Sunday, 21 June 2009

Francis Chagrin: Overture from ‘Helter Skelter’

I remember a school-friend coming into the music department at my grammar school one morning and announcing that Francis Chagrin was dead. Now I must confess that I had not heard of the composer nor was I sure if ‘it’ was a male Francis or female Frances. However I was soon appraised that Chagrin’s great claim to fame was that he wrote the music to the Colditz Story. Later investigations have revealed that he composed three symphonies, a piano concerto and a great deal of other music. Unfortunately I have never heard the ‘symphonic’ works and I guess that few people have. It is difficult to deduce the value of a composer’s ‘serious’ music from the present overture. However, even the most cursory hearing of Helter Skelter reveals a composer who delighted in fine melodies, superb orchestration and interesting harmonies. This piece is quite definitely a crowd puller and I have often wondered why it does not feature in concert programmes as a ‘curtain raiser.’ It would surely be a great ‘Last Night’ favourite.

Helter Skelter was a comedy film produced in 1949. It starred David Tomlinson, Mervyn Johns and Carol Marsh. However there were cameo roles for a large number of actors including Dennis Price, Jon Pertwee, Esma Cannon, ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards, Terry Thomas and Richard Hearne. Hearne played a character called Professor Pastry- a persona he was to make famous on children’s TV in the nineteen-sixties. The film was directed by Ralph Thomas – who was later to make such films as Doctor in Clover, Carry On Cruising, and the cult film Percy.
The present film’s rather weak plot involves a police detective who becomes involved with a socialite and heiress. Furthermore this ‘femme fatale’ has an attack of the hiccups which is only cured after a romp at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in Langham Place. It does conveniently explain the overture’s subtitle of The Girl with the Hiccups.

Francis Chagrin (1905-72), whose real name was Alexander Paucke, was born in Romania. He studied music in his home country and in France. In 1936 he settled in London becoming by and large an ‘honorary’ British composer. Philip Scowcroft, in an article on the composer on MusicWeb International notes that during the Second World War Chagrin worked for the BBC's French service “which may account for the large number of settings of French traditional songs among his output”. Although Chagrin wrote ‘serious’ music, he made a major contribution to the film score genre; there are over two hundred in his catalogue.

Over the years, Chagrin adapted a number of film scores for the concert hall these included the Four Orchestral Episodes (from The Intruder) and the Yugoslav Sketches (from The Bridge). These are actually quite serious works and are in total contrast to Greyfriars Bobby with its Scottish flavour and the riotous Helter Skelter.

The overture from Helter Skelter opens with a short, dramatic four-bar phrase that quickly builds up to a crescendo. This is immediately followed by a ‘swaggering, energetic’ theme. This allegretto scherzando is a fine example of a well-orchestrated piece of ‘light music.’ It is well described as displaying a ‘hiccupping rhythm’ and a certain ‘slapstick quality.’ It is a fine musical description of a fairground. Soon the allegretto leads into a romantic mood: a theme worthy of Richard Strauss slowly emerges. Surely Chagrin must have had Der Rosenkavalier in his mind at this point. Yet even this music has a touch of humour provided by sardonic comments from the woodwind. The music becomes passionate before a brass fanfare leads into a modern sounding ‘allegro section’ that is rumbustious in character. A flute solo leads to an attempt at reprising the opening theme. However, the romantic Straussian tune twice manages to delay the proceedings. Eventually the ‘swaggering music finally re-establishes and leads the overture to a rousing coda – complete with ‘dance band style’ muted brass, wa-wa effects and trombone glissandi. Yet, in the final bars the music calms down and the coda is cheeky rather than decisive. The whole work gives the impression of a flamboyant, high-spirited romp tinged with an essential love interest.

The early reviews of the Overture were hardly encouraging. B. W. G. R., the critic in Music and Letters (Volume 32 No.4 October 1951), was certainly less than complimentary. He mused as to “whether ‘comedy overture’ is a suitable title for Francis Chagrin's composition,” and decided that it largely “depends upon one's interpretation of the word ‘comedy’”. He considered that the music was “banal both in its content and in its scoring (two-octave glissandos for horns, ‘wa-wa’ directions for trombones and so on)” He concluded by suggesting that “perhaps it is not intended for the concert platform”.

A few months later the Musical Times (Volume 93 March 1952) could report that: Helter- Skelter, a comedy overture by Francis Chagrin, opened the concert given by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 16 January, the programme continuing with Elgar's Falstaff and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony”. But then he hits hard: “Mr. Chagrin has been salvaging his scrap: the basis of the overture is the music he wrote some years ago for the hardly successful British film, Helter-Skelter. After a sombre beginning, the overture settles down into routine jollification (an odd bang here, and odd ' wrong' note there) with sentimental interludes; the music never becomes memorable”.

Yet some fifty-four years later critics are more understanding and more generous in their estimation of this work. Hubert Culot, writing a review of the Chandos disc of Chagrin’s music for MusicWeb International, stated that “this light-hearted overture opens the present generous survey in high spirits. The music really lives up to its title, its highly contrasted tunes ‘colliding’ with each other in a most joyful and refreshing way.” Interestingly, Culot wonders if he is “...alone in hearing echoes of Enescu’s Rumanian Rhapsodies in this piece?” Whatever the case, he concludes by suggesting that this Overture is really a “fine concert opener that should have become popular”. (August 2005)

The score of the Overture from Helter Skelter was first published in 1951 by Augener. A miniature score is also available. The recording history is difficult to pin down. There is a reference to an early ‘record’ of the ‘Spring Song’ and the ‘End titles’ played by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Muir Mathieson. This was issued on a 78 r.p.m. disc, serial number FM74 although it may refer to the studio’s own recording as opposed to something of public release. Lyrita issued a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite in 1976. It was re-released on CD in 2007. In 2005 Chandos released a fine conspectus of Francis Chagrin’s music, which includes Helter Skelter.

I note that there although there are currently two versions of the Helter Skelter Overture currently available in the CD catalogues, there is not currently a DVD of the film itself. It is perhaps fair to suggest that this is a case of the music long outliving the film.

Helter Skelter is presently available on two CDs:-
Francis Chagrin (1905-1972) Film Music Overture from Helter Skelter (1949) From An Inspector Calls (1954) From The Colditz Story (1954) Suite from Greyfriars Bobby (1961) From The Four Just Men (1959) The Hoffnung Symphony Orchestra (1965) Four Orchestral Episodes from The Intruder (1953) From Easy Money (1947) Suite from Last Holiday (1950) Yugoslav Sketches from The Bridge (1946) BBC Philharmonic conducted by Rumon Gamba CHANDOS CHAN 10323
Premieres and Encores Francis Chagrin Concert Overture: Helter Skelter with music by Pierson, Rawsthorne, Morgan and Warlock London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite LYRITA SRCD.318

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