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....


John Kehoe said...

Very interesting, I didn't know there was a published biography, must search it out. Incidentally, it's Sir Malcolm Sargent (not Sargeant) and Sadler's (not Saddler's) Wells

Aged parent said...

Many thanks, Mr Kehoe. I can confess that I am ashamed at those spelling errors.

Bruce Garthe said...

WHY, oh WHY didn't Walt Disney agree to release the TREASURE ISLAND original soundtrack as conducted by Muir Mathieson and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra? This was an unforgivable error in judgment on Disney's part and deprives soundtrack collectors of a true musical masterpiece!

Aged parent said...

I agree, Bruce. The Mathieson performance was superb.

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