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Things to Come

The World's First Soundtrack Album?

by William Snedden

Sir Arthur Bliss - A Profile:

  • Born London 1891; died London 1975
  • Educated Cambridge University (studied under Charles Wood); Royal
  • College of Music (under Stanford and Vaughan Williams)
  • Composed Colour Symphony 1922; Checkmate (ballet score) 1937
  • Professor of Music, University of California 1940
  • Director of Music British Broadcast Corporation 1942-44
  • Composed tragedy-ballet Miracle in the Gorbals 1944
  • Knighted 1950
  • Master of the Queen's Musick 1953
  • Composed TV opera Tobias and the Angel 1960
  • Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order 1969
  • Companion of Honour 1971

In 1996 the BBC Radio Times announced a documentary on Sir Arthur Bliss' score to the film Things to Come, a fantasy on the history of the world from 1940-2036 conceived by H.G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come. The timing of the broadcast coincided with the 60th anniversary of the film's release. A remarkable story unfolded during the programme; a tale of serendipity which is worth recounting.

Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen's Musick, composed only a handful of film scores [1] - see Appendix. However, his collaboration in 1934-5 with the famous writer H.G. Wells and Hungarian born film producer Sir Alexander Korda on Things to Come is widely regarded as one of the finest film scores by a British composer. Other noteworthy scores by British classical composers who succeeded in the medium of film include: Scott of the Antarctic by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1948), The Sound Barrier by Sir Malcolm Arnold (reworked in 1952 as a Rhapsody for Orchestra, Op. 38) and the trio of Shakespeare adaptions composed by Sir William Walton for Laurence Olivier: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). [2]

Bliss' involvement with Things to Come (originally titled "Whither Mankind") came about primarily as a result of a meeting with Wells at the Royal Institution in London. As retold by the late Christopher Palmer, "Sometime in 1934 [March] Bliss was asked to lecture on [contemporary] music for an hour to what was possibly the oldest and most fearsome looking audience he ever encountered: the first few rows positively bristled with ear-trumpets, bath chairs and the like." [3] Wells, impressed by Bliss surviving the hour and greatly attracted to his modern outlook on the arts, proposed the collaboration.

Korda went along with Wells proposal and agreed to let Bliss compose much of the orchestral score (which includes marches and choral sections) before the film was shot. Some key scenes were in effect synchronized to the music - see below. Bliss was brought together with the young Scotsman Muir Mathieson, who first worked as musical director to Korda on Catherine the Great (1934) and later as an orchestrator and musical director to Sir William Walton on Henry V and Hamlet. [4] "Wells' idea was that the music should be part of the constructive scheme of the film, and Bliss and Muir Mathieson saw the rushes as they came in, together with Korda and Wells, and heard their invariably illuminating comments. In the end Bliss' art, essentially one of gesture and action, always at its best when responding to some extra-musical stimulus added a new dimension of spectacle and vision to Wells' and Korda's conception." [5]

A year before his death in 1975, Sir Arthur Bliss was interviewed in his home at St. John's Wood, London, by Peter Griffiths and David Badder. [6] He reminisced about his film opus and the discipline involved working with Korda and Wells:

    "Alexander Korda was not musical in any sense. When you, for instance, saw a posse of police on motor bikes rushing up the road, he felt that you must have the exact sound of those. I said 'Alex, by all means!' 'Yes', he said, 'but I want the music too.' And I said, 'You know, you can't have it - you will either have the bikes and hear the exhausts or else I'll try to do it in music.' But he insisted, 'I must have both', and of course I had to give way. That's the kind of thing which is to the composer ... frustrating."

    "Wells himself, being a scientific mind, liked to portray the future as being a world ruled by scientists, but I never thought of writing as I should now - with electronic music for some of the scenes. All the shooting to the moon with the space gun - one could have used entirely different technique. But one of the greatest advantages of working with a man like Wells was ... you know the letter from him which I quote in my autobiography [7] ... he insisted that many scenes be shot to my music. One of the big sequences was the machine sequence, which Wells was very keen about - that was written by me first before they shot it."

Concurrent with the release of the film in 1936, Decca issued a number of 78rpm records (six sides in total) covering a substantial proportion of the score (Decca K810/11, 2/36). These original recordings, possibly the world's first soundtrack, were made by Bliss and the London Symphony Orchestra in Decca's Thames Street studio on March 3rd, 1935. In addition, two sides were dubbed at Korda's Denham Studios from the film soundtrack conducted by Mathieson. Mathieson was not involved in the development of the score, but had the task, together with Lionel Salter, of cutting and editing the music to fit the finished film. [8] Bliss made ten selections from the score on that day, four sides of which were not published. The latter test pressings included the famous 'March', the original 'Prologue' and two sides of music devoted to the 'Epilogue'.

Miraculously, the unpublished records survived over 50 years in storage when they were uncovered by Jonathan Dobson in 1991 among a private collection of recordings donated to the Royal Academy of Music by Sir Henry Wood (who is cherished today as the founding father of the BBC Promenade concerts. [9]) As explained in the BBC broadcast and to quote Jonathan "The survival of these fragile tests is highly fortuitous, because within a few years of the film's completion, Bliss' original score disappeared and has never been found. [10] These unpublished sides therefore contain some unique music by Bliss that was either discarded or abridged when the film was edited." The most recent recording of Things to Come is by HNH International (Naxos catalogue no. 8.553698) featuring a suite performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Lydon-Gee. What immediately caught my eye was the note on the back cover claiming this was a "first recording" of a reconstruction by Christopher Palmer. In fact, the music matches that first recorded by Decca in 1975 at the Kingsway Hall, London: "Bernard Herrmann Conducts [the National Philharmonic Orchestra in] Great British Film Music" (released 1976). The movements on the Naxos release are the same as those performed by Herrmann (coincidentally in the same year in which Palmer made his reconstruction - 1975 [11]) with one notable difference. In place of the well-known 'March' a new track features 'Interlude: The World in Ruins'. Palmer reconstructed 'The 'World in Ruins' entirely from the soundtrack and rescored the 'Prologue' from a printed piano reduction using the film soundtrack as a guide. According to Palmer, "The present 'musical scenario' incorporates several movements never before recorded, apart from the film, and not included by the composer in the published Concert Suite. Only two movements from the latter have been retained - the 'March' and 'Epilogue' - and these have been reinstated in the order in which they were heard in the context of the film."[12] I am interested to hear from anyone who has a detailed knowledge of the reconstruction by Palmer.

Most accounts consider the film Things to Come a failure, neither fulfilling Wells' political aspiration to influence world events nor being a box office hit. However, as Bliss points out in his autobiography "Everything that Wells prophesised back in 1935 has come to pass, even the dream of shooting young volunteers into outer space moonwards." Thanks to Christopher Palmer, and Jonathan Dobson, we have the legacy of the film's score that consequently established (British) film music and immeasurably influenced the films to come.



I am indebted to Cynthia Harris for searching through the archives at the British Film Institute to find source material and for critiquing this article. A special word of thanks also to Jonathan Dobson for sharing information on the test pressings housed at the RAM library.

Appendix and Notes

1. Film Index International lists the following credits for Sir Arthur Bliss:

    1935 Things to Come (London Film Productions, William Cameron Menzies)

    1938 Conquest of the Air (London Film Productions, Alexander Korda/Charles Frend/Zoltan Korda)

    1943 Defeat of the Germans near Moscow - (Central Newsreel Studios, Anglo-American/Russian production, Leonid Varlamov/Ilya Kopalin)

    1945 Presence au Combat - (Anglo/French production combining footage from Journal De La Resistance with captured Nazi newsreel on the fall of France, Marcel Cravenne)

    1946 Men of Two Worlds (2 Cities, Thorold Dickson)

    1948 Christopher Columbus (Gainsborough Pictures, David MacDonald)

    1953 The Beggar's Opera - music additions and arrangements (Imperadio Pictures, Peter Brook)

    1954 Welcome the Queen - title march, one of two works written to celebrate the return of the Queen from her Commonwealth Tour on May 15,

    1954 (Howard Thomas)

    1957 Seven Waves Away - US Abandon Ship (Copa Productions, Richard Sale) In 1944 Bliss wrote a skeleton piano score for a film version of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra but later withdrew from the project.

2. There are a host of other excellent British film composers that really ought to be cited. A rare sampler of neo-classical scores mainly from the black and white era of British cinema can be found on the EMI label: "British Film Music from the 1940s and 1950s" (CDGO2059) which features scores by Richard Addinsell (Blythe Spirit), Allan Gray (A Matter of Life and Death) and William Alwyn (The Rake's Progress) et al.

3. Sleeve notes by Christopher Palmer, "Bernard Herrmann Conducts Great British Film Music", Decca PFS 4363 released 1976.

4. Muir Mathieson (b. 1911; d. 1975) conducted hundreds of British film scores and worked with all the great English composers (Addinsell, Alwyn, Arthur Benjamin, Arnold Bax, Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams). He was a Governor of the British Film Institute and received the OBE for his services to music. Bliss paid tribute to him as "a master" and wrote in his autobiography "I used to greatly admire Muir at work, baton in one hand, stop-watch in the other, one eye on the film and the other on his players. He was so type-cast for this particularly exacting work, that his great abilities as a conductor of public concerts have been overlooked, and that is the musical world's loss."

5. Sleeve notes by Christopher Palmer

6. See 'Sir Arthur Bliss' in Film Dope no 5, July 1974 pp. 2-5 (introduction by Peter Griffiths, transcript approved by Sir Arthur).

7. Bliss' autobiography 'As I Remember', London, Faber, first published 1970.

8. "Bliss conducts Bliss", digitally remastered recordings of the Concert Suite from Things to Come (17 June 1957) and excerpts from the 1935 Decca recording by the LSO ('Ballet for Children', 'Melodrama: Pestilence; Attack', 'The World in Ruins') Dutton Laboratories CDLXT 2501 released 1995. In the August 1995 Gramophone review of this recording, Lionel Salter (who recently died - March 1, 2000) revealed that he was charged during the original film production with "tidyings-up and surgery", a job he felt privileged and overawed to do, as Bliss had been one of his musical heroes.

9. The Henry Wood Promenade concerts started as far back as 1895 and from 1927 have been sponsored by the BBC. After 1941 the Royal Albert Hall (opened in 1871) became the new home for the Proms after a Luftwaffe air raid destroyed the original venue, the Queen's Hall in London.

10. With the exception of the six-movement Concert Suite first broadcast from Queen's Hall on September 12th, 1935. 'Building of the New World' has survived as 'Entry of the Red Castles' from Bliss' ballet Checkmate, and the manuscript of 'Attack on the Moon Gun' was discovered after Bliss's death.

11. Also recommended is "English Orchestral Works" performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras conducted by Sir Charles Groves (HMV Greensleeve ED291 053-1), which contains a digitally remastered recording of the suite from Things to Come edited and arranged by Palmer, first issued on Columbia HMV ASD3416 (11/77).

12. Sleeve notes by Christopher Palmer.

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