Music for film

Music for film: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten

Music formed an important component of the propaganda and educational films produced during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. In this article, Nicholas Clark explores the film scores composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten between 1940 and 1948.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s first score for film

A number of composers known predominantly for music for the concert stage have occasionally turned to writing for film. Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss and William Walton—famous for symphony, chamber music, concerto and opera—all produced, at various stages of their careers, scores for cinema. Ralph Vaughan Williams was also eager to ‘have a shot’, as he phrased it in a letter to Arthur Benjamin, at writing for the screen and in 1940 he produced the score for 49th Parallel, a Ministry of Information propaganda exercise, highlighting the cruelty and misguidedness of fascism, directed by Michael Powell with a screenplay by Emeric Pressburger.

Film work may have been a new medium for Vaughan Williams but he embraced it enthusiastically as it enabled him to undertake some form of service during wartime. Now in his late 60s, there was no question of front line involvement, as had been the case when serving first as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps and later as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War, but composing music for this and other propaganda films – such as Coastal Command (1942) and Stricken Peninsula (1945) – and also working for refugee causes numbered among several important roles that he was able to fulfil. 49th Parallel tells the story of six Nazi U-boat crewmen who, trapped on the north eastern Canadian coast following the destruction of their vessel, attempt to find passage across the border to what at the time was neutral America.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Music for the film '49th parallel'

Ralph Vaughan Williams, '49th Parallel'

49th Parallel, composed in 1940–41, was Vaughan Williams’s first excursion into writing music for the cinema.

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Usage terms 'Prelude, 49th Parallel' by Ralph Vaughan Williams © Oxford University Press, 1960. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.  All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © Oxford University Press

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 49th Parallel, performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny (NAXOS). 1. Prelude. Shelfmark : 1CD0092506.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Vaughan Williams’s score was recorded for the film by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Muir Mathieson. It reflects not only the anxiety of desperate men and their efforts to find refuge, but also the landscape through which they travel and the people they encounter. A grand aerial view of snow-covered mountains is the backdrop for the commanding Prelude during which the composer’s name appears in the credits, before the film’s title. Early in the film, in an isolated hut, the crewmen find a French Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier) and a Factor (Finlay Currie) where the folksong L’Alouette is briefly alluded to. 

The incorporation of this music was slightly less problematic in this case than in others. Ursula Vaughan Williams relates in a biography of her husband that actress Glynis Johns found it almost impossible to sing a traditional volkslied, despite the composer’s volunteering to transpose the orchestral accompaniment he had written into a more manageable key for her. Especially composed themes for the fugitives’ entrance to a Hutterite settlement and their observance of a native Canadian festival also occur during the story. But it is the crewmen’s concentrated bid for freedom that becomes a major aspect of the soundtrack, and is key to maintaining tension throughout the film.   

Scott of the Antarctic

A race against time is also brought to mind in Vaughan Williams’s music for Scott of the Antarctic, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Charles Frend. Equally important here is the evocation in sound of landscape, in this instance a frozen and ultimately lethal wilderness through which Captain Robert Falcon Scott struggles in his courageous, ill-fated attempt to be the first explorer to reach the South Pole. The evocative score was recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Ernest Irving. The film premiere, a Royal First Performance, was at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square on 29 November 1948.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Music for the film Scott of the Antarctic

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 'Scott of the Antarctic'

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed the music for the film “Scott of the Antarctic” which deals with the story of the doomed Terra Nova expedition (1910–13) led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912), which resulted in the death of Scott himself and four of his men.

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Usage terms Scott of the Antarctic – complete music for the film (1948) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust 1948 & 2018.  Exclusively licensed to Oxford University Press.  Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.  All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Vaughan Williams’s music is both varied and richly imagined, lending additional force to the narrative. There are elements of romance, suggesting the bond between Scott and his sculptor wife Kathleen, but the focus is predominantly on the terrible beauty of the Antarctic landscape. Stoic brass provide accompaniment for a semi-humorous interlude in which the expedition witnesses a waddle of penguins, a spectacular glacier is represented by the ethereal sounds offered by the woodwind (the sequence titled ‘Scott on the glacier’ is one of the most memorable parts of the score). Both of these sequences contrast markedly with the full force of the orchestra as it depicts the ominous presence of looming icebergs, or the repetitive strains played over the arduous marching of Scott’s party toward what they believe is their successful arrival at the Pole where fears that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen might have preceded them are realised.

The soundtrack underlines the extreme remoteness Scott’s party faces as their journey reaches its fatal climax: the sounds of a women’s chorus and soprano soloist complement the strange visual combination of an otherworldly landscape and the unfolding tragedy on screen. Vaughan Williams’s task was to create aurally a world that production design and cinematography convey on screen. Location filming in Norway and Switzerland and cleverly designed stage sets at Ealing Studios recreated Scott’s ice-covered wilderness. 

The composer, who was credited in the titles simply as ‘Vaughan Williams,’ worked with a conventional orchestra but was inventive in his use of instrumentation and sound effect, primarily with his inclusion of a wind machine to indicate the onslaught of a blizzard. A good deal of the music originally written for Scott of the Antarctic remained unused in the completed film. However, themes from the score evolved into what would become the extraordinarily atmospheric seventh symphony, known as the Sinfonia Antarctica (1949–52).

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Music for the film Scott of the Antarctic

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Add MS 59537

This is the full score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic written in the hand of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with annotations by Ernest Irving.

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Usage terms Scott of the Antarctic – complete music for the film (1948) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust 1948 & 2018.  Exclusively licensed to Oxford University Press.  Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.  All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

The music expresses tragedy but also stoicism and courage, key components in the screenplay by Walter Meade, Ivor Montagu and Mary Hayley Bell, wife of actor John Mills who played Scott. Indeed, the film acknowledges the endurance of the human spirit in a triumphant end sequence which commemorates the explorers. The section of the score entitled ‘Final shots’ is an emotional end-piece that plays over the image of a wooden cross inscribed with the final line from Tennyson’s Ulysses: ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’.       

Benjamin Britten and Night Mail

Benjamin Britten, like Vaughan Williams, had composed for a number of different mediums, including radio and theatre, by the time he started to write music for film. During the 1930s he produced scores for the GPO Film Unit, a branch of the General Post Office that produced documentary films on subjects about industry, such as Coal Face (1935), and work related to the day-to-day endeavours of the GPO, such as The King’s Stamp, The Tocher and Telegrams (1935). One of the best known is Night Mail (1936), a feature on postal delivery by night train between England and Scotland. There are three main segments in Britten’s score: title music; a sequence of 35 bars that also incorporates the sound of steam, a small trolley, hammers, aluminium on drill, clank, sandpaper on slate and coal falling down a shaft; and the End Sequence.

Benjamin Britten: Music for the documentary film 'Night Mail'

Benjamin Britten: Music for the documentary film Night Mail (1936), Add MS 60621

This is Britten's manuscript for the documentary film Night Mail that follows the distribution route of the postal train from London to Aberdeen.

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Usage terms Night Mail. Music by Benjamin Britten. Words by Wystan Hugh Auden. © Copyright 1936 The Britten Estate Limited. Rights licensed worldwide to Chester Music Limited, 14-15 Berners Street, London W1T 3LJ United Kingdom. All rights reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by permission of Hal Leonard Europe Limited. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © The Britten Estate Limited

The script for the documentary was devised by producers/directors John Grierson, Henry Watt and Basil Wright but at the conclusion of the film Britten’s score interacts with verse by the poet W.H. Auden who collaborated with the composer on a number of works during this early period of their respective careers. Overdubbed commentary (spoken by Stuart Legg and John Grierson on the soundtrack) describes the steady pace of the train’s journey and the music emulates the rhythm of rail motion through the countryside. As the train wheels begin to rotate slowly, their circular action is suggested by a violin, viola, cello and double bass playing repeated phrases. As they gain momentum the rhythm of the words and music synchronise perfectly. 

This is the night mail crossing the border

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

The GPO’s budget meant that Britten’s orchestra was comparatively small and he worked, as film composers often do, to a tight deadline. Recording took place in December 1935 and early 1936 and sound supervision for the film was undertaken by Alberto Cavalcanti. Britten biographer David Matthews points out that the composer spent an evening in Harrow listening to approaching trains and then attempted to capture their sounds on newly-created instruments. 

Britten’s score included a range of percussion played by the virtuoso percussionist and, as it happened, life-long colleague, James Blades. Blades used cymbals, side and bass drums as well as sandpaper and wind machine to create the sound of the train rushing through the British countryside. Britten also included a flute, oboe, bassoon, harp and trumpet in C to emulate the pace of rail travel, all of which join forces for a glorious fanfare when the train finally emerges in Scotland.   

Instruments of the Orchestra

Much larger forces were required for Britten’s score for the Crown Film Unit’s Instruments of the Orchestra, which was made for the Ministry of Education in 1946. The story the composer tells in this instance is that of the instruments themselves; the idea behind the film was to demonstrate the versatility of musical instruments to children. Britten takes as his orchestral theme the rondeau written by Henry Purcell as part of his incidental music for the 1695 revival of Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge. 

The theme is played by the full orchestra, then individually by the woodwind, strings, brass and percussion before being repeated by the orchestra. Then begins a set of variations in which Britten provides the ‘character’ of each instrument – spirited flutes, plaintive oboes, wistful cellos, rallying horns, marching trumpets, declamatory timpani and so forth – to indicate how the various components of the orchestra work. Once this is completed the woodwind re-enter to introduce a fugue which is again performed by each set of instruments who, playing with gusto, create a gloriously chaotic sound. Finally, the brass re-establishes Purcell’s original theme, playing it at half speed, cutting through the Fugue to provide a triumphant finale.

Letter to Malcolm Sargent from the Ministry of Information

Letter to Malcolm Sargent from the Ministry of Information, MS Mus. 1784/1/4

This letter from the Ministry of Information to the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent sheds light on how Sargent became involved in the making of the film Instruments of the Orchestra

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Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.


Held by © Britten-Pears Foundation

Britten composed the score in December 1945 while also working on the incidental music for Louis MacNeice’s radio drama The Dark Tower. An accompanying narration which introduces each instrument was prepared by Montagu Slater, librettist for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, but the published score replaced Slater’s text with one written by Eric Crozier. Produced by Alexander Shaw and directed by Muir Mathieson, the original film featured Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and was first screened at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square on 29 November 1946. 

Photograph of the filming of Instruments of the Orchestra

Photograph of the filming of Instruments of the Orchestra

This photograph shows the filming of the educational documentary Instruments of the Orchestra, for which Benjamin Britten composed the music, known today as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

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Usage terms Courtesy of BFI National Archive. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © British Film Institute

The score can now be performed with or without narration, but as the composition draft shows us Britten had the line of narrative in mind as he worked on the music. He made some preliminary notes about the order of the piece in a Lefax spiral-bound diary but the manuscript for the draft, whose existence was unknown until its unexpected discovery in 2011, suggests Britten was working with some haste. His reported excitement at the recording sessions indicated that he was delighted with the score, which he dedicated to the children of his friends John and Jean Maud ‘for their edification and entertainment’. It is less commonly referred to by its descriptive subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell than the name eventually given to the piece as a concert work, Britten’s op. 34, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Benjamin Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Benjamin Britten, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, MS Mus. 1769

Benjamin Britten's The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra originated as music for an educational film, Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), before being transformed by the composer into a piece for the concert hall.

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Usage terms Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by © Boosey & Hawkes and Britten-Pears Foundation

Benjamin Britten, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34 ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell’ (extract). Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford (NAXOS). Shelfmark : 1CD0252116.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Bibliography

Banks, Paul (compiler and editor). Benjamin Britten: A Catalogue of the Published Works. Aldeburgh, Suffolk: The Britten–Pears Library for the Britten Estate, 1999.

BFI Screen Online, Scott of the Antarctic: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/457209/ accessed 10 April 2018.

Bridcut, John. Britten’s Children. London: Faber & Faber, 2007.

Carpenter, Humphrey, Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.

Kennedy, Michael. A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (second edition). Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Cobbe, Hugh (ed.). Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Matthews, David. Britten. London: Haus Publishing, 2013.

Mitchell, Donald. Britten and Auden in the Thirties, London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

Jordan, Rolf. ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams and 49th Parallel’: The Powell and Pressburger Pages: http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/41_49P/49P_07.html accessed 10 April 2018.

Reed, Philip. The Incidental Music of Benjamin Britten: A Study and Catalogue of his Music for Film, Theatre and Radio. PhD thesis, University of East Anglia, 1987.

Vaughan Williams, Ursula. RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Vaughan Williams, Ralph (ed. David Manning). Vaughan Williams on Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

© Nicholas Clark, Britten–Pears Foundation, Aldeburgh

  • Nicholas Clark
  • Nicholas Clark is Librarian at the Britten–Pears Foundation, located at The Red House – Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears's home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. His research interests include the background and development of The Red House library, literary connections with Britten’s music, and the history of set design, particularly that of the artist David Myerscough-Jones, for Britten’s operas.    

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.