‘LOST ENGLAND’

What greater things might the ‘lost generation’ of British composers who perished during The Great War have achieved had they returned? Of those that survived the carnage, E J Moeran developed into a rhapsodic symphonist of the first order, Ivor Gurney produced some outstanding songs and poems before submitting to mental disintegration, Arthur Bliss sought catharsis with his oratorio Morning Heroes and Vaughan Williams with a Pastoral Symphony. W Denis Browne (1888-1915), George Butterworth (1885-1916), Cecil Coles (1888-1918), Ernest Farrar (1885-1918) and F S Kelly (1881–1916) were not so fortunate.

Of these George Butterworth is the best-known. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, he taught for a year at Radley College before embarking on a career as a folk-song collector, sometimes in partnership with his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. In August 1914 Butterworth enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Awarded the Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet on 5 August 1916 and buried at Munster Alley, near Thiepval. Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony was posthumously dedicated to Butterworth’s memory.

 

The Two English Idylls (1910-11) received their first performance in Oxford in 1912. No 1 is founded on three Sussex folk-tunes: Dabbling in the Dew, Henry Martin and Just as the Tide was Flowing. The second Idyll is based on a single song, again from Sussex, Phoebe and her dark-eyed Sailor.

The Banks of Green Willow was composed in 1913 and first performed the following year. There are three themes: the first – a folksong, The Banks of Green Willow - was collected by Butterworth in June 1907. Later in the piece, the horns introduce an original maestoso theme. The final tune, Green Bushes, had been collected in 1906 in Lincolnshire by Percy Grainger.

Walter Leigh was born in Wimbledon in 1905, the same year as William Alwyn, Constant Lambert, Alan Rawsthorne and Michael Tippett. His first music teacher was his Prussian-born mother, followed by Harold Darke. Leigh’s education continued at University College School, London and Christ’s College, Cambridge where he read English. In 1927 Leigh moved to Berlin where he studied for two years with Hindemith at the Hochschule für Musik. Following a period as musical director of Terence Gray’s Festival Theatre in Cambridge Leigh became a full-time freelance composer.

The BBC quickly spotted his talent, commissioning - inter alia - The Masque of Neptune, the Music for Three Pianos and the 1935 Silver Jubilee concert-overture Agincourt. Leigh’s most successful work was the comic opera Jolly Roger (written with Victor Clinton-Baddeley and Scobie Mackenzie). This ran for six months at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1933 and numbered among its cast Leigh’s sister Charlotte (1907-93) and George Robey, ‘The Prime Minister of Mirth’. The Overture is a separate piece, not related to any specific songs from the show. However, its hornpipe-flavoured, piratical bonhomie sets the scene perfectly, transporting the listener back to the Jamaica of 1690.

The Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings (1934) - dedicated to the German musicologist Hilmar Hockner and his wife - remains Leigh’s best-known concert piece. The middle movement reveals a romantic streak, a contrast to the outer movements’ rumbustious counterpoint.

Like his contemporaries Alwyn and Rawsthorne, Leigh composed prolifically for films, in particular for the GPO and Crown Film Units. Between 1932-40 he penned some twenty scores, including such classics as Pett and Pott (1934), Song of Ceylon (1935) and The Face of Scotland (1938). He made a personal appearance in the 1936 film The Fairy of the Phone, dressed in a ‘loud’ checked suit (complete with plus fours), nursing a cup of tea, attempting to ‘phone his friend ‘Otto Parsnip’. The ‘Fairy’ (played by Charlotte Leigh) is seen at the outset gingerly tip-toeing along the telegraph wire, wearing her telephonist’s headset and brandishing a ’jack’ plug. Various scenes unfold. “Just telephone and we will put you through”, trill the lovely young telephonists at the exchange. An old bearded man then struggles to find a telephone number in his decrepit directories. After a quick waltz a chorale-like passage (complete with ‘wrong’ notes) leads into a jolly 6/8 march. A fire breaks out in the old man’s study. He dials 999 and the fire brigade is there in an instant. “Why not make a trunk call to your continental friends?”, suggests the Fairy. With a snake-charming oboe weaving orientally over a piano drone, we see an Indian prince (played by Clinton-Baddeley) with his nubile attendants. Finally the full company returns for the Grand Finale in an extended version of the earlier Telephone Song.

Leigh’s final film score Squadron 992 is one of his finest. It recounts the saga of a barrage balloon squadron’s deployment from Cardington in Bedfordshire to Scotland to defend the Forth Rail Bridge. Lionel Gamlin’s plummy narration explains that the barrage balloon looks ‘like an elephant that’s had bad news’. The opening fanfare leads into the tuba’s theme which represents the balloons floating in their giant sheds. Some luscious scoring leads into a ‘Scottish’ theme (for flute, harp and strings, which will return later when the convoy reaches Edinburgh). A two-step march evolves into the Squaddie’s song Bless ‘em all. Leigh evokes the weariness of the troops (who have driven through the night up the Great North Road) by turning Bless ‘em all into a parody waltz. Once the Firth of Forth has been reached all hands get to work as the balloons are hauled down, inflated with hydrogen!, winched and braced ‘ready for action’.

Squadron 992’s release coincided with the Dunkirk debâcle and its impact was lost somewhat during the Battle of Britain. In January 1941 Leigh joined the Royal Armoured Corps. Following intensive training on Salisbury Plain he sailed with his tank crew for North Africa. He was killed near Tobruk in Libya in June 1942, just short of his thirty-seventh birthday, leaving a widow, Marion, and three children under the age of eight, Julian, Veronica and Andrew, who had gone to Canada in 1940 to escape the London blitz.

Notes © 2007 by Malcolm Riley.

Preparing Leigh’s Film Scores

As is the case with most film scores, some editing and reshaping is needed to make a viable concert version. The British Library’s Manuscript Collection contains the original parts of The Fairy of the Phone apart from various sections for the piano. These have been filled in by Malcolm Riley with reference to the film soundtrack. For Squadron 992 a much larger reconstruction has been necessary. The BL contains only a few fragments (in short score), including Bless ‘em all and some linking passages. The bulk of the score has had to be transcribed from the monaural soundtrack which, it was discovered, was running a semitone sharp! Just one bar has been ‘composed’, to allow a seamless join into the reprise of the ‘Scottish’ theme.

 

 
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