Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
49th Parallel: the complete music written for the film (1940-41)
Performing edition and transcriptions from the original manuscripts by Martin Yates (2002)
Jessica Millson (singer)
BBC Concert Orchestra / Martin Yates
rec. 2022, St Augustine’s, Kilburn, London, UK
Dutton Epoch CDLX7405 SACD [81]

This is a release which will be of great interest to all admirers of the music of Vaughan Williams. A few years ago, Martin Yates gave us a revelatory recording of VW’s complete score for the film Scott of the Antarctic (review).  Now he has turned his attention to an earlier film score: VW’s music for the 1941 movie, 49th Parallel.  Collectors may be familiar with some of this music but to the best of my knowledge the fullest exposure of the score that has previously appeared on disc is the suite which Stephen Hogger compiled and edited. This was recorded for Chandos by Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic in 2003; it formed part of Vol 2 of the Chandos survey of VW’s film music (review). However, it turns out that Hogger’s suite was literally half the story: Gamba’s performance of the suite lasts for 38:43 but Martin Yates’ performing edition of the full score takes 81:01 to play.   

In the booklet Martin Yates relates that when he came to examine the full score of VW’s music for 49th Parallel, lodged in the British Library, he discovered a very substantial amount of music. The full score runs to 180 pages and, in addition, there are three pages in the hand of a copyist. The film represented two cinematographic firsts: it was VW’s first film score; it was also the first (and only) feature-length film made by the British Ministry of Information. In brief, the film follows six German sailors – two officers and four crew members – from U37, which had been marauding off the eastern Canadian coast. The raiding party had been sent ashore in Hudson’s Bay under the command of the fanatical Nazi, Lieutenant Hirth, to search for supplies. From the shore they witness the destruction of U37 by Canadian aircraft. They realise their only hope is to head south to the border with the neutral USA. Along the way they have a number of encounters with Canadians, all of who they treat with disdain and, often, brutality. Their ranks are thinned out by death or capture until only Hirth is left. He smuggles himself onto a freight train to cross the border and finds himself in company with Andy Brock, a Canadian soldier who has absconded from his unit. After the train has crossed the US border, Brock denounces Hirth to the US Customs authorities and contrives to have both of them sent straight back to Canada where, we assume, justice will catch up with Hirth.

A lot of the music which VW composed was not used in the finished film. Furthermore, some of it was only heard very much in the background. A prime example is track 19, ‘Banff “Indian Days”’.  This is music to accompany a horseback parade of First Nation warriors, all in full array, along the main street of Banff. VW wrote a lively – and quite loud – musical episode which is punctuated by pounding drum beats. As Lewis Foreman observes in Dutton’s booklet, VW avoids any musical clichés associated with might have been termed in those days ‘Red Indians’. It’s an exciting little episode. However, in the film it’s so discreet in the soundtrack that one has to strain to hear it. Martin Yates’ recording allows us to appreciate it to the full.

Inevitably, there are several tracks which are quite brief – nine of the twenty-three tracks play for less than two minutes. That includes two versions of the same music – ‘The Hutterite Settlement’. The second of these features reduced scoring; it’s not clear why VW made two versions.  However, there are some very ‘meaty’ chunks as well. First and foremost is the Main Title with that spacious and noble theme; it is played richly here. We get a second chance to hear that stirring music as the End Titles and it provides a satisfying sense of finis, especially as the culmination of some 80 minutes of music. 

The most substantial track is the second, ‘Prologue panorama’, which here plays for 15:56. This is an excellent stretch of music, with several episodes within it. These include a richly-scored reference back to the Main Title music; here the horns make a telling contribution. Just when you think that the section is going to end with peaceful musings on the Main Title, VW provides menacing music, referring to U37.  There follows ‘The control room sends an alert’; as you might expect, there’s considerable urgency here – it’s reminiscent of parts of Job and the Fourth Symphony. A little later on in the story comes the music entitled ‘The Nazis steal the float plane’. Here, I was conscious of VW making much-repeated use of a melodic fragment. That’s a trait which is in evidence at several other points in the score. I think it’s more noticeable when one is simply listening to the music; with visual images taking the prime focus in the film it wouldn’t be so obvious.

Part of the action takes place in the city of Winnipeg, for which VW provided two small bits of music. As Lewis Foreman comments, little of this music is clearly heard in the film – indeed, it made no impression on me when I watched the film and I’m not sure how much was used. In this recording, though, we can hear it to full advantage. I enjoyed the ‘Valse: Winnipeg’; it’s happy and delightful and here it’s played with a real swing. That’s followed by ‘Dance music: In the restaurant’. Here, VW demonstrates that he’s really ‘got’ the dance band idiom. I noted with interest that VW had included parts for a pair of saxophones which, apparently, feature elsewhere in the score too. I must say that this track was one of the few occasions on which I could clearly hear the saxes but they are a most idiomatic contribution to the Dance music. Martin Yates explains that this is the first time the saxes have been heard: apparently, they were not included when the music was first recorded for the film (by Muir Mathieson and the LSO).

Another extensive track is ‘Journey through the mountains’ (track 20). This links to the episode in the film where Hirth and his one remaining companion, having escaped arrest in Banff, trek through the majestic Canadian mountains before coming across the lakeside camp of an English aesthete, Philip Armstrong Scott. The music to which the Nazis journey there is fine stuff. VW is varied and descriptive in his invention – and scoring – and the whole episode exerts a powerful atmosphere. In the film, the scene at Scott’s camp is quite lengthy but much of it is played out without any music in the background. VW’s music for this scene (track 21) lasts for 5:49, though I’m not sure that all of it was used in the film. What we hear in Yates’ recording is very illustrative of how Hirth and his subordinate interact with Scott and eventually abuse him – frankly I’m surprised they didn’t kill him; probably they feared the noise would alert Scott’s staff, sleeping in a nearby tent.

All that remains is a short episode to illustrate the train journey to the US border at Niagara Falls before we hear the End Titles music. I felt, as Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra played the concluding music, that we had indeed traversed the whole of the film, covering most of its essential aspects.  

Having listened to this recording, I thought it would be interesting to hear the music which made it into the film in that context. So, more in hope than expectation, I did some searching and was amazed to find the film on Amazon Prime. It’s very much of its time, of course; in particular, Emeric Pressburger’s story is heavily slanted, to put it mildly, and to our eyes the characters often seem more akin to caricatures. That said, one mustn’t judge the film too harshly; most of us weren’t alive in 1941, living through the perils of World War II, and the film fulfilled a need in terms of morale and, crucially, in trying to influence attitudes in the USA; it’s very significant that when released in the US the film was entitled ‘The Invaders’. It must be decades since I saw the film and I was surprised at the extent to which large spans of the film use no music at all. However, in the sequences which include background music, VW’s score fits the action – or the topography – extraordinarily well. One thing really caught my attention. At the very start of the film, the opening credits roll, superimposed over panoramas of Canada. After an opening dedication to the people of Canada, we see the names of each of the principal actors in turn – Leslie Howard (who played Philip Armstrong Scott), Laurence Olivier (Johnnie, the trapper), Raymond Massey (Andy Brock), Anton Walbrook (Peter, the Hutterite leader) and Eric Portman (Lieutenant Hirth) – followed immediately by the caption “And the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams”. How interesting that VW’s name should have been given such prominence. 

His prominence was well-deserved. Having heard all the music composed for the film I can honestly say that the whole score is really well worth hearing.  As Martin Yates puts it in the booklet, ‘Vaughan Williams never wrote “that will do” music’. The entire score is expertly crafted, resourcefully scored and thematically memorable. After this first foray into film music, it’s scarcely surprising that VW received further invitations to write for the silver screen.

The music is impressively played by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Martin Yates’ assured direction. The recording is excellent: I listened to the stereo layer of the SACD and I found both the level of detail and the way in which the full ensemble was captured were most impressive. Impressive too is the documentation, which includes highly informative essays by Martin Yates and by Lewis Foreman.

Martin Yates’ painstaking detective work on this score has been vindicated in spades. This is a very important addition to the composer’s discography. All VW devotees should ensure they hear this ear-opening disc without delay.

John Quinn

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