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 was changed forever – not only in Britain but also around the world. 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, studying composition and conducting under Arthur Benjamin and 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 dominance 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 fame
Most famously, it was the Orchestra’s performance of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars (1977) and its sequels that attracted a new group of admirers and strengthened 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 Centenary Concert Programme in 2004.
Selected film scores
The Imitation Game
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Zero Dark Thirty
The Ides of March
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Twilight: New Moon
Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The Death of Klinghoffer
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Music Lovers
This Modern Age
The Rake’s Progress
Instruments of the Orchestra
The Flemish Farm
The Four Feathers
Things to Come
A full list of film soundtrack sessions can be found in the complete discography, available to download.