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Classical Music in the Forties:
Instruments of the Orchestra The Crown Film Unit’s film of Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell) (1946)
Steps of the Ballet Robert Helpmann (1909-1986) goes through the steps of creating a ballet to music by Arthur BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) performs the first movement of Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Appassionata (Sonata in F minor, Op 57) (1894-5) and an extract from Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Piano Concerto No 17 in G K453 (1784).
Dennis Brain (1921-1957) explains his instrument, the French Horn, and plays excerpts from Ludvig van BEETHOVEN’s Sonata in F for horn and piano with Denis Matthews (1919-1988)
Performances recorded on film in the 1940s – no specific dates given.
BEULAH DVD YB35 [75:00]

Good to welcome back the Beulah label and their reissues of some the finest mid-20th century vintage recordings including the classic Anthony Collins recordings of the Sibelius symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra (1952-1955).

Beulah previously released some of the contents of this DVD on videotape but without the items recorded by Dame Myra Hess and Dennis Brain. Pictures and sound in the new format seem to be enhanced.

For MusicWeb’s more elderly reviewers this release offers a nostalgic trip back into the more leisurely, more innocent days of the mid-20th century. I well remember first seeing the Crown Film Unit’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Steps of the Ballet in the Physics Lab of West Bridgford Grammar School, Nottingham as a fifteen-or-so year old schoolboy, and a member of the school’s lunchtime film club.

Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a theme by Purcell is, of course, an ideal vehicle for that elegant conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent to show off the compass of all the different instruments in the sections of the orchestra. I say ‘all’ but in fact it is almost all because the woodwind section is not completely explored; I realise that such a detailed exploration might have overbalanced the exposition and the composition. However as an introduction to classical music it must have inspired countless children of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The Steps of the Ballet is particularly interesting because it shows composer Arthur Benjamin at work on the ballet music and conferring with its choreographer. It is very infuriating that the ballet remains nameless throughout the film; I would be delighted to hear from any Benjamin enthusiast who can name this ballet. Robert Helpmann’s articulate commentary explains the steps, positions, attitudes etc of the dances and covers such terms as pirouette, cabriole and pas de bourrée as well as the scenery, costumes and music for the production.

The two Myra Hess films are well known but it is nice to see the complete Mozart concerto film for the insight it gives into London in the years of World War II. The young orchestra - no women - is all in uniform; it’s the orchestra of the Royal Air Force Band. The rapt audience - again many in uniform some quite clearly carrying gas masks - includes the then Queen Elizabeth. As in the Beethoven recital film, they audience sits in a National Gallery bereft of pictures - they had been safely removed to a secret location outside the capital. Dame Myra Hess delivers a robust yet poetic reading of the Beethoven Sonata.

The Dennis Brain/Denis Matthews recital film is absorbing too – it commences with Brain discussing the attributes of the French Horn and comparing it to the much less sophisticated horn played in Beethoven’s day. Enjoying this short film, we are reminded just how much the world of music lost when Dennis Brain was killed at such a tragically early age in a road accident.

An absorbing nostalgic trip back to the 1940s; but more than that it is a very good tutorial for newcomers to orchestral music and to the ballet.

Ian Lace

Len Mullenger - Was it not composed for the film Steps of the Ballet and does not exist in its own right as a ballet?

Ian Lace - Absolutely right - but I wondered if this ballet was ever developed and staged or the music developed further, published and recorded?

But I did feel that it was infuriating that the ballet iwas given no name surely an oversight in the production of the film - because one is left in the air so to speak especially when so much care is taken to explain everything else about the production of Steps of the Ballet? One might argue that giving it a specific name might detract from the essentials purpose of the film to explain all the facets of creating a ballet - but personally I would not be convinced by such an argument. I am no expert on Arthur Benjamin so that is why I pose(d) the question. Seems a pity that the music would be used only transiently in this manner. Composers are usually more canny but then I suppose there is the question of copyright ???



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