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Original Film Music Themes 1935-1947

In its infancy, the ‘silent’ screen moved to an often unrelated accompaniment. Mood music of the "Hearts And Flowers" variety, superimposed ad lib over the flickering images by an overworked cinema pianist, milked the emotions of a captive audience. However, even before World War I, experiments were already being carried out to marry music with on-screen action, and by 1908, in anticipation of the Vitaphones of the mid-1920s, the German inventor, producer and director Oskar Messter (1866-1943) had succeeded in synchronising a variety of instrumental and vocal items pre-recorded onto discs with compass-points on their outer rims to the moving frames of his pioneering shorts. And during that same year the earliest known score — Saint-Saëns’s music for L’assassination du Duc de Guise — also appeared.

In England, from around 1910, best-selling albums of mood-music bagatelles to accompany films (by Ketèlbey and other light-music composers) were published by Hammond and Bosworth and in Hollywood, in 1916, inspired by D.W. Griffith’s epic Birth Of A Nation (1915), Thomas H. Ince’s Civilisation and Thomas Dixon’s The Fall Of A Nation featured the first superimposed background scores commissioned from, respectively, Victor Schertzinger and Victor Herbert.

Initially, bespoke film-music generally comprised arrangements of already existing material, but with the advent of the synchronous sound-track the filmscore added a vital new dimension to cinematic art. Burgeoning technology and a growing sense of the need for more integrated sound-effects strengthened the collaboration between director and composer to make the score an essential ingredient of the drama. By the mid-1930s the majority of American and European features were graced by original compositions, movies were being enjoyed as much for their musical content as for their action and, as it were overnight, film-music composers won celebrity status.

Lured by the promise of greater rewards, composer-conductors Max Steiner (1888-1971) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), for example, both forsook the concert-halls of Vienna and Berlin and headed for Hollywood. Steiner arrived at the movie Mecca in 1929 and was influential in the development of the score as a functional element. Now probably best remembered by his music for Gone With The Wind (MGM/Selznick, 1939), apart from 15 other nominations, he won Oscars for his scores of The Informer (RKO,1935), Now, Voyager (Warner, 1942) and Since You Went Away (Selznick, 1944). Signed by Warner Bros. in 1935 for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Captain Blood, Korngold won Academy Awards for his scores for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938).

By 1932, Great Britain was also establishing a foothold in the market, an initiative led by the London Films company set up by Sir Alexander Korda (1893-1956). A creative force in 1919 in the nationalisation of the film industry of his native Hungary, Korda finally arrived in England — via Vienna, Berlin, Hollywood and Paris — in 1931. His first milestone, The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933, with music by Kurt Schroeder) was swiftly followed by other successes, notably Things To Come, in 1936. Based on H.G. Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape Of Things To Come, this fanciful leviathan, unique in cinema history and comprising a set of "fascinating, chilling and dynamically well-staged vignettes" which trace mankind’s future through war in 1940, pestilence and rebellion to a new world order and lunar travel, was graced by an atmospheric score expressly written by sometime Master of the Queen (Elizabeth)’s Music, Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975).

A graduate of Cambridge and the London Royal College of Music, Bliss’s army service in France during World War I was followed in the early 1920s by a prolonged stint as arranger and composer for Nigel Playfair’s productions at the Hammersmith Lyric. A protégé of Elgar, his forward-looking orchestral works had by 1935 established him as his elder’s successor. Bliss worked closely with both Korda and Wells on Things To Come and indeed most of the film’s incidental music, written between 1934 and 1935, predates its shooting. The recorded movements are conducted by Bliss himself and also by Muir Mathieson (1911-1975), the Scottish-born arranger and conductor in more than 500 films who, as London Films’ newly-appointed musical director, originally commissioned the work.

The heyday of British film music coincided with the darkest days of World War II. As has already been noted, its pervading fixation with "romantic" concert pianos was part of a tradition which stemmed from Paderewski’s appearance in Moonlight Sonata (Pall Mall Films, 1936), in which the ageing Polish virtuoso mesmerised a 400-strong Denham studio audience of "plane-crash victims". Its ‘clone’ Dangerous Moonlight (RKO, 1941) starred Anton Walbrook as a younger pianist who, after escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland, joins the RAF and while suffering from amnesia wins glory as a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. Scored by Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) it featured that Oxford-born pianist and theatre composer’s best-known creation, The Warsaw Concerto; the most famous of all tabloid concertos, it was actually played in the sound-track by Louis Kentner (1905-1987), the noted Hungarian pianist who was resident in England from 1935. Between 1936 and 1965 Addinsell scored more than 30 films, including The Amateur Gentleman, South Riding, Goodbye,Mr. Chips, The Lion Has Wings, Love On The Dole, The Siege of Tobruk, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Beau Brummel, The Admirable Crichton, A Tale of Two Cities and Life At The Top.

Continuing the pianistic theme, set in Cornwall later on in World War II, the "novelettish" Love Story (GFD/Gainsborough, 1944 — US title A Lady Surrenders) hinges on the love of a half-blind airman (Stewart Granger) for a weak-hearted concert pianist (Margaret Lockwood). The highlight of the score of this "splendid, noble and fatuous piece", by the English composer-conductor Hubert Bath (1883-1945) is the mini-concerto Cornish Rhapsody. By now Bath’s only remembered work, this was featured and recorded by London-born virtuoso Dame Harriet Cohen (1895-1967).

A prominent figure among British film-music composers, with more than 100 composer credits Charles Williams (né Isaac Cozerbreit, 1893-1978) was also one of the most prolific. At first a noted orchestra first violinist (for, among others, Beecham, Elgar and Landon Ronald), Williams fiddled accompaniments to silent films before becoming musical director of the New Gallery Cinema (Regent Street, London). Having, in 1929, assisted Hubert Bath as arranger for Hitchcock’s Blackmail (BIP Films), the first British all-sound picture, he subsequently received many commissions both as composer and conductor, including The Thirty-Nine Steps (in collaboration with Louis Levy, for Gaumont-British, 1935), Kipps (Twentieth Century Fox, 1941) and The Night Has Eyes (Associated British Pictures, 1942 — US title Terror House). Starring James Mason and Joyce Howard, this last, a "stagey but effective little thriller, with oodles of fog and bog to help the suspense", traces a young teacher’s disappearance on the Yorkshire Moors.

In 1945, Williams "assisted" Russian-born American composer Nicolas Brodszky (1905-1958) on The Way To The Stars (Two Cities - US title: Johnny In The Clouds), a delightful comedy classic evocative of World War II starring John Mills, Ros
Disc: 1
Spellbound Concerto (Spellbound)
1 March
2 Ballet for children
3 Melodrama - Attack
4 Melodrama - Pestilence
5 The World In Ruins
6 Epilogue
7 'Warsaw' Concerto
8 'The Night has Eyes'
9 Medley
10 'Cornish Rhapsody'
11 Themes from the film The Way To The Stars
12 'The Dream of Olwen'
13 'While I Live'
14 Spellbound Concerto
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