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CD: Virtuosa Records

The Battle of the Somme (2008)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nic Raine
rec. All Saints Church, London, 2008
Experience Classicsonline

The Battle of the Somme by Laura Rossi is a new score to one of the most successful forgotten films ever made. The original feature-length documentary film, an account of the titular battle using frontline footage, is estimated to have been seen by over half the population of Britain. A success which surely makes the film the greatest hit ever released in UK cinemas, dwarfing Gone With The Wind, The Sound of Music and Star Wars. Yet today the film is virtually unknown, even among aficionados.
To mark the 90th anniversary of the battle the Imperial War Museum set about restoring The Battle of the Somme, and that restoration included commissioning a new score by composer Laura Rossi.
Should the composer’s name be an unfamiliar name, one can do no better than to quote her website:

Laura Rossi grew up in Devon where she enjoyed a varied musical childhood playing piano, bass, violin and singing in Jazz, Pop and Classical ensembles. She then went on to study composition at Liverpool University and completed her Masters at the London College of Music. She now lives in London where she composes music for film and concert works.
She has written scores for many films including the critically acclaimed 'London to Brighton’ and ‘The Cottage’ directed by Paul Andrew Williams, also the award winning 'Shooting Shona'  directed by Abner and Kamma Pastoll.  Laura has recently scored ‘Broken Lines’ directed by Sallie Aprahamian starring Paul Bettany.  She has also written music for television documentaries including 'Marking Time' for ITV, ‘The Cotswold Canals’ presented by Lloyd Grossman for HTV, ‘Forgotten Pilots’ and 'The Real Sir Francis Drake' for Carlton TV.  In addition, Laura has worked for 'The Music Gallery', composing music for adverts ... (more). Laura was also commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to write an orchestral score for 'The Battle of the Ancre' an important historical film from the 1st World War which was performed live with film at the museum. She was subsequently commissioned to write a score for the famous 1916 film 'The Battle of the Somme' which was premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and was recorded and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and received a five star review in the Times.

As part of her preparation for composing the score Rossi visited the Somme battlefields, and also discovered that her great uncle, Fred Ainge, was a stretcher-bearer attached to the 29th Division of the British Army on July 1st 1916. Some of his diary notes are included in the accompanying CD booklet, and can also be seen with letters, postcards and photos at her website.
Regarding the score Rossi writes:

The Imperial War Museum asked me to write the music for the Battle of the Ancre in 2002 and subsequently commissioned me to write the music for the Battle of the Somme to commemorate the 90th anniversary in 2006.  It was a very exciting prospect to write the music for such an important film, half the British population watched it when it came out in 1916 and there's some amazing footage.  It was only when I was researching about the Battle and decided to visit the Somme battlefields that I found out that my great-uncle Fred was in the 1st World War.
My aunt gave me his diaries to read and it turned out he was positioned right by where we were staying in the Somme. He was a stretcher-bearer and attended the 29th division (who appear in the film) on July 1st 1916, so it's possible he could even be in the film. All this really made it all come to life (especially as I knew him – he survived the war) and helped me get the right tone when writing the music. 
I was particularly interested in the soldiers’ point of view and doing all this research helped me to write the music from this angle.  Finding out all about Fred and his diaries has been very important to me so I wanted to transcribe them for others to read and also put up his pictures and letters as I think finding out about someone who was actually in the battle makes it so much more moving to watch the film and brings it all to life.

Music plays almost continuously in the 80 minute film. As a ‘silent’ film music has a much more prominent role than in most dialogue driven cinema. The CD presents 67 minutes of the score in five un-named parts, such that it unfolds in a rather more organic and symphonic way than do the majority of soundtrack recordings. In the booklet Rossi says that the structure of the film is quite loose, ‘with some very contrasting scenes juxtaposed’. One would not know this from the album, as far from a ‘Mickey Mouse’ style of scoring individual shots, the music takes the broad view, capturing the overall mood of extended sequences.
Part 1 is itself divided into two clearly distinct sections. The opening paints a rather jolly feeling of summer and expectant adventure, though there is an underlying emotion of foreboding, the sensibility in-line with Adrian Johnson’s fine scores for such dramas as Shackleton and The Lost Prince. Then at 8.51 the mood abruptly changes. Menacing tympani introduce the battlefront and any good humour is banished as storm clouds gather.
Blessedly Rossi ensues any thought of inappropriate modernisms, so often employed in misguided attempts to make music ‘accessible’ to contemporary audiences. Absent are the anachronistic electronic atmospherics familiar from too many television documentaries, likewise there is no trace of that documentary favourite, the endlessly recycled sub-Nyman string drone. Instead Rossi does the eminently sensible but all to rare thing and adopts an appropriate early 20th Century English concert hall idiom with elements of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Bax discernable, but all woven into a style of her own. 
Given the subject matter much of the writing is bleak and solemn, with Part 3 particularly building to an anguished yet resigned and tender string lament which may remind audiences of the music of Gerald Finzi. There are moments of light in a generally dark, but always varied and developing musical landscape. The whole is as serious as film music gets. The whole is a hugely impressive piece of work -  if more contemporary films were scored with this clarity of purpose and integrity of musical vision cinema would be in a far more healthy state. Indeed, with more music of this calibre contemporary classical music might regain some of its lost audience. 
The Battle of the Somme has recently been premiered in its restored version with Rossi’s score performed live to considerable acclaim. The CD version, impeccably performed by the Philharmonia and conducted by Nic Raine, is one of those few film music releases each year which also has considerable appeal to the classical music collector who wouldn’t normally consider buying a soundtrack album. For film music buffs, who tend to be far less snobbish about such things, and know that Nic Raine’s name is a seal of quality, they can purchase without hesitation.
Gary Dalkin


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