Thursday, 31 July 2008

William Alwyn: The Green Girdle – a wartime documentary

Unfortunately, it is not possible to see The Green Girdle. Of course, I guess it may be feasible to arrange a private shewing or some other means of viewing this film, but for the majority of us, we will have to wait until some benevolent person brings it out on DVD. This is a pity. Even the briefest of studies suggests that this short film would add to the historical and social understanding of the ‘war years.’ On the other hand, we are lucky to have a fine recording of virtually the entire score – courtesy of Chandos and Rumon Gamba.
The Green Girdle was a propaganda film made in 1941 by the Strand Film unit and directed by Ralph Keane. Its message was quite simply one of encouragement. At that time many Londoners had been suffering almost daily ‘blitzes’ and although a number were evacuated, there were many still living in some of the worst target areas. A huge number of men and women were involved in War-Work, ARP and Home Guard activities, fire, police, railways and many other ‘essential services.’

It was deemed as a positive message to suggest that as a relaxation (such as they could have) they should make their way out to The Green Girdle – places such as Epping Forest. Interestingly Keane specialised in ‘animal and rural themed’ film productions-so this was an ideal screen play for him to direct.
With the absence of the film, The Green Girdle can alternatively be viewed as a miniature tone poem that stands alone – it can be listened to apart from the visual imagery and the commentary. And as such it is an attractive work. It has been suggested that Alwyn’s score was a precursor to the later The Magic Island and the Autumn Legend. Of course, it could be argued the other way round – that both of these works have a cinematic feel to them – and I guess that no-one would deny that. However there is a certain ‘bucolic’ mood about the present work that is hardly a characteristic of the above works!
Alwyn wrote this work at a time when the film industry was occupying much of his energy. Contemporary scores included Penn of Pennsylvania, S.O.S. and Steel goes to Sea. Concert works for 1941 were somewhat few and far between, however his Sonatina for Viola was written in the same year. In 1940 a number of works were composed, including Night Thoughts for piano, the Overture to a Masque and the Divertimento for Solo Flute.
One curious fact about this film score was that originally it was to have been composed by Richard Addinsell of Warsaw Concerto fame. Apparently, he produced sketches for this film: they are in the possession of the composer Philip Lane. However, Alwyn completed the task and seemingly made use of some of the material – although this is a musicological task that would need to be confirmed. It is the one of the few of Alwyn’s film score holographs to have survived in its entirety.
The film itself was produced with minimal commentary: the visuals and the music predominated. The cinema audience was taken on a tour of many places that still, after 67 years, hold their magic and act as a potential release from the stresses of an ever growing Metropolis. Who has not enjoyed a day on Wimbledon Common looking for the windmill and exploring the woods and hidden dales? Many Londoners will have gone to see the spring flowers in Epping Forest and ended up lost in the woods. Surely the view from Hampstead Heath will never fail to impress – and bear in mind that in those days (1941) the smoke from millions of coal fires and hundreds of steam locomotives would have hidden much of the scene. And lastly, the magic of Box Hill will stay with all those who have climbed its flanks. Who does not marvel at the stunning views southward towards Sussex and the sea and northwards towards London and the Chilterns?
The ‘tone poem’ opens with a dreamy phrase supported by inevitable harp arpeggios. After a short woodwind solo the main theme tries to emerge. Yet a little brass fanfare holds up the proceedings. There follows a short reflection of the opening page, before the clip-clopping ‘horse effect’ in the percussion section rather obviously nods to the bucolic idea of this film. This is quickly pushed aside and the ‘big’ tune starts in earnest. It is a theme that is so full of potential; it seems a pity that Alwyn was not able to use this in one of his ‘concert’ works. This melody has been described as a ‘folk-like tune’ yet I feel that it is really a full blown romantic theme. Surely it suggests lovers cresting Parliament Hill and seeing the whole of London spread out below their city: it does not evoke being knee deep in mud in a pig farm!
Yet Alwyn’s music is about contrast. The lovers are now left to their own devices and a jaunty tune suggests, perhaps, riding a horse or maybe playing rounders or an impromptu game of football. However, the big tune never really disappears: it is always there in the music either implicitly or explicitly. At the exact halfway point in the score the music comes to a full stop.
Nocturnal music follows – there is a poignant cello solo followed by a short brass ‘chorale’ and once again the harps lead to a restatement of the romantic tune. But then there is movement. If the film was about pre-war days it would have suggested a jaunting car in the high Chilterns or maybe even a mad drive through the country lanes in the latest open-top tourer. A gentle melody is heard, followed by a short clarinet solo. But inevitably the lover’s tune returns, this time in a sort of Elgarian guise. It dominates, without ever really going over the top, before the outdoor music returns. There is a nod to the opening ‘dreamy’ bars before the work concludes on a positive note.

Unfortunately there has been little critical commentary on this work – Ian Lace at MusicWeb International wrote that “…The Green Girdle music is gently, tenderly pastoral...” Rob Barnett says a little more. He suggests that this is actually a romantic work. He noted that he “had just been listening to Muti’s Scriabin and …thought of that as well as of Debussy.” I feel that he is much closer to the mark with his suggestion that “other reference points include the playful enchantment and the skittering joy of [Frank] Bridge’s Enter Spring and the second of his Two Jeffries Poems.” Perhaps Delius is also a potential model – with his ‘nature tapestries’ which facet various elements of the topographical scene.
Finally, the Documentary News Letter suggests that this film was “a rare balance between visuals, music and commentary.” Surely it is about time that we were able to indulge in the full nostalgia of this film In the meantime, use your imagination and enjoy the superlative musical essay by William Alwyn!

THE GREEN GIRDLE (Strand Film Unit) Production: Basil Wright; Direction: Ralph Keane, Photography: Jack Cardiff; Music: Richard Addinsell/ William Alwyn; Commentary: Bruce Belfrage & Robert Mac Dermot
Film released June 1941. First screening date unknown.

The Green Girdle can be heard on Chandos CHAN 9959

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