE ( 01708 224795


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