Sunday, 13 June 2010

Benjamin Frankel: Film Music

Benjamin FRANKEL (1906-1973) Curse of the Werewolf (1959) So Long at the Fair (1950) The Net - Love Theme (1953) The Prisoner (1955)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis
Naxos Film Music Classics 8.557850

I must make a confession. I do not like Werewolves or films which involve psychological drama. Torture and violence - either physical or mental are not part of my definition of entertainment. But I do like comedies and light romantic tales and adventures. So perhaps I am not best able to comment on the majority of this CD with any great authority. Yet I do love the music on this CD: it has all the hallmarks of a great composer writing effective music which has the desired effect of pointing up the action on the screen. However my problem is this. I do not want to subconsciously provide the relevant cinematographic images in my mind’s eye for some of this enchanting music. I want to enjoy the music as music. Therein lies the rub.

Look at the plot of Curse of the Werewolf – a young man, Leon, is struck down with lycanthropy (causes humans to change into wolves at each full moon) His mother had been made pregnant by a crazed and evil beggar. After a reasonably normal childhood Leon falls victim to vice. Even the love of Christiana does not help him reform - and eventually he comes to a sticky end with a silver bullet fashioned from a crucifix. All very scary stuff – at least to people of my generation – although I wonder what today’s young filmgoers would make of it. Perhaps the ‘scariness’ is a bit camp by today’s standards.

The Prisoner has a harrowing plot – a Roman Catholic priest is arrested on ‘trumped up’ treason charges and is subject to torture and brainwashing, before rolling up at a ‘show’ trial. Not much fun there, I fear, although I understand the film received great accolades when it was released in 1955. And with Alec Guinness (priest) and Jack Hawkins (interrogator) in the leading roles, success was bound to follow.

Neither film is on my list of ‘ones to watch before I die.’ But the music is great! The present CD gives a complete account of all the music that Benjamin Frankel wrote for the ‘Curse’ and for The Prisoner. The latter score is in fact a first recording of this music since the film’s release. Interestingly, the composer makes use of ‘serial’ technique in the ‘Curse’ - this being the first British film to use this particular compositional technique. Strangely, Frankel never used this tool again in his work for the cinema.

Now for my secret listening strategy. I listened to the ‘Curse’ and then switched the ‘hi-fi’ off. I had a rest, a cup of tea and a walk round the ‘policies’ and then listened to ‘The Prisoner’. I deliberately put all thoughts of evil and torture and werewolves and dark windy castles out of my mind: Gothic horror and ‘Stalinist’ excesses were forgotten for this exercise. I told myself I was listening to Benjamin Franklin’s “Symphonic Variations” followed by his “Variations on a Theme” for Orchestra. And this did the trick. It actually worked well – there is an internal consistency in each of these two scores that do allow the works to be listened to without reference to the plot or programme. They are actually extremely effective ‘concert pieces’ if heard in this manner. But (I agree) it is a scam! And call me unsophisticated if you will…

Of course the other two film scores represented are easier on the mind. The short extract from the mysterious So Long at the Fair is pure romance. Most listeners will know the evocative ‘Carriage & Pair’ which has featured in a score of British Light Music record and CD releases. Frankel’s music makes much use of this memorable tune and the result is a lovely miniature suite. The Love Theme to The Net - a spy thriller- is another one of the composer’s attractive tunes. Of course there was much more music from this score – but Carl Davis and the redoubtable Liverpool Phil. gives us what I presume to be the highlight.

So in sum this is a great CD. Enjoy the ‘given’ movie images in your mind if this is you ‘bag’ – or listen to it as ‘absolute music’ if you do not want to associate this wonderful music with hairy hands and sharp incisors and thumbscrews.

Benjamin Frankel is one of Britain’s many underrated and undervalued composers. And he was born a hundred years ago this year. Scan the BBC Promenade Concert Programmes and you will not find any mention of him or his music. It would not have taken too much boldness on the concert programmers’ part to dump a piece by Mozart, Shostakovich or Colin Matthews and slip in Frankel’s Violin Concerto or First Symphony. But of course Frankel is not the only composer to suffer from Auntie’s indifference to 19th and 20th century British Music. Heigh ho…

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this was first published

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