VW goes to war (and the movies)

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Vaughan Williams had already been added to the Nazi’s hit list in the event of their successfully invading the UK. An ambulance driver in the First World War, Vaughan Williams was strongly opposed to the policies of the Nazis, and worked tirelessly to help refugees from the areas they governed get to the UK. During the war itself he was one of the organisers of the famous National Gallery concerts, which have been mentioned on MusiCB3 previously.

By 1939, Vaughan Williams had composed in virtually every genre. The only areas that remained untouched were the relatively new mediums of radio and film. The latter was particularly surprising as Vaughan Williams was a motion picture fan. A call from the Ministry of Information to work on a propaganda film produced by the wonderful cinematic team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, would produce Vaughan Williams’ first, and one of his best film scores, 49th Parallel.

Opening titles of wartime classic 49th Parallel

It may be a propaganda film but 49th Parallel is a very classy picture. It tells the story of a U-Boat crew, who having sunk an allied merchant ship hide out in Hudson Bay. While there they are spotted by the Canadian Air Force, and their U-Boat, helpless on the surface, is sunk.

The surviving crew start walking across Canada heading for the eponymous 49th Parallel, the border with the still neutral United States. Some of the Nazi crew have a change of heart as they head south. There is a particularly touching scene within a Hutterite community forced to flee Central Europe in an earlier era thanks to persecution. None of the crew ultimately make it across the border. Emeric Pressburger was apparently heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And then there were none in the storyline of the film (though the disappearances are generally less sinister), and went on to win an Oscar for Best Story.

I would imagine that Pressburger and Vaughan Williams would have worked well together. Vaughan Williams is the epitome of “Englishness,” Pressburger had a very different life but became more English than the English. Born in Hungary, he worked at the acclaimed UFA studios in Berlin, before losing his job under the Nazis’ anti-Jewish laws. He moved to France and then onwards to Britain, where he swiftly became fluent in English and, like Hans Keller, who would follow a little later, felt at home. Through his films with Michael Powell he touched a very English sensibility.

49th Parallel was embraced with some glee by Pressburger, who commented “Goebbels thought he was an expert on propaganda, but I thought I’d show him a thing or two”.

Pressburger had a musical background, and, as well as the storyline and screenplay for the Archers’ films, Pressburger was largely responsible for choosing the music that would play such an important part in virtually all their movies. So he was very likely the person who suggested Vaughan Williams for the scoring of this picture, probably in close association with Muir Mathieson, who was already working for the Ministry of Information.

It’s interesting to note that in the opening credits the music credit is placed with the major players before the title suggesting that the music is an actor within the movie. Of course in a sense it is, but it remains unusual for music to be credited in this way.

Powell’s original intention with 49th Parallel which began filming around the time of the Battle of Britain and the start of the Blitz, was to encourage America to think again about its neutral stance. Ironically however the film wasn’t released in the States until early 1942 by which time America had just entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Vaughan Williams had found the experience of writing the score tricky, although said that writing with a stopwatch to hand was rather fun. Nonetheless he was pleased with the opening titles, and asked a friend to write words to fit the tune. This was published the following year as The New Commonwealth [M280.b.90.53], and there have also been arrangements for various instruments since.

As was common for the period the feature length film scores were interspersed with documentary shorts. Vaughan Williams wrote the score for The people’s land in 1943, and The stricken peninsula was released in 1945.

The people’s land was part funded by the British Council and the National Trust, and looked at the work of the National Trust across the country – a loving tribute to the beauty of the English countryside in a time of war. Vaughan Williams effortlessly blended his own music with arrangements of folk song, which had been a huge influence on his life and work. Unusually for a film score, Vaughan Williams wrote a continuous score which was then cut to fit the film, rather than the score being constructed around the film as was more usual. The score was largely based on a quartet of classic folk songs – John Barleycorn, The springtime of the year, Chairs to mend, and Love will find out a way.

Stricken peninsula is a very different film, dealing with the reconstruction of Southern Italy as it recovers at the end of the war. Again, Vaughan Williams wrote a continuous score, which was then cut as needed setting a pastoral theme celebrating the bounty and beauty of Italy against a raw, fractured music, which is especially striking in the scenes of ruined infrastructure and communities. You can watch the whole film on the Imperial War Museum’s website. It is undeservedly neglected.

Two feature length films completed the clutch of film scores that Vaughan Williams composed through the Second World War. In 1942 there was another film for the Ministry of Information, Coastal Command.

The suite from Coastal Command

A mixture of drama and documentary, the suite that can be heard here was arranged by Muir Mathieson. Mathieson, who started work in the British film industry in the early ’30s, was seconded to the Ministry of Information during the war. As part of his role there he commissioned film scores from such eminent names as Ralph Vaughan Williams (Coastal Command) and William Walton (First of the Few). In fact Mathieson would work with Vaughan Williams on all his wartime films.

Vaughan Williams’ final film of the war years is now little known, but it was one of his favourite scores “some of the best film music I have ever written”. In fact he was so pleased with the score for The story of a Flemish Farm, that he arranged it as a suite, which received its premiere at the Proms in 1945 (the first Proms series following the death of Henry Wood). Both Coastal Command and Flemish Farm proved to be useful inspirations as Vaughan Williams began work on Symphony no. 6 in 1944, which featured themes either closely related to those used within those films, or was inspired by them.

The Story of a Flemish Farm

I find it fascinating that from the start of his association with film music, Vaughan Williams was already developing his movie work in order to produce other concert music. This would come to fruition with the score for Scott of the Antarctic in 1948, and the subsequent Sinfonia Antartica (1952).

Until very recently it was unusual for film scores to be fully available to the public interested in looking at the musical score. Suites of film music are much more common, but even those which are commercially available as audio files are usually compiled after much diligent work spent by an often much later arranger watching the film, jotting down the music by ear and editing as well as adding appropriate bridging passages where needed (Christopher Palmer and Philip Lane are key names in this, particularly in the field of classic British film music). Very occasionally (as was the case with some of the films mentioned here) the composer or music director would arrange a suite from the film score at an early stage. What was available though for many film scores of the 1940s onwards were commercial recordings of film cues. These could often be very disjointed lacking the aforementioned bridging passages that would turn the recording into the smooth score that our brain misremembers from the film viewing. Perhaps it was because of Vaughan Williams’ unusual working style of writing a continuous score from the beginning that the Scott of the Antarctic cues, heard here in an early recording, sound more “suite like” than usual. The earlier score’s inspiration on Sinfonia Antartica is also very obvious.

Cues from Scott of the Antarctic



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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to VW goes to war (and the movies)

  1. Pingback: Just chatting about VW | MusiCB3 Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.