Charles Williams contributed a number of works celebrating railways. I think of the score to the film Night Train to Munich (1940), the miniature orchestral piece Model Railway and the present Rhythm on Rails. However, any listener imagining that this present piece has its genesis in a consideration of the Royal Scot speeding between London Euston and Glasgow Central, the Cornish Riviera travelling between Paddington and Penzance or the Talisman connecting Edinburgh with London Kings Cross, will be mistaken. This railway is ‘all-American’. My minds eye sees a heavy goods train crossing the Rockies rather than an express passenger train on British Rail. It is Casey Jones that has his hand on the regulator.
The musical picture opens gently with steam locomotive sounds which more or less keep up for the duration. There is a little scrurrying tune that features as one of the ‘counter-melodies of the piece. Eventually this builds up to a bold theme delivered on the brass instruments. This has an intimation of a steam whistle. However there is another theme introduced which is a sweeping, romantic tune that acts as a foil to the ‘rhythm of the rails.’ Towards the half-way point the composer introduces a hard, bluesy whistle sound into the musical texture. This is a sinister wailing noise and suggests that the train is insisting everything gets out of its road. The music quickly moves to the coda and ends with a ‘sforzando’ chord, but not before the whistle is heard again – this time it is a little shunter and not a giant freight locomotive.
The work was composed circa 1956 and was likely to have been a contribution to the massive Chappell library of ‘mood music.’
There have been many recordings made of this piece over the year, including some by the composer. However the Hyperion British Light Music Classics., Volume 4, CDA67400 is possibly the best of the currently available versions.
It is often stated that Rhythm on Rails was used as the theme music to Morning Music on the BBC Home Service. However, although this tune was often heard, it was not actually the theme tune.