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Musical Concerts to Accompany Classic IWM War Footage

1 September 2006

Blasts from the Past: Film and Music from the Imperial War Museum

Saturday 21 October, 2006, 3.00pm Purcell Room

Music plays a crucial role in enhancing the experience of cinema, from its early function providing sound effects and drowning out projector noise to its current role as one of the most sophisticated and powerful tools that a filmmaker can use. Drawing on examples from the Museum's collection, including films from the First World War, amateur cinema, and propaganda films from the sound era scored by such luminaries as William Alwyn, Francis Chagrin and Ernst Meyer, curators and musicians explore the ways that music has been used to influence the emotions and attitudes of the viewer. Tickets: £12.50 / £10.00 / £8.00 Phone 0870 382 8000 or book online at

Battle of the Somme - Sunday 22 October 2006, 7.30pm

Queen Elizabeth Hall - Philharmonia Orchestra

At the end of June 1916 two newsreel cameramen were allowed to record the opening stages of the Battle of the Somme. The resulting 80-minute film mesmerised audiences and was seen by half the population. For tonight's screening the Imperial War Museum has prepared a remastered version, complemented by the premiere of an orchestral accompaniment composed by Laura Rossi and performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Tickets: £20 / £17.50 / £15 / £9
Call 0870 382 8000 or book online at

Battle of the Somme – Commemorative Music Project

Many FOCAL members will be familiar with the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme. Even if they do not know it by name, they will no doubt have seen a number of iconic sequences from the film, (they may even have cut them into their own programmes). Such scenes include ‘over the top’ (still something of a favourite, even though long recognised as a staged scene), the ‘piggyback’ trench rescue’, and the field of dead. These sequences have been cut into thousands of films and documentaries from Sally in our Alley (1931) to The Great War (1964) and The Trench (2002), as a visual shorthand to evoke trench warfare on the Western Front. So powerful are these scenes, that film makers have exploited them to represent much more than the First World War - to symbolise the horrors of war in general.

But how many of us, apart from a minority of First World War historians or silent film enthusiasts, have had the opportunity to watch the whole film, and in the manner in which it was seen by its first audience on a visit to a wartime picture house – at full length, on the big screen, at the correct speed (neither sped-up ‘Chaplin style’ or slowed-down to create more pathos) and with a live musical accompaniment.

This then, in essence, has been the aim of the archivists and historians at the Film & Video Archive of the Imperial War Museum: to try to re-create the experience of those cinema-goers, and thus do credit not just to the newsreel cameramen and propagandists at the War Office, but to the men who fought and died in that dreadful battle ninety years ago.

Digital Restoration

The project has had two elements, firstly to try to clean up and restore the film itself attempting, through a painstaking digital re-mastering process, to recapture the picture information which has been lost in the various analogue re-issues and preservations of the print since 1919. The work carried out by Dragon DI in Wales, has exceeded our expectations – revealing some wonderful detail in the background of the picture, pylons, trench fortifications, lettering scribbled on girders, and even figures – some falling to the ground as casualties.

Musical Accompaniment

The second aim, was to release the film with an appropriate musical score, one which didn’t just support the images but really helped the viewer to appreciate the historical events taking place. There have been two components to this endeavour.

Back in 1999 we came across the recommendations for a medley of music to be played with the film, which had been published in The Bioscope, in August 1916. With the assistance of Malcolm Hooson, an organist and military music expert, we tracked down all the pieces (even finding two in Malcolm’s collection of old music, which he had inherited from a relative who had been a cinema accompanist), and assembled them in a form which could be used by a pianist, and which fitted the copy of the film held in the Museum’s archive.

This version was premiered at a screening of the film in Belfast in November of that year. Since then this piano medley, originally selected by J. Morton Hutcheson (a well known cinema musician), has been played to accompany screenings of the film some nine times, usually by the film pianist Stephen Horne, and indeed on 11th October there will be a special performance to accompany the film at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. But as interesting and historically valuable as this project has been, in many ways this was not enough. J. Morton Hutcheson’s medley is a curiosity, many of the pieces of music selected are too propagandist for modern tastes, or they simply do not match the pictures on the screen despite all of Stephen’s efforts to ‘make the music fit’. Moreover, writing special music for a film was rare in 1916, and even for the most experienced musician it must have been an impossible task to find music to match every scene and changing mood.

Now, of course, film music composition is an established aspect of film production, and there are even a number of composers such as Carl Davis, who specialise in writing scores for silent classics. Unlike the approximation offered by J. Morton Hutcheson, there was now the possibility of recording a score that could not only sympathetically follow the story but where modern recording technology could allow us to closely match each note to the action on the screen. For example, the composer could carefully choreograph the music so that the percussionist’s playing was exactly timed to the images of the firing and recoil of the artillery guns. Perhaps more importantly we wanted to give a modern composer a free rein to interpret the film in a contemporary idiom and thus engage the subject with younger audiences.

Put simply, the often propagandist music offered by J. Morton Hutcheson was at odds with what the viewer knew of the history of the Battle of the Somme. Why should we shy away from giving a composer the opportunity to interpret the film with all the hindsight they inevitably possessed, not just knowledge of the battle, but of the cultural and historical significance of this event in the British psyche? With these considerations in mind, we commissioned the composer Laura Rossi to compose an orchestral score for The Battle of the Somme; a commission made possible by a grant from the Eric Anker-Petersen Charity. Laura had already done a wonderful job for us with Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, (following on from work we had admired with the BFI - Silent Shakespeare, and History of the Avant Garde), and we were confident that she would rise to the challenge.

Laura has now completed the orchestral score and this will be premiered at a screening of the re-mastered film to be held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 22nd October 2006. The music will be performed by the world-class Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Dodd. We also plan to release the film with Laura’s orchestral accompaniment as a DVD and in a double pack with the Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (also with Laura’s score), with, as an alternative soundtrack, the J. Morton Hutcheson piano medley. This will replace the VHS double-pack now published by DD Video. However, this is an expensive project for which we are still raising the funds – all contributions gratefully accepted!

Dr Toby Haggith, Film & Video Archive, Imperial War Museum

The screening and concert will be at:
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XX