I’d barely clicked the button to publish yesterday’s posting — on the continued subject of Walton’s musical characterisation of the Nazi menace in The First of the Few (1942) — when an interesting comment arrived from my pal Bob. What he wrote included the following thought:
I suspect Walton got that idea of using bits of well-known German music […] from Vaughan Williams. The older composer had, two years earlier, in his first film score, 49th Parallel, made use of a very familiar piece of German music within a few minutes of the opening credits as we glimpse for the first time the German U-Boat in Canadian waters.
Now, as it happens, I was planning to include precisely this example once I’d finished with Walton; but since it’s cropped up now I’ll discuss it here and come back to Walton tomorrow. For what Vaughan Williams has done in this film seems to me to be rather remarkable — and something which, as far as I can see, allows his score to avoid all the problems to which Walton’s falls prey at the corresponding point.
Let me begin by quoting the piece with which the film actually begins — the ‘rather noble Prelude’, as Bob calls it. (The music was later re-used for a patriotic hymn called ‘The New Commonwealth’, about which I have nothing to say: if you want to come back later and hear it, you’ll find it here.) A decade ago, reviewing a (pretty poor) book that discussed this score, I described the Prelude’s extended melody as ‘inspired and inspiring’; Bob calls it ‘wonderful’ — and, listening to it again now, I don’t disagree with either of us:
Now for the appearance of the Nazis. A minute or so further in, we have moved across Canada from West to East, and arrived at the Gulf of St Lawrence. At the start of this next clip, note the use of a triplet motif derived from the Prelude — characterising the swelling seascape as ‘peaceable’ and ‘Canadian’ in preparation for what immediately follows…
The three other things I want to draw attention to here are these. First, note how Vaughan Williams’s music can conjure up a sense of boiling energy and potent menace that the camera-work and cutting simply fail to rise to. Secondly, see how responsibly he then re-introduces a reference to his ‘submarine’ music just to keep clear, emotionally as well as intellectually, the fact that all that military-intelligence bustle is indeed a response to the presence of the submarine.
And, thirdly, note the actual German music that he uses. If you don’t know your Bach, and aren’t a church-going Protestant, you may not have recognised it — in which case, allow me to present Martin Luther’s hymn-tune Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (‘A mighty fortress is our God’), from c.1528. What I’m going to link to is what is (essentially) J. S. Bach’s harmonisation (possibly 1723, or between 1728 and 1731) in the 1930s arrangement for modern orchestra by Stokowski (again!) — i.e. a version that would have had a measure of currency at the time of the film’s release:
(If anyone wants to come back later and explore Bach’s BWV 80 Cantata, here it is.)
I don’t want to over-simplify VW’s undoubtedly complicated feelings — especially his wartime feelings! — about German music in general and this hymn in particular (for example, we know from a letter of 8 September 1944 that he was distinctly miffed when he heard the tune sung at a church service ‘on the day of our invasion of Normandy’); but I do think his choice and treatment are masterly.
For one thing, by choosing what is probably Luther’s best known hymn, he uses something he can count on to have maximum recognisability and resonance with his audience. For another, the fact that the tune has a degree of political, nationalistic significance as well as religious and artistic meaning ensures that he is able to use it to ‘stand for’ German culture as a whole. And then — most impressively! — the way he uses, not ‘the tune as written’, but a massively and savagely distorted version of it permits him to characterise the regressive Nazi threat, instantiated in the form of the submarine and its crew, as a twisted perversion of that German culture.
On top of which, I think it’s worth noting that the submarine itself can quite easily be seen as something of a ‘mighty fortress’ — the first thing we see, after all, is a (conning) tower! — with its crew being the essentially religious believers in a sacred militarism with a sacred figurehead complete with sacred book. And, perhaps most usefully of all in terms of the plot’s actual dramatic development, the palpable presence of a tune with centuries-old Christian associations has the effect of subtly pointing the way back to the mainstream of European civilisation — suggesting a route out of barbarism which one of the U-boat crew eventually follows.
All in all, it’s a inspired choice that gets an inspired treatment. And in the context of the film itself, it not only does the job, but — unlike Walton’s appropriation of Wagner’s operatic motifs! — manages to do that job without harming a single piece of great art: the Luther, the Bach, the Stokowski all remain intact and unsullied, for it is not they themselves that are directly employed. In short, VW has given a lesson to WW — and Walton did not heed it. What’s more, Leslie Howard co-starred in the earlier film, and produced, directed and starred in the later — and he didn’t heed the lesson either.
Vaughan Williams, you know, was a composer who knew what he was about. Don’t let that shabby, shambling frame and the modest and unpretentious manner lead you to under-estimate him!
Tomorrow: back to Walton. Unless there’s another point someone would like to raise…?
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