New Music for Old Films

It’s a year to go to the ridiculously expensive and already very annoying London Olympics, and details are beginning to emerge of the plans for something called the Cultural Olympiad, a scheme for arty events that will be happening at the same time as the sporty ones.

The latest is one that I’ve read about with mixed feelings. There is a scheme by which bright young composers have been commissioned to write new scores for the silent films of Britain’s greatest film director, Alfred Hitchcock.

The good thing about this is that restored versions of the films will be issued, so that with luck we’ll get the full visual effect that Hitchcock intended.

The problem is that new scores are not always successful, and can be jarring. Carl Davis is the composer who has cornered the market in soundtracks for Chaplin films, and to my ears anyway he sentimentalises the work. Too many strings. Not bracing enough.

The recently issued DVD of the great 1916 Battle of the Somme documentary   both illustrates the problem and presents a solution. The distributors commissioned a new score from a modern composer. It’s plangent and emotional, rich with pathos. It encourages the viewer to feel the futility of war. Which is not what the film was originally about.

On the same DVD, however, an alternative is offered. If the viewer prefers, he or she can hear arrangements of the tunes that were  originally used by cinema pianists to accompany the pictures. The difference is fascinating. When the men go over the top in the film’s most famous (and almost-authentic) scene, the original accompaniment was Suppé ‘s sprightly Light Cavalry Overture. The new score drips pathos all over the soldiers.

(Better than either of the scores, however, is the soundtrack that offers commentary from a couple of historians, who explain which scenes were filmed where, and which units we are seeing on screen.They have a great eye for detail, and this is one commentary that really enriches the film.)

Maybe the new Hitchcocks will do something similar. As well as the music of the young hopefuls, can we please hear the original accompaniment. It’s not difficult to find out what that was. The showbiz newspaper The Era had a page every week featuring the latest film releases, and telling pianists which tunes to play with which which scenes. I’ve not checked on the Hitchcocks, but since most of them were big pictures, I’d expect most of them to be covered in the paper.

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