It’s taken a while, but at last I’m back to my moan about the one or two things (not more!) that I very much wish William Walton hadn’t done in his film music.
If you have a good memory for quality blog postings, you’ll recall that back on 5 January I brought up the — to me — highly objectionable fact that, in his music for The First of the Few (1942), Walton had used a spatter of quotations from Wagner’s Ring to characterise the Nazi threat. (See the original posting here). Then, after cutting the guy a little slack, I announced on 6 January that I had another gripe coming up in connection with the music Walton wrote for the 1969 film Battle of Britain. (See that posting here). Well, if you want to know what that second gripe is, read on. (Spoiler: it’s not at all dissimilar to the first.)
To begin with, though, I want to take a moment and make sure we’re all ‘on the same page’ in terms of the musical ideas and shapes I’ll be talking about here. So here are a few carefully coded clips.
First, let me share something that would be worth seeing even if I wasn’t talking about this topic: a girl playing the ferociously difficult ‘Siegfried’s horn call’ fantastically well and in a wonderful acoustic:
Having allowed everyone to hear that little demonstration of Wagner’s unparalleled ability to exploit the musical capacities and characterising potential of wind instruments, let me introduce just a little of the original dramatic context. We’re about 10 hours into the Ring, and the young Siegfried, deep in the forest, has been pondering the sad fact that his mother died giving birth to him. He has tried to communicate with the Woodbird by blowing into a cut reed — and finally decides to play his silver horn, hoping that it might be heard by someone who can be a friend and companion. In fact, it rouses Fafner…
(For obvious reasons, I’ve coded that clip so it stops almost where the previous one did; but since that ‘classic’ Met production is in fact concealedly hostile — to the extent that it slyly misrepresents the drama and undermines the music in all sorts of ways — I’d be pretty reluctant to show more of it anyhow. Maybe we can talk about that some other time…)
Anyway, now to 1969 and the big-budget, star-packed, initially loss-making Battle of Britain (dir. Guy Hamilton). Have a look at this famous little scene:
As you’ll have noticed, that contained no music at all — and this is exactly the way it appears in the ‘official’ print of the film: Ron Goodwin either did not supply any music for this scene, or he wrote something that was not used.
Now things get interesting. As is now pretty well known, Walton himself was originally engaged to write the music for this film — but had his score rejected and replaced, with only one of its cues remaining in the finished movie. At least part of his music was recorded, however — and since the studio tapes have been rediscovered and released on CD, we can now hear what it was that he wrote. More to the point, thanks to the power of the interwebs we can put it back into the film and try it out. And I’m pretty sure I know which bit of the music was meant to go with this particular scene.
Have a stab at this. Below this paragraph you’ll see two of my special video panels. What you need to do is get the screen jiggled so you can see all of the top panel and enough of the bottom panel to enable you to click the button. Then, once you’ve got the top video playing, start the bottom one (which is the music only) when the timing of the top one gets to 30 seconds. (Depending on the combined reaction-time of all the machines linked together to do this, you may need to have several goes before it comes out right. Don’t be too quick off the mark, though: my feeling is that the dramatically right and proper point at which the music has to enter is after the pilot has looked over to his right — but before we see what he is looking at.)
Ready? Go for it!
Now, what you’ll have heard Walton doing there is using slices of Siegfried’s horn call (plus a ponderously heavy semitone motif in the tuba that also comes from the Ring) as the basis of this bit of music. It’s apparent from the other parts of this rejected score that the Wagner was meant to be associated with the young, pampered and confident Luftwaffe pilots — there’s even one cue to which he gave the name ‘The Young Siegfrieds’. (If you want to hear it, click here.) Which means, of course, that I have all the same objections to this bit of film-scoring that I brought to the segment we went through before.
There is another issue to be mentioned here, though. Since we know the Ring material musically represents the Germans, isn’t it absolutely baffling to find that in this scene he uses it as the basis for a sequence in which it is the Polish pilots, rather than the Luftwaffe, who are dominant visually, vocally, dramatically and militarily? What on earth was he thinking?
I suppose what I’m leading up to is a shy declaration that it wasn’t necessarily a bad or unjust decision to junk Walton’s score and order a replacement from Ron Goodwin: having heard and seen what may or may not be everything that the original score contained, it does seem to me that Walton’s heart wasn’t really in this project. (But please listen to what there is on tape and make up your own mind.)
Still, the one bit of his score that made it into the finished film is pretty good value. And it even rounds off our discussion rather nicely. For, as you’re sure to notice if you’re paying the kind of attention that three great composers and some very fine film-making surely deserve, this cue contains a seven note fragment of Siegfried’s horn call (played on two trumpets) not far from the end of the sequence. Only, with the remainder of the film’s score now being by Ron Goodwin, that fleeting reference to Wagner’s tune is now left dangling: there’s nothing left in the film that it can refer back to…
Yes, I did say three great composers. Walton, Wagner — and Walton’s old friend Malcolm Arnold, who very audibly joins in with the task of composition for one section of this (basically) ABAB structure. Nice try, guys — but you can see the join!
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