The tradition of British film music – and indeed European film music in general - was always different in character to the Hollywood approach to scoring movies. The American studios' practice of maintaining composers whose exclusive brief was to compose for films rather than pursue any classical ambitions meant that American film music, although nominally symphonic, set an early divergent path from the classical mainstream, establishing its own unique characteristics. However, a swelling ocean away, film music in Britain has always happily co-existed with concert repertoire and had run a fascinating parallel course. The predominant practice has been for films to be scored in a "neo-classical" style by leading composers happy to accept the financial inducements offered by film commissions, and not least the ready opportunity to experiment. And whilst compositions for film can rarely be regarded as "pure music" they nevertheless often attain the very highest level of inspiration, can be irresistibly attractive, and offer a unique insight into how a composer of concert works astutely adapts their style or method of working to embrace the very particular disciplines required by film composition.
Whilst William Alwyn, Benjamin Frankel, Malcolm Arnold, Gerard Schurmann, William Walton and even Vaughan Williams among others have been much associated with film music, Benjamin Britten's known association with the medium has been almost exclusively restricted to his compositions for short documentary films, and in particular for Night Mail in 1936. But in that same year the young Britten did compose for the feature film Love From A Stranger, derived from an Agatha Christie tale and starring Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone. The film has faded into obscurity, but perhaps bequeathing the best of its constituents, its score, to posterity. This enterprising new recording now places this fascinating Britten oeuvre back where it rightfully belongs, in the public arena. The music for "Love With A Stranger" is lithe and lively, amiable and appealing and straightforward in its allure. It may be just as well that the cascading years have divorced this music from the film, for if the aging original reels could be salvaged from dusty cans they might now betray a movie which creaks with period atrophy - and this music is worth so very much more than that, weathering time to emerge an attractive and spirited work very much at home in the twenty-first century.
The compositions of Roberto Gerhard may seem to embody the very antithesis of "movie music". His acerbic idiom is modernistic – as might be expected of a pupil of Schoenberg – and patently eschews one of the accepted staples of film music – winning melody. But perhaps Gerhard's barbed and fiercely unromantic score for Lindsay Anderson's realistic take on the world of rugby football, This Sporting Life, is exactly what the film requires. And certainly Gerhard's obdurate approach holds a cracked musical mirror to the spiky and complex relationship at that the centre of this film – that between the characters portrayed by Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts. Languorous melody would not be appropriate here – but even given this, Gerhard's music is still vastly uncompromising in terms of scoring for mainstream cinema – but actually perfectly in step with the avant garde mode of the neoteric classical style then prevalent in Sixties Britain - bleak, coarse-grained and gritty like the film. This Sporting Life was very much a psychological drama – and Gerhard's particularly potent idiom is patently more adept than most at delving beneath the psyche – as this cogent suite persuasively attests.
More than anywhere during the Sixties avant garde music was to find a home in the British horror film. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the horror movie during this era was its use of music – the compositions unbridled and innovative as dissonance, bizarre instrumentation, even purely atonal music came to be indelibly identified with madness and mayhem. It seems an army of ambitious radical composers commandeered the terror genre, effectively creating a premier epoch for British film music with scores actually reflecting the tenor of what was truly occurring in contemporary composition. Modern music, it seems, had finally arrived in the cinema! Elisabeth Lutyens proved particularly adept at suggesting the macabre and the psychotic! Her horror commissions included The Psychopath, Theatre Of Death, Paranoiac, The Earth Dies Screaming, Dr Terror's House Of Horrors and The Skull. For The Skull genre veterans Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee discover that the skull of the Marquis De Sade has the power to induce people to murder! As can be surmised from this dynamic suite, Lutyens' progressive music is obviously driving the drama – and presents a much more terrifying aspect than any old skull could muster, no matter who the previous resident might have been! Many film music aficionados have been angling for years for some of Elisabeth Lutyens' film music to be recorded – and here their aspirations have been realised in regal fashion.
Richard Rodney Bennett recently commented that for him film music was a different animal to classical composition because of the strictures involved – there not being sufficient time when it came to film to lavish the appropriate amount of thought required for significant invention and development. But nevertheless Bennett's film scores – from Blind Date to Far From The Madding Crowd to Murder on The Orient Express - would appear to belie this theory, his film music always being of the utmost quality and alive with inspired creation and winning thematic material. This is especially true of his music for The Return Of The Soldier, Alan Bridges' film of a shell-shocked soldier who returns from the trenches of the Great War with selective amnesia, remembering his first love, but not his later marriage to another woman. A sterling cast included Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie. Bennett approaches the subject in attractive yet anguished mode, the soulful music never less than modernistic in idiom yet easily communicating an underlying romanticism, and is possibly representative of the very pinnacle of achievement in British film music composition.
This is an extraordinary album – but the choice of challenging selections by Gerhard and Lutyens, the Britten title being obviously an obscure (but welcome and important) inclusion, and given that The Return Of The Soldier has been a woefully neglected, if not forgotten film - may not necessarily endear this disc to every film music buff. Admittedly its target audience is most probably classical, given the credentials of the composers concerned, but those interested in film music should not undervalue the importance or the arresting nature of the scores recorded here. his is especially so given the outstanding readings given by the BBC Symphony orchestra under Jac Van Steen and a superlatively detailed recording set in a generously broad acoustic.
The vision which resulted in the recording of these scores – and the sheer tenacity probably required to mount the project - has to be loudly applauded. This is undoubtedly a five star album, bringing as it does four very rare and extremely choice examples of British film music into an accessible commercial arena, but the rating is accompanied by the proviso that not everyone will necessarily warm to all the complex and diverse music recorded here.