Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bernard Stevens: Music Suite from The Mark of Cain

Bertha Stevens
I was watching a video recording of Ken Russell’s 1995 Southbank Show ‘Classic Widows’ the other day. This programme featured Susana Walton, Xenia Frankel, Fiona Searle and Bertha Stevens. Russell’s intention was to promote less-well known composers. Where the hugely successful Walton fitted into this scheme I am not sure. Contrariwise, Benjamin Frankel, Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle have not become household names.
The concept of the programme was to show how these widows were promoting their husbands’ music. It is not a particularly well-wrought film: it is clear that the four ladies were not used to speaking to a camera in these circumstances. The script and the delivery is often stilted. However, it is an informative and fascinating insight to the music of these four men.
Each of the four sections include a couple of extracts from the composer’s music. I was struck by the film score that Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) wrote for the 1948 British film The Mark of Cain. It is not my intention to plot-spoil for anyone who has not seen this film: I have not seen it myself. Save to say that it is based round the rival jealousies of two brothers when the younger marries a pretty French girl. It is a melodrama set in late Victorian-early Edwardian times.  The film stars Eric Portman, Sally Gray and James Hayter.
I turned to the only available reference book on the composer’s achievement – Bernard Stevens and his Music: A Symposium published in 1989 by Kahn and Averill, London. It was edited by his wife.
In the short section devoted to the film music Bertha Stevens notes that ‘the amount of music required for the film was considerable, including an imitation Tchaikovsky piano concerto demanded by the director’, Brian Desmond Hurst (1895-1986). Seemingly he was not prepared to use ‘the real thing.’
Bertha Stevens notes that this film was made at time when ‘dramatic highlights frequently took place at concerts, with the stars looking extremely glamorous in full evening dress, expressing suitable emotional reactions to the romantic music.’
One sour note is sounded by the composer’s widow – she points out that Stevens had produced a good ‘concerto piece’ however she ‘regrets that, although a few pencil sketches of his film music exist (he also wrote the scores to The Up-Turned Glass and Once a Jolly Swagman) the scores along with hundreds of others automatically taken into possession of the film companies have been lost.’  Finally, she was of the opinion that the music in the film was well-played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the redoubtable Muir Mathieson but ‘was wasted by an incompetent director.’ Bertha Stevens rated Eric Portman but felt that the rest of the cast were ‘surprisingly ineffective.’

Music from The Mark of Cain was arranged into an ‘orchestral sequence’ by Adrian Williams. It was first performed as a ‘suite’ in 1995 by Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra. An extract of this Suite was issued on Chandos (CHAN7008).
There is a wide variety of moods in this short ten-minute suite, however, towards the end, the composer clearly wears his heart on his sleeve with a superb romantic tune worthy of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov or Richard Addinsell. The score includes a quotation from the French folksong ‘Bailero’ which was made famous by Joseph Canteloube in his ‘Songs of the Auvergne’.
The YouTube file is of the complete suite – I guess that it was taken from a radio broadcast as it does not appear to be listed in the CD catalogues.

Bertha Stevens died on 19 January 2012 aged 97.

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