CD Review: The Film Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams Vols. 1-3
I’m embarrassed to admit that in all of my years of musical training and higher edu-my-cation, I somehow skipped over the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Why? The man stands in the pantheon of British composers. But except for the rare exposure to “hits” like Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, I missed out.
Well, not anymore.
Chandos recently released a box set of The Film Music of Vaughan Williams Vols. 1-3 at a bargain price. The three volumes (released separately in 2002, 2004, and 2006) span the breadth of Vaughan Williams’s brief career in films, featuring selections from nine of his eleven film scores.
Vaughan Williams didn’t compose his first score until 1940 when he was nearly 68. He mentioned his desire to compose for film to fellow composer Arthur Benjamin, who relayed the information to Muir Mathieson, music director for Sir Alexander Korda’s London Films and director of music for the Ministry of Information. Vaughan Williams was depressed at his inability to play a fuller part in the war, and when Mathieson showed him the script for 49TH PARALLEL, the composer “set to work right away.”
49TH PARALLEL (1941) was directed by Michael Powell and co-written by Emeric Pressburger (who won an Oscar for his original story), the team responsible for later British classics such as THE RED SHOES. The film was blatant propaganda and Powell said its aim was “to scare the pants off the Americans and bring them into the war sooner.” The film (released in 1942 as THE INVADERS in the U.S.) was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to MRS. MINIVER.
Because of its American and French Canadian storyline, Vaughan Williams interpolated “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the French folk song “Alouette” into the score. But it is the memorable main theme that sets the tone for Vaughan Williams’s film career. Lush strings play the long, soaring melody line and you know immediately that you’re in the hands of a master composer.
In addition to feature films, Vaughan Williams also contributed music to shorts and documentaries like COASTAL COMMAND (1942), a documentary about flying-boats off the coast of Iceland and in the North Sea in the search of German naval vessels. And for those of you who might be thinking the discs contain nothing but long-winded British melodies (like I used to) need only hear “The Hudsons” from COASTAL COMMAND to realize that Vaughan Williams could write a rousing action cue with the best of them.
Much like Aaron Copland, Vaughan Williams occasionally reworked his film scores into concert suites, though to call anything a suite, he said, was “to damn it to extinction.” The music from THE FLEMISH FARM (1943) was reworked into the seven-movement The Story of a Flemish Farm, first performed in July 1945. The overtly propaganda film was based on a true story of the Belgian Air Force and was made in cooperation with the Air Ministry and the Belgian government in exile. The patriotism is heard immediately in the bright brass fanfare for the flag and you can feel it fluttering in the breeze in the woodwinds.
Like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Vaughan Williams reused his film music in his concert works and you’ll find evidence of his haunting score for SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTICA (1949) in his Seventh Symphony, Sinfonia Antartica. The score begins with an ominous brass theme and underlying harmonies that oscillate between major and minor keys, representing the heroic and the tragic in the story. Vaughan Williams conveys the bleak arctic world with spare orchestrations and wordless soprano and choral lines, and you can feel the loneliness of the expedition in the barren, unforgiving frozen north.
Rumon Gamba gives spirited readings of the music and the BBC Philharmonic plays with an obvious affinity for Vaughan Williams’s music. The discs come in separate paper sleeves (don’t worry, the box is very sturdy) accompanied by the original booklets and their excellent liner notes by Michael Kennedy (translated also into German and French). These discs are among the highlights of Chandos’s continuing series of film scores and Chandos is to be commended for pulling them together and re-releasing them in this budget set. Next, I’d like to see them repackage their excellent recordings of Shostakovich scores.
THE FILM MUSIC OF RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS contains 3-1/2 hours of great film music. Hell, it’s great music, period. Highly recommended!