Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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IN MEMORIAM - CHRISTOPER PALMER (1946-1995)


Christopher Palmer died just over seven years ago. His modesty hid great energy and dedication. His influence and unceasing toil for the conservation, recording and promotion of classic film scores - and much British classical music - was prodigious. I knew him only through a few telephone conversations I had with him towards the end of his tragically brief life but I remember the sense of great loss I felt when I learned of his death. This article, consisting of the obituary I wrote for
British Music Society News and memories of Christopher Palmer by David Wishart who is far more qualified than myself to speak of Chris, is meant as a reminder of all he achieved. Both articles were written and published in 1995.

We sorely miss Christopher Palmer still.

Ian Lace, Editor Film Music on the Web, March 2002


 

Christopher Palmer

Cloud Nine recordís David Wishart remembers the life and work of the late Christopher Palmer, Film Musicís greatest champion.

When Christopher Palmer died peacefully in his sleep, aged forty-eight, on Sunday the twenty-second of January 1995, the world of music suddenly lost one of its most valued and charismatic figures - and film music, in particular, was cruelly robbed of its most ardent and celebrated champion. Yet despite a hugely influential input which encompassed everything from orchestrating and composing film scores, to the tireless championing of undervalued composers, to producing state-of-the-art recordings, the name of Christopher Palmer is little known by the public at large. Christopher very much preferred to be a "back-room boy", beavering away to extraordinary effect but little personal fanfare.

Not that he was shy or retiring - when it came to advocating a new project he could be both vociferous and voracious - it was just that he preferred his work, the music, to speak for itself. He pursued his various "missions" with a determination which almost always saw results; Christopher was able to inspire those who mattered - most particularly the music business moguls themselves.

He doggedly pursued the money men and the idea gurus, convincing them that what the world really needed was a new recording of music by Miklós Rózsa, by Malcolm Arnold, by Sir George Dyson, by Frederick Delius, by Sir William Walton, by Vaughan Williams, by Sir Arthur Bliss, by Virgil Thomson, by Ö the list is endless - as is Christopherís success rate for getting recordings of rare works mounted; and even now he has gone, there is still a formidable number of projects to be realised over the coming year.

So, Christopher Palmer was purposeful and persistent - and successful. But whilst the public avidly purchased and hugely enjoyed the many, many albums he effected, many just did not realise the full extent of Christopher Palmerís work and influence. Somehow, Christopher managed to shade much of his brilliance from public gaze by the judicious use of the proverbial bushel.

However, the time has surely come to blow Christopherís cover - to list his achievements and detail just how far-ranging and effectual his work has been. Via my own label, Cloud Nine Records, and through my work with Silva Screen Records, I have been lucky enough to collaborate with Christopher Palmer over the past ten years - and our work together has included full-scale orchestral sessions, chamber music recordings, and the release of rare vintage sound soundtracks. But my appearance on the music scene came late - and I only entered the realm of film and classical music because of Christopherís example and encouragement...

When I was a lad and first becoming interested in movie music, it was possible to pop out and buy soundtrack albums of the latest films - Ben-Hur, The Alamo, Lawrence of Arabia et al - but where could I hear recordings of the great scores of yesteryear - the classic earlier works of Max Steiner, of Franz Waxman, of Roy Webb, of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, of Miklós Rózsa? There were some collections of famous film themes available, but these were invariably "arrangements" fiendishly devised to wring-out the last drop of originality from the scoring - gone were the complex harmonies, the discords, the counterpoint, the more outlandish instrumentation; what was left was "the theme", alone and without embellishment, plain enough to be enjoyed by granny and the chap down the road who likes brass band music. But matters did not improve - they got worse!

Enter the pop score. Nothing wrong with a good pop song of course - but at the right time and in the right place - and preferably in the right movie. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, the symphonic score was all but banished and pop, or worse, pseudo pop, was indiscriminately splattered all over film soundtracks. Record companies could no longer contemplate a movie album release unless it was "youth orientated"; the film score was destined to become a flimsy foot-tapping affair hardly able to hold its own, let alone bolster a movie. Time for Knight in Shining Armour. Time for Christopher Palmer to gallop into view and rescue poor maiden film music from distress.

Christopher Palmerís musical education, a full classical grounding, was prompted, not by Beethoven or Bach, Wagner or Haydn, but by the film music of Miklós Rózsa. It was Rózsaís stunning score for King of Kings which propelled the youngster into intense musical studies. Whilst he later would become one of the leading authorities on neglected twentieth century classical music - and contemporary British concert music in particular - it was an unbridled admiration for the symphonic film score which remained his abiding passion until the end.

Bob Blackmore, the indefatigable archivist for the British branch of the Max Steiner Music Society, remembers, some twenty-eight years ago, arranging to meet a young film enthusiast named Chris Palmer at Waterloo Station in order to hand him several rare tapes of vintage Steiner recordings. Within a short time the young Christopher - tall, handsome, imposing and eager - had managed to become an indispensable aide to a number of leading composers working in film - Maurice Jarré, Miklós Rózsa, Elmer Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann - tackling any number of tasks from orchestrating for Jarré and Bernstein, to compiling concert suites for Rózsa, and arranging recording sessions for Herrmann. Later, Christopher would form other long-lasting relationships with composers Dimitri Tiomkin and Laurie Johnson, and with another celebrated champion of film music, the composer and conductor Tony Bremner.

Not only a master with musical manuscript, but also with the pen, Christopher set to writing arresting articles expounding the merits of film music and the genreís key composers. These informed essays, and later, many books, written with an authority and primarily aimed at a cloistered musical establishment, slowly started to change attitudes, until enlightened discussion of film music began to emerge in classical circles.

Then, an extraordinary meeting of talents brought film music firmly into the mainstream. The record producer and conductor Charles Gerhardt, a long-time proponent of film music via his many recordings for sundry Readerís Digest box sets, joined forces with Christopher to launch a series of albums of classic film music for RCA. The orchestrations were to be original, the size of the ensembles even larger than those originally employed by the film studios; the recordings were specially devised to be as spectacular as possible - taped amid the resounding acoustic of Kingsway Hall with the famed E K Wilkinson as engineer. Gerhardt has obtained the green light from RCA following the success of an album he conducted of scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold - an album which had raced up the classical charts all around the world.

Yes, there was a market for symphonic film music! Through this series of recordings Christopher was able to promote the classical scores of his friends Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa and Dimitri Tiomkin. Other albums in the set featured music by Max Steiner, by David Raksin, by John Williams, and some discs were given over to feting specific movie stars - including Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.

Film music was now flavour of the month, the year, the era. Pop music in movies was smartly relegated to its proper place by John Williamsí massive symphonic score for Star Wars which found universal acclaim, the situation cemented when the subsequent soundtrack album sold more than a million copies.

Whilst RCA finally halted their series of classic film music recordings, Elmer Bernstein took up the mantle, and with Chris Palmer at his side produced and conducted a further series of outstanding film scores from the past eras - including Alfred Newmanís Wuthering Heights, Miklós Rózsaís Young Bess, Franz Waxmanís The Silver Chalice and Bernsteinís own To Kill a Mockingbird. Christopher was also instrumental in mounting several more albums, helmed by Laurie Johnson, to include Bernard Herrmannís North by Northwest, a collection of Dimitri Tiomkinís own magnum opus First Men in the Moon.

Small independent record companies started to emerge spearheaded by film music enthusiasts possessing all the naive passion and youthful abandon the major record labels lacked: Varèse-Sarabande, Silva Screen, Fifth Continent, Cloud Nine, TER, Colosseum. All these labels owe a debt of gratitude to Chris Palmer; he was always there - with advice, with encouragement, with ideas for new projects, preparing scores, producing recordings. These early companies have gone on to greater things - expanding their horizons, moving into major recordings of musicals and classical works - and continuing the legacy forged by Chris and Charles Gerhardt, and creating an immeasurable catalogue of recorded film music.

Somehow, Christopher found the time and energy to pursue a parallel course to his film interests. He was active in promoting the works of a number of specifically British classical composers whose achievements had been undervalued. Certainly William Walton was renowned, but after Christopher had taken up his banner, his entire musical output was recorded! Malcolm Arnold was also a beneficiary of Chrisís attentions, as was William Alwyn, and Sir George Dyson, and Bernard Stevens - and Delius was kept firmly in the public gaze through a legion of recordings masterminded by Chris.

Leading classical labels Chandos, Hyperion and Unicorn were very supportive of Chrisís efforts and in turn benefited from a whole roster of outstanding projects. But Chris did not entirely devote his "classical" self to British composers; Prokofiev was a particular passion, as was the music of his friends Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rózsa. Chris even talked Rózsa into resurrecting his first symphony, which the composer had kept under lock and key for fifty years.

Then there were many other strings to Christopherís bow; he helped many talented young musicians gain their first commercial recordings - even to the extent of footing the bill for chamber music recordings himself; if he believed in an artist he was he was prepared to go all the way to promote them. Chris introduced the acclaimed pianist Eric Parkin to the works of Miklós Rózsa - with Eric soon committing definitive performances of Rózsaís solo piano pieces to record - besides playing the wistful Time Machine Waltz on Rózsaís soundtrack for Time After Time. It seems there was not a single corner of musical life in which Christopher Palmer was not active.

On a personal note I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Chris over the past ten years. We collaborated on all manner of differing projects; he prepared Vaughan Williamís manuscript for Coastal Command for my album Classic British Film Music, he convinced me to record various chamber pieces by Miklós Rózsa, and he would always check manuscripts for me before recordings - most recently he went over Dimitri Tiomkinís scores for Dial M For Murder prior to Silva Screenís sessions with The City of Prague Philharmonic. Chris and I were also, in effect, neighbours, living just a few minutes apart.

Many was the morning I would pass him in the street, his massive green cricket bag always stuffed with scores on his way to yet more recording sessions. It was always something different - "Walton today!" - "Prokofiev today!" - "Rózsa today!" And even now Chris is no longer with us, that holdall is still bulging with scores; Chrisís work is not yet finished.

He has left us with a number of projects still to be realised. Silva Screen will be recording an album of film music by Jerome Moross this spring, and the compilation will include three new suites by Christopher - The Cardinal, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Sharkfighters. Silva Screen have also just recorded other music prepared by Chris - to be released this Spring - suites from Doctor Zhivago, Ryanís Daughter, Jesus of Nazareth and The Man Who Would Be King, all scores by one of Chrisís closest working partners, the prolific Maurice Jarré.

Just prior to his death, Chris and I were formulating an album to commemorate the work of one of filmdomís most overlooked composers, Roy Webb. Chris came to know Roy Webb very well in the years leading up to the composerís death, and dearly wanted to produce an album in tribute. The Webb estate had furnished the original recordings - Notorious, Sinbad the Sailor, Bedlam, Build My Gallows High, Curse of the Cat People etc. - and all we had to do was select the tracks, sequence the album and have Chris pen the sleeve notes.

Alas, this task will now fall just to me. But hopefully the completed album will be occasion not just for a celebration of Roy Webb, but of Christopher Palmer as well. His work goes on.

I donít think it is an exaggeration to claim that if Chris, with his knowledge, charm and determination had not placed himself at the right time then the massive legacy of recorded music we all enjoy just simply would not exist.

He was the first to "reconstruct" lost film scores - now a universal practice, but if Chris hadnít taken the time to undertake the initial reconstructions then a whole galaxy of glorious music would have been lost to posterity. Composers and musicians and friends will find their own ways of paying tribute to Chris, his life, and his work - but I am sure there are many film buffs out there who would like to join me in saying "Thanks For The Music, Chris."

One of the prevailing traits of Christopherís orchestrations was his reliance on not one, but two harps. With Christopher it was always two harps. I think we can be certain, given his unstinting dedication to the arts and his drive to always improve peopleís perceptions, that the heavenly hosts will accede to Christopherís most common request - and not only afford him a pair of wings - but award him two harps as well!! Bon voyage Chris... have a good time!


CHRISTOPHER PALMER 1946-1995

Writer, Producer, Orchestrator and Arranger

The notes for the Chandos recordings of Howellsí Stabat Mater and Missa Sabrinensis were amongst Christopher Palmerís last projects bringing full circle a crowded and distinguished career that commenced with work on Howells. (Palmer interviewed the composer for radio, wrote his biography and edited a collection of his prose). Christopher Palmer was a great and indefatigable champion of British music and an authority on film music. Considering all he accomplished, it is difficult to believe that he was only 48 when he died on 22nd January 1995.

Palmer attended Norwich School before going on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to read modern languages and in doing so acquired a wide knowledge of European literature which he would draw upon with flair and intelligence to illuminate his writings on music. Later, at Cambridge, he switched to music studying with Peter le Huray and Sir David Willcocks.

Early in his career, he struck up a friendship with Bernard Herrmann the celebrated film composer who was living in London. Herrmann fired Christopherís enthusiasm for film music, recognised his abilities as an arranger and introduced him to Charles Gerhardt who was heavily involved in RCAís Classic Film Score series which Palmer would review, with considerable insight, in Gramophone during the mid-1970s.

Christopher Palmer collaborated on at least 15 albums with Gerhardt - not all of them film music. He contributed to the Miklós Rózsa album in the RCA film series; orchestrating the Hawks in Flight sequence from Knights of the Round Table and The Four Feathers excerpts. He also contributed significantly to the Dimitri Tiomkin album in that series. He would later arrange and orchestrate much more Rózsa, Tiomkin and Herrmann music - plus scores by Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman etc - for many record companies including Unicorn-Kanchana, Polydor, Varèse-Sarabande and Koch International as well as writing informed and entertaining programme notes.

Palmer also orchestrated new film scores including that for Bernard Herrmannís last film, Scorseseís Taxi Driver (1976) plus Maurice Jarréís music for Passage to India (1984) and Carl Davisís for The French Lieutenantís Woman (1981). He collaborated with Elmer Bernstein and arranged and recorded much of his film music. Christopher Palmerís definitive The Composer in Hollywood must be the standard reference book about what is still a too often patronised form of music. Charles Gerhardt said - "He was not a run of the mill orchestrator. He was unique with wonderfully original and colourful ideas of his own; a good thinker and a marvellous writer. I remember his great enthusiasm - almost childlike at times. When he discovered something he was always eager to promote it." Later he became increasingly involved in recordings of British music. One of his first projects was the successful Unicorn-Kanchana Fenby Legacy series of the music of Delius. The original idea came from Christopher. He was the producer; he contributed the sleeve notes and provided great support and help to Eric Fenby throughout the project. (Palmerís book, Delius: Portrait of a Cosmopolitan is widely regarded for its insights into the influences on Delius and, in turn, Deliusís influences on other composers.)

Donald Mitchell, in his Daily Telegraph obituary tribute, said of Christopher Palmer: "I was impressed by the excellence and experience of his ear but, above all, by the sympathetic relationship he created, whether with orchestra or singer. He was always encouraging, kind and patient but never satisfied until he got what he wanted out of the performers".

For Chandos, he worked on albums of film music and other works by Sir Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, and Sir William Walton. His work on the Walton series was especially remarkable. He researched and rescued much of the film music including arranging an impressive 60 minute Shakespeare Scenario from Henry V including a narration (by Christopher Plummer). He also orchestrated Waltonís Sonata for Violin and Piano with typical sensitivity for and understanding of the composerís style. Lady Susana Walton contributed these words: "I first met Christopher when he was asked by Oxford University Press to arrange a suite from Troilus & Cressida - he had already done a wonderful job editing the 1st Symphony parts. He was so adorable, so knowledgeable and such a real fan that I asked him to help me on the William Walton Trust. I cannot thank Christopher enough for being a friend - both to the music and to me. His contribution will ensure Williamís music will live on."

Brian Couzens at Chandos said, "He knew the scores inside out. He was a warm, generous person. ĎKnowing I had tummy troubles he would bring me healthy food and drinks. He was a very distinguished looking man - tall and handsome - always well dressed."

Palmerís musical tastes were broad and his knowledge encyclopaedic. For Chandos, he devised and reconstructed the music of classic MGM musicals such as The Bandwagon, Gigi and Singiní In The Rain assembled in a marvellous but underrated album, A Musical Spectacular, soon to be reissued. He reconstructed Mario Lanza arias and songs for the highly successful Jose Carreras album. Michael Letchford, A & M Director at Warner Classics International collaborated with Christopher on this album and remembered him working overnight to revise some orchestrations for Carreras to keep the recording schedule on track. "Christopher was tremendously conscientious. He had a tremendous breadth of interests. He would turn his hand to orchestrations or arrangements of Cole Porter with the same enthusiasm as for Verdi or Prokofiev. He worked very well with Andrew Davis producing the Vaughan Williams and Elgar recordings in our Teldec British Line series. We will be dedicating our forthcoming release of Vaughan Williamsí A Sea Symphony, with Thomas Hampson and Amanda Roocroft, to Christopher. He was a special friend, very professional. For all his fame he was very modest and shunned the limelight although he could get quite cross with people and was sometimes very outspoken."

Christopher Palmer worked in radio, made an appearance in a television programme on the work of Bernard Herrmann and wrote books on Dyson, Ravel and Szymanowski and he edited the Britten Companion. His new study on Darius Milhaud has just been published. Possibly prompted by his interest in the works of John Ireland and their associations, he edited the collected works of Arthur Machen. His notes for so many recordings were a model of their kind, and drew consistent praise from reviewers. As Lewis Foreman said in his Guardian obituary, "Range and detail were his strengths in his writing. He set his subject in a wider context and looked for meaning - discussing the words set, finding parallels, making life and art illuminate each other. The style is scholarly, but learning lightly worn. Palmer was surely one of the most readable writers about musical technique adding details of literary and musical parallels and quotations..."

It was as if he had to hurry to crowd so much achievement in such a short life. His punishing schedule could not have served his health. One of the last things he said to Ray Sumby, his literary editor, was "Ray, donít take on too much." It is especially tragic that Christopher Palmer should take his leave in this year when the BBC is celebrating British Music and the cinema its 100th anniversary. He will be greatly missed.

Ian Lace

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