A “Twist” in Sir Arnold Bax’s Late Musical Output


William B. Hannam

oliver-twist-2Editor’s Note: William B. Hannam is a part-time professor of music appreciation and musicology at Kent State University. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 2008, was titled “Arnold Bax and the Poetry of ‘Tintagel'” and won Kent State University’s 2009 Dissertation Award, and he has written and had published multiple papers on the composer.

Writing in December of 1947, Sir Arnold Bax was less than excited by the prospect of composing music for director David Lean’s Oliver Twist. He described the situation, rather famously saying, “I have been inveigled (not to say bullied) into writing music for the Oliver Twist film… It is the book of Dickens that I most dislike, and there is no music in the subject at all.” He went on to explain, “So I must think up counterparts in sound of Gillray’s and Rowlandson’s savage cartoons. The première is supposed to be at the beginning of March (the usual inconsiderate rush) but I was not to be stampeded.”1

Clearly, Bax was not writing this music because he was inspired to do so, and yet, it has become one of his most played and best loved late period scores. It was also an important project for the composer. It gave him a great deal of publicity and more financial reward than he had received for almost any of his previous compositions.2 By this time, Bax had been living in rooms at the White Horse Hotel in Storrington, Sussex, and was generally enjoying a fairly modest existence, if one can call paying his own rent while supporting two or three women “fairly modest.” As Bax had never divorced, he was providing a monthly income and a house for his wife, Elsita, whom he married in 1911and from whom he was separated by 1915, until she died in the fall of 1947. He had also bought a house for his longtime love Harriet Cohen to live in. This was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, and so in 1944, Bax paid for a new cottage in Gloucester Place Mews. Then there was Mary Gleaves, his far less public love, for whom he also eventually bought a house in southern Storrington in 1949. Though he most likely would never have said so, the income from his composition of the Oliver Twist score and the subsequent royalties must have been welcome.

Bax was an odd choice to score the film. He had mostly retired from composing, writing only occasionally and then generally only to fulfill requirements of his position as Master of the King’s Music. His only previous experience had been the flag waving documentary Malta G. C., composed in 1942 and recorded in December of that year, and he had not enjoyed working on that project, either. The focus of this twenty minute film was the Axis air offensive against Malta during the war years, its strategic importance, the island’s overall history and the peaceful disposition of its people. Bax came out of the project believing that the constraints of writing for film interfered too much with a composer’s natural style, and he seemed not to understand the way in which music should function in a film.3 In speaking of the composition of music for film, he once provided an oft-repeated quote:

I do not think the medium is at present at all satisfactory as far as the composer is concerned, as his music is largely inaudible, toned down to make way for – in many cases – quite unnecessary talk. This is, in my opinion quite needless as it is possible to pay attention to two things at the same time if they appeal to different parts of the intelligence.4

The story for the film was comprised mainly of newsreel and other official material, all photographed during the extensive bombing. Despite Bax’s misgivings about the way in which the production people handled his first film score, the music was a success. The Australian-born composer and conductor Hubert Clifford wrote, “Arnold Bax’s music for Malta G.C. is of the highest distinction and ranges from the epic to the naively human in parallel with the exciting subject matter of the film.”5 A well-received concert suite was drawn from the work, and was broadcast even before the film was released, the recording later being stored in the special music section of the B.B.C. Recorded Programmes Library.6

Most film composers would disagree with Bax’s assessment. Their primary function, as opposed to appealing to two different parts of the intelligence, is to assist in the suspension of critical judgment. If the audience is challenged in the way Bax prescribed, they cannot allow themselves to become wrapped up in the illusion of the film.

Bax did not see the advantages that a composer could gain from writing for film, and so he had little enthusiasm for doing so. He found it difficult to accept the idea that a music cue should ever be altered to suit the needs of a particular sequence in a film, and he is known to have asked why the footage could not be changed to fit his music.7 Furthering this point, there is this quote from a letter to Percy Grainger not long after the premiere of Oliver Twist: “I wish I could enjoy writing music for the cinema, but in England directors seem to have little or no respect for the music[;] they just turn it on or off like the ‘lights’ and too many hours are wasted in writing and scoring pages which are not used.”8 This attitude seems as if it might have come from an opera composer expecting that everything heard on the stage should come from his imagination and invention, though that genre was in no way a specialty of Bax’s. Perhaps the times had progressed beyond this composer’s ability to keep up, or perhaps he simply never found a project that was right for his specific talents. Describing not long after completing Oliver Twist the sort of film on which he would have liked to work, Bax said,

I should like now to try my hand at a particular type of film which would really be in tune with the sort of thing I have tried to do in much of my music. A romantic subject, with beauty and poetry, with colour and gaiety, calm and green and pleasing, a subject that would be lyrical and full of the clean, country air.9

The person responsible for choosing Bax for Oliver Twist was Muir Mathieson. Born in 1911 in Stirling, Scotland, Mathieson attended the Royal College of Music in London, studying with Arthur Benjamin and Malcolm Sargent. He went on to become head of the music department for Alexander Korda at Denham Film Studios in the early 1930s, and then Music Director of London Film Productions starting in 1934. Biographer Bruce Eder described him as “the single most influential figure in British film music of the twentieth century.”10 Mathieson conducted the scores of virtually every major movie made in England from the mid-1930s through the 1950s, a grand total of more than four-hundred films.

Two attributes particular to Mathieson that played a large role in the development of British film music were his extraordinary strong-mindedness and his unshakeable belief in the value of music being produced by contemporary British composers. He deplored the fact that Great Britain had such a low status as a musical nation at the time.11 Further, he wanted to establish film music as a fine art, with British composers leading the way in that effort.

Writing for Tempo late in 1944, Mathieson said,

It must be nearly ten years since I expressed the belief that film music was destined to become something more than a mere colourful background to a film. I felt that music written for the screen could not only become an integral part of the film – an integral part even in the development of the film – but would soon be valued as an entity in itself. Today there is much evidence to show that this is true.12

Nearly ten years earlier, as Mathieson described it, was the beginning of a particularly important time in his life. After his first big film music success, the conducting of “Hiawatha” at the Albert Hall, Mathieson went on to direct the music for a steady stream of notable films, including The Ghost Goes West, Fire Over England, Vessel of Wrath, St. Martin’s Lane, Sixty Glorious Years, South Riding, and many others. Perhaps the most notable of all was the 1937 film Wings of The Morning, Britain’s first full-length feature film shot in Technicolor, with music by Arthur Benjamin and a well-thought of gypsy dance sequence with Hermione Darnborough, a solo dancer of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and, as of 1935, Mathieson’s fiancé.13

In 1942, it was Muir Mathieson who approached Bax about writing the music for Malta, G.C. Mathieson was then Musical Director of the newly formed Crown Film Unit, and Malta had just been awarded the George Cross on April 15 of that year for its heroism in resisting aerial attacks launched from Sicily soon after Italy had entered the war in 1940. Providing information on the music in his catalogue of the works of Sir Arnold Bax, Graham Parlett cites an internal BBC memorandum dated January 15, 1943, in which Kenneth Wright wrote, “You may remember that after considerable hesitancy the composer succumbed to Muir Mathieson’s pleading.”14 Remarks by the composer upon completion of the score include, “Have just finished my Malta film music. It has been nothing but a worry from beginning to end – and very hard work,” and “I do not feel that air-raids have much to do with my own particular style!”15 Thus was the beginning of the relationship between Bax and Mathieson.

Bax had a firmly-established reputation for being extremely well-read, and was, as we know, a writer himself under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne. His younger brother, Clifford, was an accomplished playwright, poet, and lyricist, and was a fixture in British drama for a generation. Mathieson, who after working with Bax on the Malta film most certainly would have known of the composer’s literary bent, probably could not have been expected to know the intricacies of Bax’s tastes before inviting him to produce the film score for Oliver Twist. Given Dickens’s stature, Mathieson may have simply assumed Bax’s likely interest in such a project.16 Jan Swynnoe suggests that the black and white nature of Dickens’s characters in Oliver Twist was bound to be repugnant to a man of Bax’s subtlety and sensitivity, and adds that this explains why the composer would have had to have been “bullied” into the project.17

In the Muir Mathieson biography, “A Life in Film Music,” there is a brief description of how the music director picked Bax for the project, and as Parlett notes in his review of the book for the Arnold Bax Website, the description differs from anything he has ever previously heard: “This time Muir’s first suggestions of Walton or Bliss [as the film’s composer] were rejected in favour of Sir Arnold Bax.”18 While sources for such information are admittedly not vast, there are no other documented suggestions that Bax was anything but Mathieson’s first choice for the film.

Further controversy in the same description connects to the use of the piano in the score. The Mathieson biography claims that it was Bax who went to the music director asking to be allowed to use the piano off-stage as a means of giving Harriet Cohen something to perform, and that, while David Lean was not fond of the idea, Mathieson convinced him that it would work well. As Parlett explains, other accounts – which he goes on to cite – have always had it that it was Lean who made the request for the solo piano sequences, as that reflected a fad current in this type of music.19 Writing in 1949 for the Penguin Film Review, John Huntley used information from Lean’s working notes to tell us that “the use of a solo piano was suggested by David Lean, who felt that it ‘emphasizes the isolation of the little boy in a world of bullying adults,’”20 seemingly confirming Parlett’s information.

It is quite possible that Lean was influenced by the success of his earlier film, Brief Encounter, from late in 1945. The popular appeal of this film apparently stemmed in large part from its use of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and while that usage has been criticized by some, the intense emotional power of that music was exactly what the film needed to convey the sentiments of the two main characters.21 The acclaim for this film inspired the use of such music in many other movies during the later part of the war, including Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto in Dangerous Moonlight from 1941, and Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody in Love Story from 1944, both works shamelessly mirroring Rachmaninoff’s style. In Oliver Twist, critics have suggested that the use of the piano is forced, jarring, and that when it is first heard, it has little if any real connection to the character of Oliver. Nor is it heard in its original version, as it is actually a variant intended by Bax for another context later in the film.22

Whether or not Bax intended for Cohen to perform the piano parts, she did indeed perform them, but not until after a bit of adventure. The score was composed in large part during the winter of 1947-48. At the end of January, Cohen left on a scheduled trip to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, experiencing an extremely rough crossing with what was described as “fearful weather” in the mid-Atlantic, the captain calling the storm “one of the worst he had ever experienced.”23

As noted earlier, the premiere was scheduled for early in March, though the actual date was considerably later. The soundtrack recording, with Cohen on the piano and Muir Mathieson conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Denham Recording Theatre, took place between the 10th and 16th of May, 1948, allowing Cohen to return from America in time to participate. The film premiere occurred at the Odeon Theatre, Marble Arch, on the 24th of June. There was a considerable wait before a viewing was possible in America, though. Oliver Twist was banned in the United States until February of 1951 due to what was considered an anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin in the film. George Cruikshank’s original illustrations were important source material for the look of the film, especially for the make-up for Fagin. These illustrations came from a time when anti-Semitism was an institutionalized part of English literature and culture. It seems that David Lean failed to anticipate that such a caricature would create an uproar in a world that had just seen the Holocaust.24 In February of 1949, a Berlin showing of the film was stopped by Polish Jews, with demonstrations outside the Kurbel Cinema being put down by baton charges, fire hoses, and revolver shots.25 Not surprisingly, the film was banned in Israel for its anti-Semitism. Perhaps more of a surprise, though, is that it was also banned in Egypt – for not being anti-Semitic enough!26

The score benefited from the fact that a 78 recording became available almost immediately. Excerpts currently available on Pearl CD GEM 0100 and on Symposium CD 1336 were heard regularly by late in 1948, and became quite popular for a time. Muir Mathieson, with some assistance from Bax, extracted a suite from the score for concert performance. Bernard Hermann recorded the “Fagin’s Romp” movement, along with the Finale for the Decca Phase 4 label just months before his death in 1975. It was not until 1986 that another substantial recording was issued with Kenneth Alwyn conducting and Eric Parkin on piano for Cloud Nine Records. Finally, in 2001, Chandos chose to include Bax’s film scores in its highly successful film music series. The Bax Trust contacted Graham Parlett about reconstructing the complete score, a task made complicated by renamed cues, missing sections, and other sections shuffled from their originally-intended purposes to be used other places in the film. Parlett completed the reconstruction using a collection of sources that included an incomplete holograph manuscript currently on loan to the British Library, the suite compiled by Muir Mathieson in the form of a copyist’s score, another copyist’s score of selected movements also held by the British Library, an incomplete set of parts used for the original soundtrack recording, the actual soundtrack recording itself from 1948, and the later 1948 commercial issue of excerpts from the score. The recording was made by the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba in September of 2002, with the CD released (also containing Part 2 of Malta, G. C.) in October of 2003.27 At approximately one hour in duration, Oliver Twist is Bax’s lengthiest orchestral score, exceeded only by his unorchestrated ballet, Tamara, which would have lasted at least two hours in performance had he ever completed the work.

Bax was given ten weeks to produce the score for Oliver Twist, a luxury in the minds of many Hollywood composers, but a burden to him, as he was still unfamiliar with the work practice. He saw the film twice and was then issued a musical cue sheet detailing the types of cues needed and the specific timings required. Mathieson visited Bax regularly throughout the composition process to check up on his progress. Still, a number of changes were made to the manuscript during recording, a circumstance that very much frustrated the composer. Overall, a critique of the music should note Bax’s natural empathy with the dramatic intent of the film and his ear for orchestration, excluding the use of the piano. There are, though, points where the cues seem overly “stagey,” and others where the music is too busy or where the timing is wrong. These have been described by Jan Swynnoe as “the miscalculations of a novice in the art of film scoring,” and can be excused, especially in comparison to today’s film composers who have the advantage of being able to see a film over and over until they have grasped its internal rhythm.28

In an article published in The Penguin Film Review in 1949, Bax provides a quote that suggests his attitude toward composing for film had changed, at least slightly:

Composing for the film was hard work, and I found I had to adapt my normal musical approach quite a bit; it was nevertheless an interesting experience, and I was particularly impressed by the ingenuity

and skill of the music director in the actual process of recording the music with the picture on the screen.29

Perhaps, given time, Bax could have grown more accepting of the processes involved in composing for film. By the point in his life where he was being asked to create this kind of music, he was too set in his own practices, and too convinced that he had nothing more to say musically. The success of Oliver Twist, had he been a few years younger, might even have been the spark necessary to renew Bax’s overall excitement in composing, which had surely dwindled by the years of the war and after. As it is, though, this work will have to be seen as merely a twist in the path of Bax’s late musical output.

1  Lewis Foreman, Bax – A Composer and his Times Third Revised and Expended Edition (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2007), p. 383.

2  Ibid.

3  Jan G. Swynnoe, The Best Years of British Film Music 1936-1958 (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2002), p. 62.

4  Ibid.

5  John Huntley, British Film Music (London, Skelton Robinson, 1947), p. 112

6  Ibid.

7  Swynnoe, p. 62.

8  Graham Parlett, “Reconstructing Oliver Twist” The Arnold Bax Website (September 25, 2014), http://arnoldbax.com/reconstructing-oliver-twist-by-graham-parlett/

9  Graham Parlett, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 258.

10  Bruce Eder, “Artist Biography” AllMusic website (2016), http://www.allmusic.com/artist/muir-mathieson-mn0000039732

11  Swynnoe, p. xi.

12  Muir Mathieson, “Aspects of Film Music,” Tempo No. 9 (December, 1944): p. 7.

13  Huntley, p. 36.

14  Parlett, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax p. 228.

15  Ibid., p. 229.

16  Swynnoe, p. 63.

17  Ibid.

18  Graham Parlett, “Muir Mathieson Biography, ‘A Life in Film Music’” The Arnold Bax Website (September 28, 2013) http://arnoldbax.com/muir-mathieson-biography-a-life-in-film-music-reviewed-by-graham-parlett/

19  Ibid.

20  Swynnoe, p. 65.

21  Ibid., p. 66.

22  Ibid., p. 67.

23  Foreman, p. 383.

24  Andrew Pulver, “The principle of Good – David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948)” The Guardian (April, 2004), https://www.theguardian.com/film/2004/apr/10/books.featuresreviews1 .

25  Parlett, A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax p. 256.

26  Matthew Dessem, “The Criterion Contraption – #32: Oliver Twist,” (July 9, 2005), http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2005/07/32-oliver-twist.html .

27  Parlett, “Reconstructing Oliver Twist.”

28  Swynnoe, p. 81.

29  John Huntley, “The Music of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Oliver Twist,’” The Penguin Film Review, 8 (London, 1949) p. 110.

Comments are closed.