Love from a Stranger: Four British Film Scores

Love from a Stranger
Love from a Stranger

British film music from the 1930s, 1940s through to the early 1960s is often ignored, forgotten or side stepped. Which is a tragedy as British film music also had its Golden Age as did Hollywood. During the late 1930s and the 1950s some of the best music for British productions was created by a number of talented and original composers. This compact disc compilation literally scratches the surface and showcases four wonderful scores which were penned by a quartet of highly gifted Maestro’s, whose music enhanced and supported the movies that they were written for and although probably are not able to stand alone without the images as an entertaining form, still manage to hold a certain attraction for the listener. The disc opens with LOVE FROM A STRANGER with music by stalwart and revered British composer Benjamin Britten. Many think of Britten as a classical or serious music composer and to a degree they would be correct because it is within the concert hall that Britten made his name and it is this type of composition that he will be best remembered. But Britten was also very active within the film music arena because he was not only able to write music that supported movies but was also able write very quickly which is something that is a requirement for a composer of music for film. Britten’s involvement in writing for motion pictures began in 1935 when he scored THE KING’S STAMP, after which he went on to work on at least another 20 or so productions in the 18 months that followed. It was scoring a number of small projects such as THE COAL FACE (1935), THE NIGHT TRAIN (1936) and HOW THE DIAL WORKS (1937) that the composer was given the opportunity to work on something within the commercial cinema category – this was LOVE FROM A STRANGER directed by Rowland V. Lee in 1937. The movie was a thriller and starred Ann Harding and the inimitable Basil Rathbone.

The assignment was one that Britten looked forward to working on but things did not go as he had planned. Scoring was delayed and the composer was in the end, given just days to complete the score. After his work was done, Britten found that some of his score had been dropped completely and parts that had been used had been edited. The composer vowed never to work in commercial cinema again, which is something he stuck to. The score from LOVE FROM A STRANGER would not be out of place if it was performed in the concert hall in the form of an opus. As I stated earlier, music in films during the 1930s through to the 1950s was background music and you would probably be hard pressed to find something within scores from this period that would stand alone as a piece of music in its own right without the images. However the score which Britten produced for LOVE FROM A STRANGER is still highly attractive and when listening to it, one can hear so many contrasting moods. The ‘Love Music’ in particular is a beguiling piece, with its tender violin solo and its playful sounding woods plus there is the presence of a lazy but emotive sounding clarinet which seems to lure the listener further into the composition creating a sensual and haunting ambience. The six cues that are included on this collection are more or less Britten’s entire score and were reconstructed from sketches that had been preserved within the Britten-Pears library. Not many people are aware that Britten was instrumental in help create and shape the music for some of Hammer films great Gothic horrors, as it was Britten who took a young James Bernard under his wing many years ago, giving Bernard the task of copying some of his concert music and also allowing Bernard to work on his opera BILLY BUDD, thus giving Bernard a taste of the discipline that is required to be a composer.

The next section on the disc is from the 1963 production THIS SPORTING LIFE, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts. The music here is by Spanish born composer Roberto Gerhard. Gerhard studied in Vienna and Berlin with Schoenberg between 1923 and 1928. He was forced to flee his beloved Catalonia and Barcelona just days before the city fell to Franco during the Spanish civil war. He settled in Cambridgeshire in the UK and stayed in England for the next thirty years working as a freelance composer where he wrote for, stage, screen and also radio. He scored just two movies during that time, the first being SECRET PEOPLE (1952) and the second being THIS SPORTING LIFE. The latter contained a highly emotional and volatile storyline and centred upon the character portrayed by Richard Harris who was a Yorkshire miner who had acquired reasonable wealth and notoriety locally via his talent as a rugby player. Gerhard’s score was largely atonal material or music that had no real thematic properties; in fact after hearing the score Anderson dropped half of the music and replaced the title music completely with sections of music from the remainder of the score. The director branded the title music as eccentric, bizarre and inappropriate. Despite saying this however, the score does make for some pretty good dramatic listening away from the film it was intended to enhance and maybe the composer was attempting to depict musically Harris’ character’s emotion and anger. Sadly because of Anderson’s cuts, only 18 minutes of music remained on the film soundtrack and Gerhard and Anderson parted on terms that were never really resolved. The composer did, however, recycle some of his score into EPITHALAMION in 1965 and 1966. The score for THIS SPORTING LIFE is, in my opinion, a highly accomplished and original one; it is a hard hitting and powerful work that is experimental at times, modern and also understated and emotive. The score is performed here in the form of an eight movement suite and contains approximately two thirds of Gerhard’s music from the film.

Section three is probably the most interesting one on the compilation; the music is by Elizabeth Lutyens and is from the 1965 Amicus horror movie THE SKULL. This is a movie that was based upon the book THE SKULL OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE which was penned by Psycho author Robert Bloch. Starring Peter Cushing, Jill Bennett, Patrick Wymark and guest starring Christopher Lee, the movie was a moderate success at the box office. Lutyens score was a considerable asset to the movie and the composer really came into her own when scoring an almost 20 minute dialogue free sequence which occurred in the latter part of the movie. The orchestration of the score is particularly interesting as the composer included inventive use of percussion, brass, organ, cimbalom and two bass clarinets but omitted the use of violins. The music here is in the form of an almost 18 minute suite which includes seven sections from the score. I would not say that this is a typical horror score although it does contain its fair share of foreboding and fearsome sounds. I would say this is a formidable and intelligently constructed work that can easily be put into the category of being classic British film music. Lutyens worked on a handful of other horrors for Amicus these included, DR TERRORS HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), THE PSYCHOPATH (1966) and THE TERRORNAUGHTS (1967). The final section is from THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER, music courtesy of Richard Rodney Bennett. Bennett was given his introduction to film scoring by Hammer films musical director John Hollingsworth who saw so much talent and promise in the young composer. James Bernard once told me that he met Bennett at a session that Hollingsworth was directing and Hollingsworth had marked Bennett as a composer who would soon be at the top of his profession. An observation that was not wrong, THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER contains a wonderful score that is lyrical, emotive and also highly dramatic and melodic. The composer’s score is probably the one thing that remains memorable about the production; not that the movie was a bad one – far from it. The movie received a limited release and distribution and because of this was missed by many and to this day remains virtually unknown. This is such a shame as Bennett’s score is beautifully haunting and mesmerising and evokes memories of his wistful and luxurious work on FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. The score is represented here by eight cues, which run for just over 20 minutes. It is a worthwhile and gratifying listen. This compilation is a fine example of British film music and one which should be in every discerning film music collector’s possession.

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