For education, entertainment, and inspiration : the world of documentary film

Alwyn's score for the atomic bomb section of the documentary short Approach to Science

William Alwyn’s score for the atomic bomb section of the documentary short Approach to Science
Copyright William Alwyn Foundation / Cambridge University Library

The summer of 2015 marks 70 years since the first atom bomb test took place at the Trinity site in the deserts of New Mexico, followed within a few weeks by the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thinking about this I was having a look for music related to the atomic age in collections at the UL, and came across a manuscript score for a film called Approach to Science. Composed by William Alwyn for the documentary short, the film looks at scientific advances in the mid-twentieth century, and ends with a vision that would haunt the rest of the century – a mushroom cloud flashing across the sky stopping a child at play.

Now, I’d love to be able to put up a video of this film for you to watch, and admire the music; but sadly that’s impossible, the film appears to be lost. Even the British Film Institute has just a little information compiled from a monthly film bulletin. So how can we know what the film was about? Well, we have the score…

Each short sequence within the score has cue information, which both shows at which points in the film the music will change, and what happens in each section. The cues for Approach to science  (MS/Alwyn/1/1/15) are: Main titles & opening sequence — Gadget sequence — Hand turning generator — Glass of water — Clean water tap — The world recoils — Microscope & graveyard — Bombed factory etc. to wireless set in dreary room — Final section, atom bomb to end titles. These would suggest that the 1947 film consisted of a number of short sequences looking at the different paths that science had taken over the course of the early twentieth century from medical advances to warfare.

Before television the cinema was the principal venue for viewing documentary film, some were full length features such as the notable early documentary Nanouk of the North. Most were short (10-20 minutes). They covered everything from essential public safety information (how to put on a gas mask, what to do in the event of an outbreak of smallpox) to a view of other lives (weavers in the Western Isles, the delivery of a letter). As well as being informative they could also be entertaining marketing British holidays or giving a wider view of the world. Most were low budget, some, like the official cinematic film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II were bigger budget, but put together at high-speed. Doreen Carwithen worked on Elizabeth is Queen deftly composing bridging passages to link points in the film.

Doreen Carwithen's opening fanfare for Elizabeth is Queen, the official cinematic film to mark the Coronation.Copyright The William Alwyn Foundation / Cambridge University Library

Doreen Carwithen’s opening fanfare for Elizabeth is Queen, the official cinematic film to mark the Coronation.
Copyright The William Alwyn Foundation / Cambridge University Library

There were even documentary serials. Alwyn worked on a long sequence of zoo related films (MS/Alwyn/1/1/7-14) celebrating the animals of London Zoo and its outpost at Whipsnade – just recently opened in 1931, the world’s first open zoological park.

Often working on fairly tight budgets documentary film makers could commission composers to write scores for their films, or could draw on stock music that had already been used as a film score. Sometimes this can lead to surprises. I happened to come across the wartime documentary Tyneside Story, and discovered that the 1943 documentary short had borrowed William Walton’s score for The First of the Few for use in its opening titles. The full film, along with Alwyn’s Steel goes to sea is available at the UL (AV.26.034(21))

Occasionally there are some real oddities. William Alwyn was commissioned to write the score for Green Mountain, Black Mountaina poetical guide to Wales scripted by Dylan Thomas, part-educational, part-wartime propaganda. Perhaps not surprisingly the finished film with Thomas’ poetic script is more weighted towards words than music.

Interestingly there are two versions of this film – the Dylan Thomas version (1942)

and another version “Wales [during World War II]” which appears to have been re-edited, and released slightly later.

Although the latter film is clearly a close relation of the earlier one, it is markedly different, not least aurally as the Thomas script has been cut, and Alwyn’s original score reinstated.

The world of pre-TV documentary film is often forgotten, but they provide an enchanting, occasionally disturbing, and somewhat puzzling glimpse of an earlier era. We’re lucky at the UL to have such a wealth of documentary film scores that enable us to see into a world of film, even when the films themselves have long been lost.



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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