It is well-recognised that the London Symphony Orchestra is a world-leader in recording music for film. In fact, the LSO recorded the first symphonic score specially composed for a film (Sir Arthur Bliss’ score for Things to Come in 1935). The Orchestra has since recorded music for hundreds of films, including Pixar’s Brave, four of the Harry Potter films, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars.
With this year’s Academy Awards just around the corner, we decided to turn back the clock and take a deep dive into the archives, finding stories and anecdotes from some of the greatest LSO recordings that were up for contention.
Henry V (1944)
Laurence Olivier’s landmark Shakespeare epic earned the first Academy Award nomination for an LSO-performed score back in 1944 – a score composed by William Walton (now best known for Façade, Belshazzar's Feast, and his Viola Concerto). Released with the full title The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (a title which simply trips off the tongue) the film was commissioned by the British government to boost morale at the tail end of World War II. Allegedly, Winston Churchill himself had final say over which scenes did and didn’t make the cut.
Walton ramped up the patriotism by borrowing from Shakespearean melodies, and supercharged the action with a bold and heroic score. Olivier showered the soundtrack with praise, acclaiming what he called Walton’s ‘marvellous creations’.
Star Wars (1977, 1980 & 1983)
John T Williams
In March 1977 the LSO laid down the music that would become its calling card for the next 40 years. John Williams’ score for Star Wars (retrospectively titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) was the first LSO-performed soundtrack to win an Oscar (and also received a Golden Globe and BAFTA), and famously marked the beginning of a long-running relationship between Williams and the LSO.
One musician in particular stands out and became a name and a sound that everyone remembers: the LSO's late Principal Trumpet Maurice Murphy, whose diamond-sharp notes open the whole score. For Maurice, the sessions held a particular memory – that of his first day at work. 'I started with the LSO on 5 March 1977. They had sent a work schedule for that month, and I could see a large block of time covered by something called Star Wars. I thought: what on earth is that? I soon found out.'
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
John T Williams
John Williams’ legendary Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark is now one of the most recognisable themes in cinema history, perfectly capturing the heroism and charisma of its lead, intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones. Unfortunately for Williams and the LSO, Oscar competition in 1981 came in the form of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire soundtrack, which bagged the gong on the night. But 30 years later, Vangelis’ theme from Chariots of Fire would become a major part of LSO history, when the Orchestra performed it live at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony (with a little help from Mr Bean).
Is James Cameron’s Aliens one of those rare sequels that actually surpasses its predecessor? We certainly think so – not least because of James Horner’s fascinatingly claustrophobic score. Horner’s jarring soundscapes build a sense of tension, and the crashing percussion in battle scenes heighten the drama as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley faces off against the Alien Queen.
The composition process was famously fraught though, as Horner was given just six weeks by the studio to score a film that hadn’t finished shooting yet. Horner described the experience as ‘a nightmare.’ Cameron later said, ‘It was my first orchestral score. I didn’t really know what to expect … I love the music, it just didn’t seem to support the scenes very well. So I just got with the music editor and we moved it around a little bit. I think James got his nose out of joint that we moved it around, but he was unavailable to be part of that process, so I think he felt kind of stung by it. I mean, he got an Academy Award nomination for it, because the music is brilliant. It’s unquestionably fantastic film music. So I think it was, on the one hand, kind of triumphant — on the other, we both were really unhappy with the process.’
Little Women (1994)
With lavish orchestration, heartfelt melodies and a touch of Christmas cheer, this soundtrack is poles apart from the spiky soundscapes of Aliens. It showcased another side to the LSO when Little Women – the third major Hollywood remake of the beloved novel – was released to critical acclaim in 1994. Director Gillian Armstrong said ‘I didn’t want a corny, over-the-top soundtrack. There was a lightness [to Newman’s work], and I could see that he could do humour as well as the emotional stuff without it being corny or sentimental. And that’s really tough.’
This was the first time Newman had worked with a full orchestra and he said of his Abbey Road sessions with the LSO – ‘I was apprehensive, I guess, because up to that point I really hadn’t done full orchestral scores.’ But Newman’s nerves were misplaced, as the soundtrack got the nod from the Academy with an Oscar nomination.
Twenty-five years later, and Newman has been nominated for Best Original Score once again, for Sam Mendes' 1917. Interestingly, Newman faces competition from the latest reimagining of Little Women – this time directed by Greta Gerwig and soundtracked by Alexandre Desplat (more about him later!).
Rich with Celtic folk instrumentation, James Horner returned to work with the LSO on an emotional and intensely dramatic score for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, loosely based on the life of Scottish warrior William Wallace.
Over the course of his career, Horner collaborated with the LSO on over 15 soundtracks including Krull, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Legends of the Fall. LSO Principal Percussion Neil Percy recalled his work on sessions with James Horner when the composer died in 2015. 'I feel so fortunate to have played on all of James' scores with the LSO and he was always such a warm, generous and gracious musician to work with. The experience recording Braveheart in particular is an event I shall never forget, with James's customary use of indigenous instruments and vocals paired with a large symphonic palette. His influence is clear for all to hear on a generation of younger film composers.’
The Queen (2006)
Alternately stately, stirring and sprightly, Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Queen adds colour to a tale of grief, duty and family, as Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II in the days that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The original composer selected for The Queen was replaced by director Stephen Frears at the last minute, as Frears felt the score was not suitable for the film. Desplat was duly drafted in and finished his score in just three weeks.
Desplat said of the LSO, with whom he first worked on The Luzhin Defence in 2000 – ‘I was fascinated when I was a young composer – looking up to John Williams and hearing the beautiful sound of his recordings I thought, “Wow, the LSO – what an orchestra!”’ This collaboration with the Orchestra would earn Desplat his first Academy Awards nomination (at time of writing, he has been nominated ten more times).
The Shape of Water (2017)
Another triumph at the Oscars in 2017, as Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Shape of Water won the Academy Award. Nominated for a staggering thirteen awards, Guillermo Del Toro’s beautiful film is a love story between a woman and amphibian creature (which is every bit as bizarre as it sounds).
In this fantasy sequence – a tribute to old Hollywood-style dance numbers – we hear a recording of the 1943 song You’ll Never Know, performed by Renée Fleming and the LSO.