July 2002 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Book Review

The Best Years of British Film Music, 1936 1958  by Jan G. Swynnoe.
  The Boydell Press; 40 243 pages ISBN 0-85115-862-5

Best Years of BFM

It is true that some of the most memorable British film scores were written by many of our leading composers in the period 1936 to 1958. One thinks immediately of beacon scores like: Bliss's Things To Come, Vaughan Williams' inspiring score for The 49th Parallel and his evocative Scott of the Antarctic and Walton's three Shakespearean scores: Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III and his music for The First of the Few. In fact John Williams has observed that Walton was highly regarded by the American film music fraternity.

Ms Swynnoe, who is described as a pianist, percussionist and composer, looks at this period before the rise of the American quota movies filmed in England and the advent of British kitchen-sink dramas and before audiences deserted the cinemas in favour of cosy fireside TV. Generally, she paints a bleak picture of the British film industry: often, with a few notable and brilliant exceptions, producing films debilitated by low budgets, and stilted and class-conscious stories and buttoned-up acting. Music written for films, in those days (nothing much has changed) was generally regarded by critics and the musical establishment as inferior and often major British composers were dragged reluctantly into the studios.

The difficulty I have with this book is that Ms Swynnoe cannot resist parading her many prejudices and in doing so presents a totally distorted picture of the world of film music. She disparages Hollywood's essential contribution, belittling the accomplishments of Steiner and Korngold (with little or no mention of the other giants of the Golden Age like Waxman, Tiomkin, and Herrmann etc), rubbishing the over-use (?) of leitmotives and the habit of mickey-mousing and general lack of subtley. Somehow I wonder if she has really troubled to listen widely and study enough American film music of this period?

She practically dismisses all the music written for the marvellous and colourful Korda films made at Denham in this period, especially by Miklos Rozsa. She can find no merit in Rozsa's fine The Four Feathers music for example although she scores a small point when discussing its weakness as a support to non-action dialogue scenes. Another target is the music contributed by foreign composers. Georges Auric's contribution is all but swept aside. To support her often tenuous arguments, she quotes from sources that are too often ill-informed or unsympathetic to film music, or both. But most objectionably her selected negative quotes from Christopher Palmer's brilliant book The Composer in Hollywood gives a totally wrong impression of Palmer's work, which accentuated the strengths of Korngold and Steiner etc. It is notable that Palmer was a great champion of not only British film music but also the concert music of many British composers, notably Walton and Delius and yet most of his work in the genre of film music was orientated towards Hollywood. (My concluding remarks below might suggest why.) Unhappily Swynnoe cannot resist diminishing Palmer's reputation in an interview with Doreen Carwithen that forms Appendix II of this book.

The book's only strength is in its analyses of a number of British film scores well-known and not-so-well-known including such excruciatingly awful minor opuses like Once a Jolly Swagman and Waterloo Road. Swynnoe does make some valid points, useful for aspiring film composers, about how music used with subtlety and discrimination can enhance a screenplay particularly when intelligently used to support dialogue especially when it needs to reveal a character's feelings that might be at odds with delivered lines. One of Swynnoe's most interesting examples in this context is Lord Berner's music for the mystical ghost story Halfway House. One chapter is devoted to an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Sir Arnold Bax's score for Oliver Twist, not by any means representative of the composer's best music. It was written towards the end of Bax's life when he was living in Sussex, and when his best work was well behind him in fact the only really memorable theme from this film was lifted from one of his much earlier works, In Memoriam.

Although the book is valuable in its discussion of the practical aspects of film music in enhancing and clarifying screenplays, Swynnoe seems uninterested in an important aspect of film music that of its ability to stand apart and to be appreciated on its own merits as music. And this is where I return to Christopher Palmer and the Hollywood composers. I am going to stick my neck out here. Dare I say it, but apart from the film scores quoted in my first paragraph and a few others by Brian Easdale, Malcolm Arnold (and certainly not his Oscar-winning score for The Bridge on the River Kwai, celebrated for that excruciatingly awful Colonel Bogey March) and William Alwyn (who wrote a few fine scores like Odd Man Out but too many others that are pedestrian), so much of British film music is frankly dull. So little of it is memorable, so little of it touches the heart and raises the spirit. American film music of this period does so in spades and that is perhaps why Palmer wrote about American film music first and collaborated in so many recordings of the music of Hollywood's Golden Age as a first choice. One has to face the fact that there are far more recordings of American film music than British.

This book does few favours for British films or British film music. In fact it puts back the appreciation of film music in general years. Approach with caution.

Ian Lace


Gary S. Dalkin adds:-

Ian notes that there are far more recordings of American film music than of British. Surely this at least as much to do with the fact that there are far more American films, and therefore film scores, than there are British ones, and that American films have always been more popular than British ones, even in Britain. However, it may also have something to do with a point Jan G. Swynnoe makes in her book; American film grew out of a tradition for melodrama and a culture of outward looking youthful optimism, largely inventing its own rules and establishing itself as a new art based upon inherently visual precepts. Americans made Movies, while British cinema, more closely allied with a venerable literary tradition and with the stage, posited itself upon wordy introspective drama. The British made Films. One form of music, based upon leitmotivs, particularly suited the American style of cinematic film making, and resulted in the sort of scores which made for good listening away from their parent films - though Swynnoe denies this - while a less thematic, more atmospheric form of music better suited the theatrical British film. This less thematic form of score makes for better film music in Swynnoe's eyes (or ears), the irony being that inherently inferior cinematic product resulted in her estimation in "better" scoring. Whether one regards American or British film music as superior for its intended purpose, it is true British film music generally stands up less well in isolation, which may well go some way (all other factors considered) to explain its lesser representation on album.

As Ian notes, this book has some worthwhile things to say about the details of individual scores. Regarding Bax and Oliver Twist, the point is not whether the music is thematically memorable in isolation, but whether it serves the film. Swynoe argues coherently that in the main it does. However, one problem is in seeing the films she discusses in order to further consider her opinions. Such features as The Halfway House, The Holly and the Ivy and There was a Jolly Swagman are not easy to track down. Not that this is Swynnoe's fault, though the book may have been more general interest had she chosen to discuss some more accessible films.

It is the opening chapters which have the unfortunate effect of turning the reader against the author. Swynnoe spends rather a large proportion of a 220 page book comparing British film music with that of Hollywood. She argues that the musically trained would have difficulty telling Korngold, Steiner and Waxman apart in a way they would not with three British composers. I don't have any such difficulty. The matter is subjective, depending on musical education. Many educated listeners would have much more problem differentiating between the British composers. This bias is unfortunate, as it makes one perhaps less receptive to some of the interesting things to be in the book. There is certainly much to engage and argue with, and much to think about. At least Swynnoe is firm that the value of a film score should be judged in terms of what it does for the film for which it is written, rather than on its merits as a soundtrack album. A point all to often forgotten by many album collectors.

Unfortunately the premise of the book, the idea that there were "best years" for British film music is simply more of the old "Golden Age" delusion which simply tends to date the writer and their predilection of the styles with which they grew-up. British film music didn't decline after 1958. It changed. Quite where the decline is in John Addison's Tom Jones (1964), Benjamin Frankel's The Battle of the Bulge (1965), Richard Rodney-Bennett's Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), John Barry's The Lion in Winter (1968) to cover just the decade after Swynoe's book? And indeed, in what way does Patrick Doyle's Henry V (1989), Charlie Moles' Othello (1995), Edward Shearmur's The Wings of the Dove (1997) or Adrian Johnson's Shackleton (2002) (yes, I know, its television music) represent a decline in British film scoring over the past 42 years? Idiosyncratic nonsense apart, Swynnoe's book is well worth a read for anyone seriously interested in British film music, or in the concert hall composers whose ventures into the field she lauds over all others. That said, the book is priced for the academic market at 40, though has all the production values of an 18 hardback.

Gary S Dalkin


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