Video: John Williams on recording with the LSO

Star Wars sessions

Star Wars sessions

Brass recording Asterix

Brass recording Asterix

LSO and Film Music

In March 1935 the musicians of the LSO gathered at London’s old Scala Theatre in Tottenham Street to perform the music for the new film Things to Come, and following 14 full orchestral sessions, started a veritable revolution in film production history.

Until that time, recorded film music had consisted essentially of work by small bands and groups performing theme songs and pieces of short background music. But with the commissioning of Sir Arthur Bliss to compose a score performed by a full symphony orchestra for Alexander Korda’s adaptation of H G Wells’s famous novel, the face of film music, not only in Britain but also around the world, was changed forever. For the first time, music for the cinema, previously regarded as a lowly art form, captured the attention of classical music scholars and enthusiasts, music critics and the film and music public. The LSO had begun its long historic journey as the premier film orchestra.

Muir Mathieson's influence
It was Korda’s brilliant Scottish musical director Muir Mathieson, the most important single figure in the early history of British film music, who enlisted Bliss to write a score for Things to Come, and who was subsequently responsible for bringing the most eminent British 20th-century composers to work for cinema. Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Richard Addinsell, William Alwyn and Arnold Bax composed for film as a direct result of Mathieson’s musical expertise and burning enthusiasm.

Mathieson had attended the Royal College of Music, studied under Arthur Benjamin, conducted under Malcolm Sargent, and was trusted by the music establishment. He adored the LSO and played a key part in establishing its fundamental contribution to film music. Describing the LSO as ‘the perfect film orchestra’, Mathieson’s significance was highlighted in 1946 when he directed Instruments of the Orchestra, a precious film record of the LSO at work.

Malcolm Sargent conducted the musicians in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which was specially written by Britten for the film. Made essentially as an educational tool for children, Mathieson’s documentary, with its close-ups of the musicians and their instruments, beautifully captures the vibrancy and texture of the Orchestra amidst the optimism of the post-Second World War era.

The golden era of documentaries
After the breakthrough with Things to Come, the LSO’s illustrious film music career continued with feature films and numerous documentaries for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry of Information – this was the golden era when British documentary film-making led the world.

Feature film landmarks included The Four Feathers (1939, music by Miklós Rózsa), 49th Parallel (1941, Ralph Vaughan Williams), Dangerous Moonlight (1941, Richard Addinsell), Henry V (1944, William Walton), The Rake’s Progress (1946, William Alwyn), The Overlanders (1947, John Ireland) and This Modern Age (1948, Malcolm Arnold, Clifton Parker). However, in the 1950s after Mathieson’s departure, the LSO film hegemony began to wane as other orchestras tried to obtain a slice of the lucrative film recording cake.

Competition and internal strife
Sir Thomas Beecham’s London Philharmonic Orchestra – which had previously performed occasional film scores – moved more to the fore, whilst Ernest Irving, musical director at Ealing Studios, was instrumental in bringing the Philharmonia (which had been formed by EMI’s Walter Legge in 1945 as a recording orchestra) into the film arena. In addition there were internal LSO problems, culminating in 1955 when a group of musicians argued that the Orchestra’s future lay solely in film recording. Thus ensued a mass resignation of the Orchestra’s principals in March of that year. Although the Orchestra subsequently recorded Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, for a period the LSO fell out of the recording picture.

A gradual renaissance began in the mid-1960s and 70s, with recordings for The Music Lovers (1970, Tchaikovsky, conducted by André Previn) and Tess (1979, Philippe Sarde). Later cornerstones included The Dresser (1983, James Horner), Shadowlands (1993, George Fenton), Notting Hill (1999, Trevor Jones), The Death of Klinghoffer (2001, John Adams), and notably Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002, John Williams).

Star Wars infamy
Most famously, it was the Orchestra’s performance of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars (1977) and all its sequels that attracted a new group of admirers and consolidated the period of film music activity for the Orchestra, which continues unabated to this day. Those triumphant notes played at the Scala Theatre in 1935 did indeed herald magnificent Things to Come.

This article is by the Head of Barbican Cinema, Robert Rider, and first appeared in the LSO's Centenery Concert Programme in 2004.

On screen highlights

The Monuments Men, 2014, Alexandre Desplat

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, 2014, Patrick Doyle

Philomena, 2013, Alexandre Desplat

Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, Alexandre Desplat

Rise of the Guardians, 2012, Alexandre Desplat

Brave, 2012, Patrick Doyle

The Lodger, 2012, Nitin Sawhney

The Ides of March, 2011, Alexandre Desplat

The King's Speech (source music), 2011, Beethoven & Mozart

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2, 2010 & 2011, Alexandre Desplat

Thor, 2011, Patrick Doyle

Tamara Drewe, 2010, Alexandre Desplat

Iron Cross, 2009, Roger Bellon

Twilight: New Moon, 2009, Alexandre Desplat

Coco Before Chanel, 2009, Alexandre Desplat

Copying Beethoven, 2007, Antoni Lazarkiewicz

Sleuth, 2007, Patrick Doyle

Eragon, 2006, Patrick Doyle

The Queen, 2006, Alexander Desplat

A Throw of Dice, 2006, Nitin Sawhney

Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, 2005, John Williams

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005, Patrick Doyle

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2003, Trevor Jones

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 2002, John Williams

The Death of Klinghoffer, 2001, John Adams

Notting Hill, 1999, Trevor Jones

Braveheart, 1995, James Horner

Immortal Beloved, 1994, Beethoven

Shadowlands, 1993, George Fenton

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988, Alan Silvestri

An American Tail, 1986, James Horner

Plenty, 1985, Bruce Smeaton

The Dresser, 1983, James Horner

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, John Williams

Tess, 1979, Philippe Sarde

Superman, 1978, John Williams

Star Wars, 1977, John Williams

The Music Lovers, 1970, Tchaikovsky

This Modern Age, 1948, Malcolm Arnold, Clifton Parker

The Overlanders, 1947, John Irelend

The Rake’s Progress, 1946, William Alwyn

Instruments of the Orchestra (feat. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), 1946, Benjamin Britten

Blithe Spirit, 1945, Richard Addinsell

Henry V, 1944, William Walton

The Flemish Farm, 1943, Ralph Vaughan Williams

49th Parallel, 1941, Ralph Vaughan Williams

Dangerous Moonlight, 1941, Richard Addinsell

The Four Feathers, 1939, Miklós Rózsa

Things to Come, 1935, Arthur Bliss

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