The Film Music of Brian Easdale [Chandos Movies]

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The Red Shoes
Kew Gardens
Black Narcissus
The Battle of the River Plate
Adventure On!
Gone to Earth

BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Rumon Gamba

Recorded 8-10 March 2010 in BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: March 2011
Duration: 77 minutes



Brian Easdale (1909-1995) was something of a musical prodigy who started improvising at the piano at age five. Sir Henry Walford Davies, a one-time Master of the King’s Musick, recommended him as a probationer at the Temple Church in the City of London, age ten, under Sir George Thalben-Ball. At age eleven he moved to Westminster Abbey and subsequently enrolled in the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music. As a full student he studied composition under Cecil Armstrong Gibbs and Gordon Jacob, conducting under Malcolm Sargent, and organ under Arnold Goldsborough. He also met Benjamin Britten there and the composer introduced him to writing for British documentary films. As early as 1927, Easdale wrote his first opera, “Rapunzel”. “The Corn King” was written in 1935 but not performed until 1950. This was then followed by “The Sleeping Children”, which Tyrone Guthrie staged at Cheltenham in 1951, encouraged no doubt by the success of Easdale’s score for “The Red Shoes” in 1948. The composer had travelled around Europe in the late 1930s seeing opera productions and meeting composers and conductors. In 1939 he orchestrated Britten’s “On the Frontier”, collaborating with W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, and then his career gradually began to take shape. Other works from the 1930s include “Five Pieces for Orchestra”, a Piano Concerto, “Six Poems for small orchestra” and “Tone Poem”. His work was influenced by British composers such as Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Britten himself.

During World War Two Brian Easdale worked in India and Ceylon on documentary films for those countries’ government film units. Returning to Britain after the War he was asked by the directing-producing partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (known collectively as ‘The Archers’) to write an exotic dance for the Jean Simmons character in their film “Black Narcissus”. Impressed by the results, Powell and Pressburger wanted Easdale to compose the entire score and this really launched Easdale’s career. The following year he provided music for a production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at the Stratford Memorial Theatre and Britten commissioned Easdale to write a piece, Bengal River, for the 1949 Aldeburgh Festival. Further film work also came from Powell & Pressburger.

Although he wrote a number of stage and concerts works, it is mainly for his film work for Powell and Pressburger that Easdale is now remembered. He continued to write for Powell and Pressburger until “The Queen’s Guard” in 1961. Some other concert works followed including “Missa Coventrensis”, a mass for the new Coventry Cathedral. Battling a long fight with alcohol addiction, Easdale eventually moved to a care-home in London where he still wrote and taught orchestration until his death in 1995. One day his music will be reassessed and given the place in British musical history his scores so obviously deserve. In many ways Easdale still remains to be discovered.

This Chandos recording will go some way towards re-establishing his name. “Black Narcissus” is an extraordinary film, just one of many fascinating productions helmed by Powell and Pressburger. Michael Powell began his movie career filming documentaries and ‘quota quickies’ (second features that ensured Britain’s film industry remained active) in the 1930s, but also created some of the best films to come out of Britain, such “The Thief of Bagdad”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “A Matter of Life and Death”, “The Red Shoes” in a way that no other British director had ever done before. His attention to detail was immense in films that integrated both dialogue and music fused with brilliant visual flair particularly when using colour stock. All these elements produced some outstanding concentrated artistic endeavours. He was never fearful of going over the top and if sometimes his exotic effects were stifling, it was because he found it necessary to give full vent to his own artistic expression. Most of his best films look terrific because he used Jack Cardiff as cinematographer and Hein Heckroth and Alfred Junge as his regular designers.

Together and with composer Brian Easdale, Powell and Pressburger’s films knocked most other British movies of the time off the shelf. Both Easdale and Heckroth won Academy Awards for their work on “The Red Shoes” (1948). Initially Allan Gray, whom ‘The Archers’ had used on some of their previous films, was to have written the music but instead they asked Easdale after his great success with “Black Narcissus”. There are not many popular films about a ballet company. “The Red Shoes” could never be made now (pace “Black Swan”), at least not in Britain anyway. It follows the career of a ballet-dancer (Moira Shearer) who has to choose between her love of dance and her love for a budding composer (Marius Goring). Her life is ruled by the dance-company impresario (Anton Walbrook as Lermantov, a figure loosely based on Diaghilev) and his obsession with the young dancer.

Easdale produced a suitably exotic and erotically charged score. The use of an ondes Martenot gives the music the sensation that all is not well in the perverse love of Lermantov for the ballerina. The suite recorded here is in eight movements in a performing edition by John Wilson who, like Rumon Gamba, is a passionate film-music specialist. The score has a mysterious, arresting quality, like much of Easdale’s writing. At times it sounds like early Bernstein in its jazz rhythms while at others it is ghostly and weird when it uses the ondes, played by Cynthia Millar, to create something ominous. Not all of Easdale’s score reached the final film and one wonders if it all still exists. The suite was played in the concert hall to a great reception before Easdale’s death. “Kew Gardens” (1936) was one of Easdale’s earliest films scores for a documentary on the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. The music was written for a chamber ensemble but Philip Lane has expanded the instrumentation for this recording. In four movements it evokes the different seasons experienced at Kew.

“Black Narcissus” (1947) is an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel about a community of nuns living high up in the Himalayas. Starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, it deals with the frustrations of convent life in an isolated area when district agent Dean (David Farrar) arrives to upset the Anglo-Catholic applecart, particularly for one nun, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who plunges to her death in suspicious circumstances. No locations were used but were magically recreated in the studio by Jack Cardiff and Alfred Junge. Easdale’s music is suitably taut and pent-up. A stirring opening evokes the mountains with slight touches of mysticism . Some of it is brassy and percussive and there are choral flashbacks to Sister Clodagh’s life (played by Kerr) before she entered the convent. Lane has fashioned a suite of five movements that introduce the main titles and the Palace of Mopu, the scene between Sister Ruth and Mr Dean, a Hunting Song and the Death of Sister Ruth. Four of them use the BBC National Chorus of Wales in some very exciting and emotional music that evokes the film and its effect on the audience.

“The Battle of the River Plate” (1956) was not the most exciting of war-films or one of Powell and Pressburger’s best efforts. It details the capture and eventual sinking of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the harbour at Montevideo. It starred John Gregson and Peter Finch. Chandos’s releases has Easdale’s Prelude and March, the latter becoming a popular piece after the film’s release. The music is urgent-sounding and earnest in its effects, and quite Elgarian in its way. “Adventure On!” (1957) is described as ‘a Musical Progress for Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra’. Easdale had met Barbirolli when he conducted his Concerto lyrico at the Cheltenham Festival. The film is a documentary about Massey Ferguson tractors and how they were used in such locations as Africa, Aden, India, Malaya and Fiji. A perhaps unpromising subject was given some fairly classy musical treatment by Easdale. The five movements end with a final flourish and a big tune in his tribute to an iconic conductor.

The Suite from “Gone to Earth” (1950, also known as “The Wild Heart”) was written for a film adaptation of Mary Webb’s novel about a gipsy girl, Hazel, who rears a fox cub that, like the girl herself, is always on the run with no real home. Although producer David O. Selznick did not like the finished film, which starred his wife Jennifer Jones, and he had it cut and re-shot, Easdale’s music remains a strong element. It is written for chorus and orchestra. The use of a wordless chorus and gongs goes a long way to underscoring the fact that both Hazel and the fox are being pursued. There’s a great feeling of the open air that evokes the music of Aaron Copland.

The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales perform Easdale’s music with great vigour and bring out the passion in it. He was atypical of most film composers; nothing was obvious in his output and his musical style and subtle musical effects enhance the films and provide an excellent counterpoint to the visuals. His music and the films were a match made in heaven.

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