"The first essential of a good film composer is a talent for composing. Film music must be genuine music." Alan Rawsthorne 1
Following his death in 1971 Alan Rawsthorne received the treatment traditionally meted out to deceased British composers - a memorial concert followed by near silence. Throughout that silent period it was the medium of the film which provided passing opportunities to hear his music. The medium of film reaches a larger audience for his music than any other, though, it is gratifying to see new commercial recordings of his works now being added to the catalogue.
Such is the uncompromising consistency of this composer's creative work that his highly distinctive voice is as immediately recognisable in his writing for films as elsewhere. His idiom is admirably suited to the dramatic and atmospheric requirements of the screen. Consistency means that he does not have one language for the film and another for his other works.
Writing in the Symposium on the composer, edited by Alan Poulton, the late Hans KelIer, an erudite and rigorous musicologist, supports the assertion of consistency when he writes of the film scores:
they [are] magnificent music - all of them, and however intricate and cogent their relation to the visual, they would lose absolutely nothing if that relation were lost, the experience of sheer musical substance, of a reality that can't be expressed any other way, would not only remain, but actually emphasize its own irreplaceability far more clearly than it could in the cinema...
His work is marked by clarity of thought and expression, an introspective quality (which casts the shadow of melancholy across some of his writing), displays of witty playfulness and bursts of dramatic intensity and power.
A quality of Rawsthorne the man, which is reflected in his music, is a tendency to economy of statement; he uses no more notes than necessary to advance the course of a composition or to make clear a structure. This carried over into life. By habit he was a reticent conversationalist yet a studious listener, yet when moved to express himself he would do so trenchantly. He was able to unmask the essence of an argument or problem and demolish a badly-focussed and prolix argument with a well-aimed epigrammatic intervention. Keller, himself not tolerant of sloppy thinking, again recalled a germane instance of this quality at a critical stage of the Maggio Musicale's International Film Music Congress, held in Florence in 1950. In a complex debate, which centred on what exactly made a good film composer, Rawsthorne turned to Keller and murmured: "Has anybody yet said that what you need for a film composer is a composer?.
Rawsthorne expressed himself very distinctively, with an unmistakable voice, from early in his career. One is aware within seconds of the opening titles beginning to roll that Rawsthorne has composed the score, rendering the musical credits superfluous.
With his usual pragmatism Rawsthorne reminds us that the title music is "probably the only music your audience will hear conscientiously" and a brief opportunity "to establish the mood of the~ensuing drama. The composer's use of an established device for calling the audience to attention is common to cinema and concert hall. The 'Overture for Farnham' and the opening movement of the Suite for Brass Band are clearly from the same stable as the title music for 'The Captive Heart' and 'The Cruel Sea'. There is an arresting blend of bitter-sweet harmony and the rhythmic fingerprint of dotted note patterns, which look back to the slow opening section of the baroque French Overture. The long opening sequence of 'The Captive Heart' is an exemplary demonstration of the use of an extended opportunity to set the scene and mood. The extension and development of the material heard at the opening gives substance to the term ensuing as the contiguous development of the opening dramatic motive shifts the mood to one expressive of the dejection and fate of the shifting column of soldiers, marching into captivity. This is a seamless episode made so not by mere continuity, but through its innate dramatic commentary derived from the skilful use of motivic development.
An aspect of the composer's reticence is his unwillingness to compete with the dramatic and visual display on the screen. Understatement itself can create potent dramatic scene-setting. The opening of 'The Man Who Never Was', with the discreet entrance of the music, which takes second place when it becomes the accompaniment to dialogue, makes the audience aware of the intrigue and low-key heroism of what is to follow. In this, as in other scores, one is at times barely conscious of the music, it has crept in imperceptibly to pass an enlightening comment on, or to underline the action and then withdrawn equally stealthily. Only rarely do we find music accompanying the dialogue; even then care is taken not to mask or upstage it. As in life, Rawsthorne chooses only to add his voice when absolutely necessary and does so with economy and point. The textures, insofar as the crude recording medium of the sound track allows one to make a judgement, frequently have the quality of chamber music. It is not fanciful to see these pertinent and pointed interventions reflected in the terse haiku-like germinal introductory bars, pithy developments of material and truncated codas so characteristic of Rawsthorne's concert works.
Such reserve when so well integrated with and at the service of the drama, does not produce ready-made set pieces capable of being extracted for independent performance. In the whole of Rawsthome's output there are but two pieces derived from the film music which are published separately.'The Prisoners' March' has its origins in the title music to 'The Captive Heart'. The manuscript score of the March bears on the title page This March is not taken from the film, but is based on music to the film." Rawsthorne takes essential components from the film score and removed from the need to accompany the visual element and time constraints, moulds them into a cogent structure whilst eschewing a triumphant concert ending, leaving the prisoners to march into the distance to one of Rawsthorne's favourite markings a niente.
The other instance is 'Saraband' for voice and piano from 'Saraband for Dead Lovers' (1948). It is interesting to note that about the same time as this film score was being written Rawsthome was composing the Concerto for String Orchestra of 1949. The slow movement bears a very strong relationship to the music of 'Saraband for Dead Lovers'. It seems that Rawsthorne himself was not aware of this until Hans Keller pointed to the connection. In the film he takes the baroque sequence 'Folies d'Espagne', used, among others, by Corelli and Rachmaninov, as the foundation upon which to build the music. In the slow movement of the Concerto this emerges as a digested, distant and apparently unconscious echo.
In both 'The Captive Heart' and 'The Man Who Never Was' there are short and rather tantalising episodes in which characters in uniform improvise at a piano (always senior ranks be it noted). Was Gunner Rawsthorne 1123288, tempted to make a wry and tongue-in-cheek comment on the cliché of the composer in battle dress? For him, as one such, the reality was one of civilian colleagues trying, not always successfully, to secure leave for the composer to complete specific commissions. The term tantalising is used because the piano episodes seem familiar yet elusive, like the clear memory a face to which one cannot put a name. The music is in the mould of the pieces which make up the composer's significant contribution to the piano literature. The ruminative passages in 'Theme and Four Studies', found among the composer's manuscripts after his death, are perhaps the nearest match. The date of their composition is not clear, but it is fairly certain that they were written in the early Forties, placing them comparatively close to 'The Captive Heart' of 1946.
On the evidence of the material which remained at the composer's death, there are very few compositional sketches or evidence of incomplete or abandoned works. The archive of unpublished works was opened for inspection however. One piece of evidence from that source tempts one to question whether Rawsthorne dipped into a bottom drawer collection of sketches and unpublished pieces to provide material for film scores. There are audible links between the First Symphony of 1950 and 'Pandora and the Flying Dutchman' released the same year. When the keyboard player Alan Cuckston was searching the Rawsthorne Archive, for pieces to include in a recording of piano, song and violin music, he unearthed, 'Pierrette' -Valse Caprice - for violin and piano, written in 1934 for Rawsthorne's first wife, Jessie Hinchliffe. It was only after the recording had been made that I became aware that it had been recycled in the score for 'Uncle Silas', 1947. There it appears dressed in more adventurous harmonic clothes to provide music for a ballroom scene. This music is neither characteristic of the music elsewhere in the film score nor of his compositional style and language at that time of the film. Nevertheless it finds a fitting place.
In 1954 the film Lease of Life was released with a score by Rawsthorne. The title music is of interest for its use of piano and orchestra - Irene Kohler played the solo part. This score followed very closely on the heels of the once popular Second Piano Concerto of 1951. Short though the title music may be it combines two elements of the earlier concerto. First there is the robust and bravura piano writing. Second he reintroduces the distinctive trumpet writing heard to effect as an obbligato in the central orchestral climax of the last movement of the Second Concerto. The material is really too august in character to find a fitting exposition in the short time provided by the titles; the effect is unsatisfying because the material is so seminal in what it portends as to deserve development. Unfortunately development does not follow elsewhere in a film distinctive for the sparse use of music.
Rawsthorne's earliest scores were written for documentaries and his final three film scores were for this form. The Rawsthorne Society arranged a showing of two of these for its members at the British Film Institute in May 1996, 'The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci' (1953) and 'The Dancing Fleece' (1950). Each film runs for approximately twenty minutes with the music continuous throughout.
The first is scored for string quartet, flute, trumpet and piano. The overall impression of the film was one of great richness, perhaps too much. The images are accompanied by a text by Michael Ayrton and spoken by C. Day Lewis and Laurence Olivier. That combination would make a satisfying entity in itself; adding to this a rich and characterful score does produce an embarrassment of riches, leaving each component competing with and ultimately to the disadvantage of the other.
Hans Keller2 places the date of composition close to that of the Symphony No.1 -1950 and perceives close thematic affinities with the symphony's first, slow and last movements movements. He regarded this score very highly and thought the music of high intrinsic importance as music.
This score is a potent demonstration of Hans Keller's assertion that "Rawsthorne always wrote music in the first place .... The unusual and effective combination of instruments is a reminder that Rawsthorne made many distinguished contributions to the medium of chamber music. It is not surprising, then, to discover some of the 'Leonardo' music reappearing in the Concerto for Ten Instruments of 1961. 'The Dancing Fleece', a commercial depicting the production of wool, drew from Rawsthorne a twenty minute ballet score. The eminently danceable music foreshadows the forty minute, one act ballet, Madame Chrvsanthème which was first performed by the Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1955.
The absence of manuscripts and reluctance of the composer to allow his music to take the foreground mean that we are unlikely to find substantial suites of film music being produced and recorded. A first recording of some of his Ealing Studios music has been made, an achievement made possible by the brilliant reconstructions by Philip Lane and Rawsthorne's pupil and collaborator Gerar Schurmann.3 The Rawsthorne Trust is negotiating the sponsorship of further recordings, encouraged by the evidence that many people have come to know Rawsthorne via the cinema and then uses this as a foundation for further exploration of the man and his music.
1The Celluloid Plays a Tune from Twenty British Composer ed. Peter Dickinson, Chester, 1975
2Film Music: Rawsthornes Leonardo The Musical times, January 1956
3Issued on CD The Ladykillers Music from those Glorious Ealing Films Silva Screen FILMCD 177
This is an update of an article which first appeared in The Creel - journal of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne, Spring 1991.
© John M. Belcher 1997