Saturday, December 31, 2011


One of the pleasures of British films from the 1930s-the late 50s/early 60s was in hearing the exciting film scores composed for them by many a distinguished composer, many if not hundreds of which were conducted by the equally distinguished Muir Mathieson. 2011 is the centenary of Mathieson’s birth and so, before the year comes to an end, we would like to pay a brief tribute to this gifted conductor and composer whose eloquent musicianship graced many a good movie.

Biographical information is surprisingly scant on the internet, though we will quote from one tribute found on the charming Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood website, one dedicated to the excellent 1952 Disney live-action film. There is, however and at long last, a biography published about him which appeared in 2006 which any good library should have.

One thing about him is extraordinary: as musical director for cinematic impresarios like Alexander Korda and J Arthur Rank Mathieson would convince eminent men like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arthur Bliss to write for the films. Bliss would write, among others, a thrilling score to Korda’s THINGS TO COME. Vaughan Williams resisted the idea of writing film scores until Mathieson convinced him. Thus we have Mathieson to thank for THE 49th PARALLEL, SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC, COASTAL COMMAND and THE LOVES OF JOANNA GODDEN. We have him to thank for many other artistic triumphs in English film music, too.

From the Story of Robin Hood website:

Muir Mathieson

“Mathieson’s credits as Music Director reads like a history of the British films from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.”

James Muir Mathieson, the son of the painter and etcher John George Mathieson, was born in Sterling Scotland on the 24th January 1911. His early years were spent studying the piano at Sterling High School, where at the tender age of 13 he became conductor of the Stirling Boys Orchestra. He won a scholarship and studied composition and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music under Arthur Benjamin and Malcolm Sargent. His career soon took off, when Alexander Korda signed him as Musical Director for London Films at Denham Studios, Buchinghamshire, in 1931. He later became Head of the Music Department at Denham.

Although Mathieson had worked as assistant musical director on Korda’s very successful The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) his first credited film score was The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) which was composed by the Russian Mischa Spoliansky and Catherine the Great (1934). A year later he was responsible for introducing one of his teachers from the RCM, Arthur Benjamin and they collaborated on the excellent score for Korda’s The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937).

His first cinematic triumph came when he persuaded Arthur Bliss to compose music for Korda’s celebrated production of the H.G. Wells film Things To Come (1936), which was later successfully released on a 78 rpm gramophone recording.

"The music is a part of the constructive scheme of the film."

In 1935 he deputised for Sir Malcolm Sargent and conducted performances of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall. It was there, amongst the massive cast, that he met his future wife, the ballerina Hermione Darnborough. They later lived in a beautiful old farm house, just a few miles away from Denham Studios and had four children.

He continued to direct the music scores for an incredible amount of major releases and was recording part of the soundtrack of The Four Feathers, when in March 1939 there was a royal visit by Queen Mary to the Denham Studios. It was there that she watched him conducting three choirs; while scenes from the film were projected over head. In five years Mathieson had put British film music firmly on the map, although he was said to have regarded American studio composers and musicians as technically more advanced.

His wartime service was spent busily working for Arthur Rank at Denham, the Film Centre, Crown Film Unit, the BBC and the Army, Navy and Air Force Film Units.

Although Mathieson was described as a ‘Music Director’ he also conducted many radio and theatre scores during this period, including the stage version of Tolstoy’ s War and Peace, the music for Alan Burgesses The Passing of Crab Village and the very first music film recital at the Stoll Theatre in 1943. In 1944 he conducted a full season at the Sadlers Wells Opera. But he mainly remembered as the most prolific conductor in British films. One of his single most important works was his music for the film Dangerous Moonlight (1941) which included Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto which was played on the film soundtrack by pianist Louis Ketner with Mathieson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. His work with the London Symphony Orchestra went on to include William Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and ‘Oliver Themes’ by Arnold Bax for David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). Mathieson also found time to direct Benjamin Britten’s film, Instruments of the Orchestra in 1946.

In the early 1950’s Mathieson worked for Walt Disney on his British made live-action movies-often as Music Director and Conductor of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He collaborated on many occasions with the composer Clifton Parker (whom he had discovered) and together they musically scored such classics as Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood (1952) and Sword And The Rose (1953). Mathieson also worked on Walt Disney’s Rob Roy (1953), Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and also uncredited on Kidnapped (1960). He went on to compose music for movies such as Circus of Horrors (1960), Hide And Seek (1963) and Crooks Anonymous (1962).

As Musical Director, Mathieson was nominated for an Academy Award along with Larry Adler for the Genevieve (1953) score and in 1957 he was awarded an OBE.

In 1969 Muir Mathieson became conductor of the Oxford County Youth Orchestra originally founded by his brother John a year earlier. He held this position until his death in Oxford on 2nd August 1975.

Described as the ‘doyen of British film music,’ Mathieson’s importance cannot be over-stated. He was the music director for over 600 films and about 400 shorts. He was responsible for introducing some of the most famous British composers such as Arthur Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold, to the composition of orchestral scores for films.

"All that remains is for it to be unreservedly recognized that music, having a form of its own, has ways of doing its appointed task in films with distinction, judged purely as music, and with subtlety, judged as a part of a whole film. It must be accepted not as a decoration or a filler of gaps in the plaster, but as a part of the architecture."

(With thanks to WALT DISNEY'S STORY OF ROBIN HOOD website)

Let us, then, salute this great artist and commemorate a productive and creative life. And here is a sampling of his musical sensitivity, wherein he conducts Bernard Herrmann's music for Alfred Hitchcock's masterful VERTIGO....

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Christmas...from Hilaire Belloc

In this dreary world, stunk up by smugness, tyranny and stupidity, there is always a breath of fresh air to be had in reading Belloc. This blog will delve into the works of this great and good mind from time to time but for the moment it seems good to offer a Christmas wish from Belloc himself, in a style only he could summon up:

Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
A Catholic tale have I to tell!
And a Christian song have I to sing
While all the bells in Arundel ring.

I pray good beef and I pray good beer
This holy night of all the year,
But I pray detestable drink for them
That give no honour to Bethlehem.

May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me
And may all my enemies go to hell!
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
May all my enemies go to hell!
Noël! Noël!

God rest, merry gentleman.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

BERNARD HERRMANN: Some Centenary Thoughts

I was thinking about ringing the doorbell at 11 Cumberland Terrace, London, with some fear and trembling on that long ago day in May of 1971. Approaching the front step I could hear a loud piece of choral music blaring from a fine audio system and knew that I was in the right place, the domicile of composer Bernard Herrmann. But it would require courage to press that button. After all, I was still only a teenager, yet even then the stories about this man’s irascibility were well-known to me.

When the doorbell was finally pressed the sound of a dog frantically barking and many scuffling paws and feet were heard. The music went suddenly silent. The door opened very slowly it seemed to me and the first thing I saw was that prominent nose, the horn-rimmed glasses, the scraggly hair and an extreme scowl on the face.

“Whaddya want?” in thick, threatening Brooklynese was said, loud and clear. And that was the first encounter I had with Bernard Herrmann.

I could only stand there stammering a few clumsy pleasantries and words of adulation which must have annoyed him to no end. What an ass I was, thinking I could just appear at the door of this famous man and expect him to greet me with gracious charm and benevolence. Why are we so stupid as young people? Yet, amazingly, he gazed at my trembling figure and must have taken some pity over this because he promised me a meeting a few days later before I had to leave London. (How someone at my age then got to London, alone, and how I managed to get his address are stories for another day.)

On that trip I intended to meet as many of the film people I admired as possible who were known to live in London. I managed to meet and, if I may be so bold to say, befriend a couple of others who treated this young dreamer with extreme courtesy and friendliness. I cannot claim to have befriended Mr Herrmann, alas, but after all was said and done I believe he thought I was at least a sincere admirer.

Bernard Herrmann was and is one of those forces we know have to be reckoned with. In this, the centenary year of his birth, there are some thoughts that it might be worthwhile to explore.

Born in 1911 in New York of Russian and Ukrainian ancestry (something to note when listening to his music) he had a proper musical education which included a stint at Julliard. It isn’t necessary in this essay to go over every detail of his biographical details for they are readily available elsewhere, and for those who wish to dig a little deeper there is a good if superficial biography of him in book form. What is interesting to this writer is not only the power of music but the power of his music. It was capable of changing lives. Can many contemporary composers claim as much? That Herrmann was an authentic original there is not the slightest doubt, even if we acknowledge the influence of the French impressionists on him. Miklos Rozsa called him an “outstanding musician.” Alfred Newman, a sensitive, gifted artist, all, I believe, a bit bowled over by his musical ideas. In my own particular case it was to composers like Herrmann, Rozsa and Newman that I owe my interest in and love for and appreciation of classical music; their music for films certainly could bowl this writer over.

It was, of course, a film that first introduced this writer to the music of Bernard Herrmann. It was that ever-fresh, exhilarating and utterly charming fantasy of 1958, THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, still one of the finest cinematic essays into the fantasy genre. Herrmann’s score for that picture was nothing short of traumatic. It was also undeniably brilliant, and it captured the imagination of the viewer with the first three powerful notes and kept them hoohad enormous respect for him. Stokowski admired him, as did Babriolli and others. They were ked through the wonderfully original title designs of artist Bob Gill, the solid fairy-tale adventure well acted by Torin Thatcher, Kerwin Matthews and others (and well directed by Nathan Juran) and the beautiful special visual effects created by Ray Harryhausen. Herrmann’s score was then, and still is now, unsurpassed as an accompaniment to this type of movie. That music did it for me, even as a child. I was an admirer of Herrmann forever with that one picture.

The late Elmer Bernstein, the composer’s friend and colleague, probably unlocked the secret of the power of Herrmann’s music when he stated that unlike other composers who wrote “illustrative” music for their films Herrmann wrote for the viewer’s emotions. That is very likely true. Think of his PSYCHO film score and the point is made. But another film score in that year, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, also has this same intense emotional power though less obvious than PSYCHO. Herrmann literally sweeps us into the Swift story and plays on both our joys and our fears as Gulliver encounters his three very different worlds. So Bernstein is correct in saying that the power of Herrmann is in his grabbing at the emotions of the listener/viewer, and I might boldly add that the same emotional appeal can be found in the composer’s concert works…certainly in his grand opera Wuthering Heights, his Symphony No 1 and in many of his shorter works, e.g. For the Fallen.

But if the chief interest in Herrmann is ever to be his notable film scores then it is that aspect of his career which must be dealt with, and dealt with fairly. Herrmann has recently become fashionable so it is important to survey that aspect of his life’s work carefully without succumbing to the sentimentality found in some of the composer’s "newbie" fans. Let me begin by making two sweeping statements. First, Herrmann was probably the greatest composer of film music since the dawn of cinema, and if not the greatest most certainly in the very top tier. Secondly, his later film music career from 1964 onwards, with several exceptions, showed evidence of a decline, not in his musicianship but in his judgment. I have no doubt that there will be some significant disagreement with both statements. I shall try to explain.

To illustrate the first point I offer this incomplete list of some of his earlier film scores, in no particular order of brilliance, that explain why Bernard Herrmann must be regarded as one of cinema’s most important artists: THE EGYPTIAN (co-written with Alfred Newman), ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (his only Oscar-winner), FAHRENHEIT 451 (his last major work for the screen, composed in 1966), ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, CITIZEN KANE, JANE EYRE, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, HANGOVER SQUARE, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO,THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, PSYCHO, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE SNOWS OF KILIMONJARO and THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER. There are more that could be named but those will suffice. Interestingly, his radio and television work is equally distinguished and so must be classified with his cinematic work. Indeed his TV work was often as powerful as his film scoring. A recent CD release of all seventeen of his scores for the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR television series is a real eye-opener and I would highly recommend that everyone who has an interest in the creative use of music should order these discs.

Now I will argue that certain individual scores by other composers are as good as or better than most of those listed above. Alfred Newman’s THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD score, even after being stupidly truncated by director George Stevens, is one of the major musical works of the 20th century on or off the screen and certainly on a par with anything written by Herrmann or anyone else (Another sweeping statement? Yes, but a true one nonetheless). Walton’s RICHARD III, Rozsa’s BEN HUR, Alwyn’s ODD MAN OUT, Auric’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Prokoviev’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY are other examples that come quickly to mind. Any of those above-mentioned scores will give goose bumps to many listeners, along with a great sense of admiration for the skill and craft that went into composing them.

Herrmann the man was, as we know, a man with a very short fuse yet many who knew him testified to a tender streak that always lurked beneath that troubled surface. I can well imagine that to be true, especially when listening to his often poignant melodies. But there were faults in him and one fault in particular I believe, led to the artistic decline evident in his final scores: he was apparently overly fond of money. So overly fond of it that it cost him one of the most fruitful collaborations of his career, his association with cinema’s doyen of special visual effects, Ray Harryhausen and his rather tight-fisted producer Charles Schneer. This worry about accumulating money – not helped, to be fair, by Hollywood’s neglect of their old masters in favor of younger and less-expensive composers – would cause him, tragically, to waste his enormous talents on such distasteful farragoes as TAXI DRIVER, SISTERS, IT’S ALIVE, OBSESSION, ENDLESS NIGHT, etc. “These new young guys, they want me!” he exulted in the early 70s when approached to score these pictures. Yes, they wanted him, to put a veneer of quality over their infantile works. It can no longer be denied that these latter film scores mark a sad coda to a great career. One fellow composer once pleaded with him, “Benny, why do you do such crap?” Herrmann looked at him stunned for a moment before tears started to well up in his eyes. Yet he would go on doing such crap. Before he died in December of 1975 he had, amazingly, accepted the job to score a cheap piece of hack-work called GOD TOLD ME TO, a gore-fest of no merit whatsoever and which would certainly not have done his reputation the slightest bit of good. But it paid well. It would break this writer’s heart to see a man whose work included masterpieces like VERTIGO lend his name to such rubbish, and even though there was merit to some of the music he wrote even for schlock like this it hurt to see him accept the cash and the flattery of the non-talents who employed him in his later years. (A famous anecdote on this debacle has it that after Herrmann died the director of this piece of dreck asked Miklos Rozsa to score it in his place. Rozsa passed on it, and when someone asked him why he turned it down his reply was classic: “God told me not to.”)

It must not be forgotten that while Herrmann was working on these pictures he was putting aside his work on his Second Symphony, an organ symphony. The very thought of such a loss to music made many a heart sink? We could have had a Herrmann Organ Symphony; instead we got ITS ALIVE 2. Many Herrmann admirers have tried to justify his willingness to lend his name to such low movie projects by offering examples of major classical composers who often put their fine music to inferior operas or operettas and that the world of music should be grateful that they did. Maybe. But I believe I will be forgiven if I remain unconvinced that Mozart would have accepted the scoring job on TAXI DRIVER.

When Herrmann raised his composing fees around 1963 it caused the cessation of what was one of the two most interesting collaborations in films. He had scored four fantasy adventures for Ray Harryhausen and his long time producer Charles Schneer, and when it came time for Herrmann to write the music for their 1964 version of H.G. Wells’ FIRST MEN IN THE MOON Herrmann raised his fee by an additional $5,000 for composing and orchestrating. Schneer, a notorious penny-pincher, simply could not abide by that and did not use Herrmann on the film. This is rather astounding considering the power and exuberance Herrmann had brought to their previous films. And even in 1963 $5,000 was hardly an excessive amount of money when films could gross millions (The later comment by the producers that they “could no longer afford” Herrmann rings a bit hollow all things considered). Yet the reality is that this increase in his price did cause him to lose some work. He never did another Schneer-Harryhausen picture.

Of course, also contributing to his decline was his artistic breakup with director Alfred Hitchcock in 1966. This time, however, it was Herrmann’s musical integrity that did him in, to the detriment of those who asked him to forego that integrity. It is well known that after providing excellent music for a string of Hitchcock successes and masterpieces, the composer was summarily fired by the director after refusing to provide his film TORN CURTAIN with a “pop”-sounding main theme.

Tons of abuse has been heaped upon Hitchcock over this horrible episode, some of it deserved, but what is often avoided is the main reason for Hitchcock’s decision: pressure by corporate head Lew Wasserman to get a “pop song” he could sell along with the picture in order to increase revenues. This was the era of the pop song and Wasserman was going to have one come hell or high water. He also despised Bernard Herrmann for the very simple reason that Herrmann was unwilling to compromise his musical standards or his personal integrity by being obsequious to the powerful Wasserman. When Wasserman in one incident leveled a less-than-veiled threat to Herrmann that a word from him might result in the composer finding he may have to go hungry Herrmann is said to have replied, “Lew, when I’m hungry I go to Chasen’s”. It would not be too difficult to imagine mogul Wasserman's reaction to that statement. In any event this writer is convinced it was Wasserman’s pressure on Hitchcock which forced Hitchcock to fire Herrmann when the composer knew perfectly well that the opening titles to TORN CURTAIN needed tension and drama rather than the warblings of a singer.

Hitchcock should have, and more importantly could have, stood firm against these pressures. That he did not do so reveals that disagreeable streak of ingratitude which occasionally showed up in the director’s career. Imagine VERTIGO, PSYCHO or NORTH BY NORTHWEST without the music of Herrmann and it is easy to see why Hitchcock owed him so much.

This breakup of his collaboration with Hitchcock must be taken into account when finding reasons for Herrmann’s decline after the mid-1960s. That it affected him professionally is obvious. There really was, after that only one film score by him that is worthy of serious attention. It turned out to be one of the most profoundly beautiful things he ever wrote. Of that, more later.

Let us then return to the most satisfying years of Bernard Herrmann’s illustrious career and recall his contributions to music in general and film music in particular. Herrmann always insisted that the music he wrote for films should be heard only with the film, never on its own. There are many who would disagree with him on that point but for the sake of illustration let us accept his view for the moment. Rather than waste a million words on why this particular film score or that is a fine achievement I could do no better than to tell you to experience the films themselves. I will simply recommend that you beg, borrow, buy or steal any of the films mentioned in the early paragraphs of this review and let your eyes and ears be the judge. A short list of currently available dvds should suffice: THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, THE EGYPTIAN, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and JANE EYRE (1943) would be a good place to start to introduce you to the talents of a man of whom it was once said, “He could make blank film compelling.”

Of his concert works give his Symphony No. 1 a try. Several versions are available including one conducted by the composer. Charm just oozes from his Currier and Ives Suite and that is just the tip of the iceberg of his “Americana” period. There is an exciting new recording out of his magnificent Moby Dick Cantata which should be in the collection of anyone interested in this composer. It is an exciting work.

The finest recording of his grand opera Wuthering Heights is still the one Herrmann himself conducted in 1967, sadly out of print, though there are other good recordings of it that are available. It is to be hoped that this monumental work will one day find a major production with top voices. Herrmann tried for years, in vain, to get it produced but was continually rebuffed due to concerns over length and cost. The music all by itself is so evocative of Bronte’s windswept moors that I would venture to say that expensive sets would be minimal. With so many weird, experimental operas finding their way to New York these days one would think a place could be found for this beautiful work.

A recent CD release of seventeen scores Herrmann wrote for THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR television gives us a solid introduction into Herrmann’s prolific efforts for the small screen. These scores are classic Herrmann in every sense of the word and the cds cannot be recommended too highly. What they reveal is a composer who was not only supreme in the art of “terror” music, if you will, but also one gifted with a rare sense of beauty. Of those TV scores for Hitchcock one must surely single out “Body in the Barn”, one guaranteed to make the tears start to flow. Here, perhaps, is what Herrmann did best, touching the deepest recesses of the heart, odd from a man who could freeze the blood with the murder music in PSYCHO.

Herrmann maintained a sense of humor even as he was frustrated about being increasingly marginalized by the new crop of bean-counters and artistic dwarfs who began to control Hollywood. When he wasn’t exploding with rage over some imagined (or real) slight he was reaffirming his reputation as a notable wit. That classic New York drawl of his would be in stark contrast to his cultured views on art, which were always interesting and opinionated. He was, as is well know, a champion of the works of composers who were at once talented but rarely performed. It was he who almost single-handedly brought Charles Ives to the attention of the musical world. William Grant Still and Anthony Collins were others who benefitted from Herrmann’s enthusiasm over their work. He knew music intimately and had an amazing almost total recall of practically every note written by every composer who ever lived. I exaggerate here…but not much!

It is too unpleasant to dwell on Herrmann’s later film music career but there was at least one notable exception, and as it happened this exception turned out to be a work of quiet beauty echoing the cries of a soul in agony over what had once been but was now lost. It is the Truffaut film FAHRENHEIT 451. It was his last important film score and, fittingly, it was one of his most personal. To experience it is to really see what Bernard Herrmann was all about. More knowledgeable writers have written eloquently about this deeply moving work. I can only stand back in admiration of it.

Bernard Herrmann passed away on Christmas Eve, 1975. Happy 100th, Bernard Herrmann. We shall not see your like again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Vincent Nichols Can Help Stop going away.

The Vatican, whoever is speaking for it these days, God knows who because we certainly don't, has involved itself in another secular feel-good campaign by recognizing something called "World AIDS Day". If we brush aside the predictably trite boilerplate platitudes emanating from someone, somewhere in Rome we could stop for a moment and think about what the Vatican could do to combat this dreaded plague.

And suddenly the simple answer pops up: fire Vincent Nichols forthwith.

Here is a man who masquerades as the Bishop of Westminster encouraging sodomy (and, obviously, the diseases that spring from it) by proclaiming that he is quite all right with homosexual "civl unions". Since those who are engaged in the vice of buggery are the chief ones responsible for the AIDS epidemic, and are the ones desiring legal recognition of their poofery, and since His Lordship approves of their continuing to live in this unnatural state, by removing him as Bishop of Westminster and replacing him with someone who is Catholic the Vatican could do its little bit to start eliminating AIDS (not to mention hepatitus-B). Simple, no?

Alas, it's too simple for a Vatican that has seemingly lost its sensus Catholicus. To those who know how to pray, pray that the present Pope grows a backbone or, failing that, that God at last sends a Restorer to Peter's Chair.

With thanks to LifeSite News for the following:
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