Alan Rawsthorne by John Huntley
British Film Composers No 9
From Music Parade Volume 2 No2 circa 1950
[N.B. the Rawsthorne Quotations are highlighted in dark red.]
What point, if any, has emerged from this series on British film composers? It is perhaps that first and foremost film music in this country is not a thing apart. It has grown into the normal pattern of contemporary British music. Film composers are not hot-house plants, nurtured in the exotic atmosphere of the studios. They come from the concert halls and music colleges into the film world as and when they are needed. During the past fifteen years, writing film music has become part of the normal routine for our major composers. In the studios various musical stunts have been tried out; but in the end they usually come back to good, straight-forward scores. Experimental, but not eccentric, has been the motto. The composers have felt that they were among men of their own kind, who could appreciate their sincerity and craftsmanship. Even a composer famous in the concert, opera or ballet world can feel among friends in our recording studios.
Take the case of Alan Rawsthorne, for example. He comes from the North of England and did his early training at the Royal College of Music in Manchester. He has written some interesting concert music, including Symphonic Studies, the Overtures 'Street Corner' and 'Corteges', and a Piano Concerto. During this period he has also written a great deal of film music, often transferring rapidly from one medium to the other. It would seem that the transition might be tricky, but apparently not.
"Although the problems involved in writing film music are rather different, I would not say that concert music and film music are so far apart," Rawsthorne will tell you. "In film music of course, the pattern of the musical structure is more or less pre-ordained. You can't for instance, delay the entrance of the hero for a couple of minutes because you don't want to bring in your trombones just yet. Concert music takes its shape from the development of the material. But I find that the limitations imposed on one when writing film music can be stimulating, and even good for ones technique.
As a matter of fact, I was in the middle of composing my Piano Concerto when along came my first film. I was a little worried about interrupting work on the concerto, as I had only got as far as the slow movement; but as it happened it was all for the best. When I had finished the film, I came back to the concerto, tore up the slow movement, and wrote what I think was a much better one. Why a film about a new traffic plan for the City of London enabled me to do this, I can't imagine; perhaps 'slow movement' had something to do with it!"
Rawsthorne was called up during the war and spent a number of years in the Army. "I was in the process of writing my violin concerto at the time of my call-up," says Rawsthorne. "While I was in uniform I did some music for training films, and at the same time managed to make sketches for two overtures - 'Street Corner' and 'Corteges'. Then came the film 'Burma Victory', a full length documentary. Just after the war I wrote the music for 'School for Secrets', a story of the back-room boys who developed radar. So the story continues. I was beginning the Oboe Concerto when Ernest Irving of Ealing Studios asked me to compose for 'The Captive Heart'. An interesting section for me was the opening scene, in which we see the weary march of a large group of Dunkirk men, trudging across France and Holland into captivity in Germany. The action consisted of a series of flashbacks from the marching men to their previous individual lives, introducing the principal characters. The music, therefore, has to contain several ideas, corresponding to the action on the screen; this is an example, incidentally, of how the actual drama can suggest a very interesting kind of musical form."
Rawsthorne's next film was 'Saraband for Dead Lovers' with Stewart Granger and Joan Greenwood. The question of musical period always arises on films of this type; this is how one composer tackled the problem. "I hinted without imitating. Phoney Handel would have been wrong, I'm sure, so I wrote in my own style, but kept the music of the day in mind. I used the old saraband rhythm and the kind of florid counterpoints usually associated with the period (the beginning of the Hanoverian era) but the general approach made use of the full orchestra and present-day orchestral colour."
The future for Alan Rawsthorne includes a Symphony, which has been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society for performance about this time next year, and a number of other concert commitments. But it is quite possible that he will be back in the film studio before then, maintaining a tradition of adaptability that is a hall mark of film music in this country.