I have always been fascinated by the golden age of film music, and yes most of us associate the golden age with Hollywood and composers such as Steiner, Newman, Rosza, Korngold etc. But I would also like to refresh peoples memories about the golden age of film music in Britain, yes that’s right a golden age in Britain, well we had one didn’t we. I think we did in fact I know we did. It occurred through the dark days of WWll and then afterwards into the 1950,s and up to the dawning of the 1960,s. With composers such as Walton, Vaughan Williams, William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Bliss, Bax, George Auric, Clifton Parker and their like. But there were as always many unsung heroes of British film music, Ivor Slaney for example, Charles Williams and Doreen Carwithen and it is to one of the first women film music composers I turn now for this review. THE FILM MUSIC OF DOREEN CARWITHEN. Released on Dutton Epoch records which is a particularly busy label and part off the Dutton vocalion stable has released some interesting albums some of which include film music and others that focus upon what many call light music and I suppose British film music from the late 30,s through to the 1950,s did partly consist of what can be deemed as light music, especially when composers such as Frank Cordell etc for example began to write for film.
The compilation which was released in 2011 includes music from a handful of films and projects that Carwithen scored during the late 1940,s and into the early to mid 1950,s. The compact disc opens with an overture from the 1954 Exclusive films or Hammer production MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST as you can probably work out from the title the film is about Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws who stole from the rich and gave to the poor so legend has it in this particular adventure they battle to re-install Richard the Lionheart on to the English throne. The film which was released a while before Hammer decided to resurrect Dracula and friends was directed by Val Guest, and is not a movie that would win any awards or indeed be nominated for any, but the rousing and robust musical score which Carwithen penned is certainly an asset to the production. The music is not as glamorous or shall we say as anthem like or lavish as Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s famous foray into writing for the famous long bow archer in tights, but nonetheless it is a score that is certainly more than just interesting, it has to it a depth and substance that oozes character and also posses subtle but affecting melodies that are fleeting but attractive.
The central themes from the score were taken by Philip Lane and arranged into an overture which can also act as a concert piece, the majority of the more melodious parts of the score came from the opening trumpet flourishes which Lane took as his starting point, ironic really because it was a well known fact that Carwithen always wrote the main title or opening themes for her film scores last, firstly concentrating on the main fabric of the score or individual themes for certain characters and then fashioning her main credits theme from all aspects of the score. MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST is regarded as Carwithen’s finest score and an important milestone in her career which outshone the movie for which it was composed, in fact the composer thought that the film was and I quote, “GHASTLY”.
The performances on this compilation are by the BBC CONCERT orchestra under the direction of Gavin Sutherland, he has been particularly active in resurrecting British film music and also a champion of light music and I have to say that the quality of the performances within the compilation are second to none also the sound achieved is authentic and it is as if we are hearing the scores from the films rather than a re-recording.
The next section on the disc is from the 1948 film BOYS IN BROWN the suite which runs for some 9 minutes is made up of three pieces or movements which are the principal thematic material from the score and occur at important moments within the film these are. MAIN TITLES AND OPENING SCENE, ESCAPE PLAN and KITTY AND JACKIE which is also the films end title, beautifully arranged into suite form by Philip Lane. Directed by Montgomery Tully the film included an impressive cast list Richard Attenborough, Barbara Murray, Dirk Bogarde, Jack Warner and Jimmy Hanley, the films storyline focuses on a group of young offenders who are in a Borstal and the governor played by Warner attempts to reform them and turn their lives around. The opening movement, MAIN TITLES AND OPENING SCENE, includes a fanfare of sorts that is performed by trombones and opens the proceedings, this introduces a taught and dramatic sounding theme that is performed by the string section with violins taking centre stage and being supported by darkly rich cellos that are them selves aided by basses and underlined and punctuated by timpani. The mood of the cue changes quite dramatically as brass and percussion take the piece to a more urgent level the composer adding low woodwinds and quite sinister and apprehensive strings to create an uneasy mood. Movement 2, ESCAPE PLAN is in the first instant a more calm and quiet piece and is used to underline a meeting that two of the films central characters are having in a dormitory, they plan to escape but one is uncertain of the plan and is having second thoughts because he says he has a family to think of.
Although the music is quiet and slightly subdued it still manages to purvey a certain degree of urgency with strings being the main stay of the composition with trumpet and woodwind being introduced as the cue progresses, there is within the cue a particularly attractive theme which although short lived seems to rise from nowhere but soon melts away and is overridden by a more troubled sound. Movement number 3, KITTY AND JACKIE end titles, is a feel good piece romantically laced and performed by swelling strings that purvey an atmosphere of hope. This section more than any of the others included on the compilation for me has a familiar sound to it and reminded me so much of the work of British composer William Alwyn, which I suppose it not surprising as it was Alwyn who schooled Carwithen in composition and also later became her Husband. Carwithen was actually given the musical expertise of two giants of film music the aforementioned Alwyn and also Muir Mathieson and it was whilst working as Mathieson’s assistant that Carwithen began to write for film, very often un-credited and stepping in for other composers who for what ever reason had fallen behind deadlines etc.
Carwithen,s first film score was for the 1948 production TO THE PUBLIC DANGER, directed by Terence Fisher who as we all know was to go on to become one of Hammer studios most prolific and respected film makers. Produced by Highbury studios this was in essence a public information film, I say public information as it was a film that was produced to highlight the dangers of drink driving. Carwithen wrote just the opening and closing music for the film which is presented here in a 3 minute arrangement that includes the dramatic and strident sounding PRELUDE which more or less launches us headlong into the proceedings with strings, agitated brass, rumbling percussion and woodwind creating a highly tense piece. After the mayhem and urgency of the opening music the cue moves into the APOTHEOSIS of Carwithens score with dark but quiet strings underlining the final scene of a car crash in which all three occupants have died. The piece builds slowly and rises briefly into an almost luxurious sounding crescendo bringing the section to its conclusion, this was the first of two films that Carwithen scored for Fisher the second being MANTRAP in 1952/53 and music from that movie is also included on this compilation.
For the next section we go forward to the 1950,s in fact to the early part of 1954, EAST ANGLIAN HOLIDAY was a documentary which was produced by British Transport Films, directed by Michael Clarke which takes us on a tour of East Anglia along the coastlines of Norfolk and Suffolk and showing us the sights of the area with its quaint villages and lush cornfields, picturesque churches and perfect rural settings. Carwithen wrote a beautifully descriptive and melodic score for the project that supported and added much to its content. The score although just over 15 minutes in duration encompassed many styles and gave us numerous rich and pleasant themes. Strings I would say have the lion’s share of the performance but are ably supported by wholesome sounding woodwinds, harp, subdued percussion and brass with tubular bells being utilised to introduce a cathedral. This is a beautiful piece that is calming and eloquent.
The compilation also includes music from MAN TRAP, which appears in the form of a 13 minute suite there is also music from the 1953 production THREE CASES OF MURDER and music from the 1952 TRAVEL ROYAL which was a documentary produced by B.O.A.C. and was made to encourage people to travel to Britain via the airline to see the famous historical sights and take in the heritage of the country.
Carwithen integrated many traditional national and folk songs into her score to depict England’s green and pleasant land, these included JOHN PEEL, ORANGES AND LEMONS, GREENSLEEVES and a short piece of music that was actually composed by Henry Vlll. The score posses a distinct atmosphere of ceremony and also purveys a warmth and amiable mood. I recommend this compilation wholeheartedly and in its running time I hear many styles and quirks of orchestration that I have heard before maybe in scores that have not credited Carwithen, it is astonishing that she gave so much to the world of film music but still remains virtually unknown. Presented very well with an amazing booklet of informative notes. Please add this to your collection you will not be sorry.