With this splendid new Chandos album, we have Bax’s complete score, plus material that was truncated or jettisoned during post-production of David Lean’s 1948 film of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. (Some source music, street band and tavern music has been omitted.) Bax enthusiast Graham Parlett has reconstructed two passages from the soundtrack and the set of 78s (that featured Bax’s lover, Harriet Cohen) released soon after the release of the film, i.e. the opening sections of ‘Pickpocketing’ and of ‘Oliver at Mr Brownlow’s house.’ Luckily, however, the rest of the music survives in written form either in Bax’s own hand or of those of copyists.
In 1986, Cloud Nine Records released a David Wishart-produced album of a 24.5-minute suite of music from Oliver Twist (CN 7012) that comprised the seven-movement concert suite Muir Matheson had compiled from the score plus additional extracts taken from Bax’s original manuscript and not used in the film. The sumptuous gate-fold cover of the LP version included over a dozen stills from the film and interesting notes that included the following:
"Despite his reservations about the melding of music and speech on soundtracks (a problem to which Vaughan Williams had more readily adjusted) Bax was persuaded by Muir Matheson to compose the score…though it is clear that he undertook the commission with reluctance, commenting to a friend that he had been ‘inveigled not to say bullied’ into writing the music for the film. Bax was not partial to Dickens’ novel, and feeling there to be no music in the subject he set himself the task of thinking up counterparts in sound to Gillray’s and Rowlandson’s savage cartoons as the first step in creating the score. He was also under pressure to complete the score quickly as the date for the film’s premiere loomed ever closer, but he refused to be ‘stampeded’ and some time later he wrote to a friend: ‘I am still plagued by the Oliver Twist film for which I struggled in agonies to provide music…I cannot imagine any subject more unsuited to me…" Despite these reservations, he is quoted as having, in retrospect, derived something from the challenge: "Composing for the film was hard work and I found I had to adapt my normal approach quite a bit. It was nevertheless an interesting experience and I was particularly impressed by the ingenuity and skill of the musical director, Muir Matheson, in the actual process of recording the music with the picture on the screen
The time pressure might well explain why Bax chose to use material from his 1916 orchestral work In Memoriam (in tribute to the executed Irish nationalist leader Padraig Pearse) to underscore the scene towards the end in which Oliver is reunited with Mr Brownlow, and for a dawn scene after Bill Sykes has slain Nancy. This is one of the highlights of the score. Other memorable tracks include: the dramatically-charged and atmospheric storm music as Oliver’s mother struggles towards the workhouse for his birth, the eerie music as a frightened Oliver tries to go to sleep amongst the coffins in the undertakers’ shop, the artful and cheeky music associated with ‘Fagin’s romp’ (his instructions on how to pick pockets) and the peaceful, tranquil music associated with Oliver’s recovery in Mr Brownlow’s house after his appearance in court (the character of this music is reminiscent of Bax’s Morning Song, (Maytime in Sussex ) for piano and orchestra that Bax had written the year before, 1947, for Harriet Cohen and in response to a commission for a piece to celebrate the 21st birthday of the then Princess Elizabeth.
The Cloud Nine recording also featured 24 minutes of music (the complete score) score") from the 1942 documentary film, Malta GC that celebrated the heroism of the islanders against the Germans in World War II. The noted film critic, C.A. Lejeune described Bax’s music as being ‘so full of riches that the discerning listener will want to hear the soundtrack again and again’. Indeed the music was widely played at the time. Yet Bax having laboured over the score was far from pleased about how his music had been subordinated to the narration: "I do not think the medium is at present at all satisfactory as far as the composer is concerned as his music is largely inaudible, toned down for, in many cases, quite unnecessary talk. This is, in my opinion, quite needless as it is possible to pay attention to two things at the same time if they appeal to different parts of the intelligence."
This new Chandos album’s Malta GC music – a suite of 12.5 minutes - is confined to that of the second reel that includes a "Gay March" (in the good old-fashioned sense of the word), a quiet interlude and some atmospheric street music, plus a final heroic march that bears more than a passing resemblance to Men of Harlech.
Although this is fine music splendidly played and recorded, I personally feel that Bax’s discomfort with the medium of film music shows through and I much prefer to listen to his symphonic Oliver score as absolute music divorced from its screenplay.