Writing for the movies

Recording a film score

Muir Mathieson and Gordon Jacob on a sound set at Denham Studios, probably during the recording of the score for Esther Waters in 1948. Doreen Carwithen is towards the back of the photo. Copyright holder unknown – if you have any information please contact music@lib.cam.ac.uk

Among the UL’s music collections are a number of manuscript film scores. These include items in the archives of : Arthur Bliss, Roberto Gerhard, William Alwyn, and Doreen Carwithen.

William Alwyn, in particular, was a prolific composer of movie scores. We have many of his feature film and most of his documentary film scores here. We also have part of Georges Auric’s score for Ealing Studios’ classic comedy, Hue and Cry, a snippet of Walton’s score for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and Eugene Goossen’s score for the film of George Mallory’s ill-fated ascent of Everest.

Prior to the popularity of television, cinema was the place to get up-to-date information. Audiences flocked there, not just to see the latest feature films, but also to see news and sporting action, and short documentary films on a wide variety of subjects.

All of these films needed a score. This could range from just title sequences to a movie that was scored throughout. Most employed a composer, although low-budget films often used a sound library; selecting, cutting, and splicing music as required.

Doreen Carwithen

Doreen Carwithen. Copyright holder unknown. If you have any information please contact music@lib.cam.ac.uk

Among Doreen Carwithen’s papers are a range of materials that illustrate the process of scoring a film during the 1940s-50s. To a large extent the composer’s involvement was down to the preference of the director: some saw film scores as a necessary evil, others – such as Carol Reed, who worked on several films with William Alwyn – thought it was an integral part of the film-making process. The composer would usually be sent a script, sometimes early on, sometimes almost at completion, to give a sense of what might be required. Doreen’s papers include a script for a documentary about gun dogs; this includes a note saying that the timings are not to be trusted – so clearly an aid to atmosphere rather than actual composition. An earlier version of this film (without Doreen’s music) can be viewed at British Pathe.

Once a rough-cut of the film had been assembled, it was usual for the composer to view the film, work out where music was required, and, very importantly, take detailed timings. These would be added to a cue sheet, which would either replace or be in addition to a script. This listed all the points at which music was needed with timings for each section. In some cases a music editor would draw up the cue sheet, and deliver it to the composer. Often, when this happened, the composer would work completely from the cue sheet and timings supplied, and would possibly never see either the rough-cut or the finished product. A copy of a completed cue sheet would later be deposited with the Performing Right Society (or ASCAP in the USA), providing a list of all music (both in and out of copyright) used in the production.

Script, cue-sheet, and sketches with matching cue for the documentary short “Bernard Miles on gun dogs”
Copyright Cambridge University Library

Here you can see an example of the original script used for the documentary short Gundogs , along with the working cue-sheet, and below, the equivalent spot in the sketches with matching cue.

Recording a William Alwyn movie score. Copyright holder unknown, if you have any information please contact us – music@lib.cam.ac.uk

The finishing touch was to record the score – this was usually done by screening the film behind the orchestra with the conductor facing the screen in order to synchronise the music with the on-screen action. Some of Doreen Carwithen’s films are available to view at British Pathe online including The way of a ship and her Coronation film Elizabeth is Queen. Other Doreen Carwithen films are also available on the Pathe website – an increasing number are now also on DVD. We have many of her films scores here, along with cue sheets for most of the motion pictures to which she contributed.

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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