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The Scrivener: Did You Like The Music?

…Sometimes, I ask friends if they liked the music in a film we have both seen. Too often they look blank and say they didn't notice it. I believe we should notice it…

The zither music which accompanied “The Third Man’’, the haunting theme from “Doctor Zhivago’’…

Brian Barratt recalls some of the great music that has been an essential part of outstanding films.

This is the first of two articles on this fascinating theme.

For more of Brian’s columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his invigorating Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

It's a marvellous thing, this computer. I've just been playing a DVD, watching it on the screen and listening by courtesy of a very adequate set of loudspeakers. In a short documentary, an elderly man was playing in a small musical group at a restaurant in Paris. In the background and in various parts of the restaurant, people were enjoying themselves with food and wine. Just a few were listening intently to the music. The elderly man is the owner of the restaurant. His instrument is the zither. His name is Anton Karas.

He entertained and wooed a far larger audience when he was younger, in 1949. The opening titles of London Film Production's 'The Third Man' have a simple but hypnotic background — in black and white, the vibrating and twitching strings of a zither fill the whole screen. Anton Karas's theme music and his playing are among the powerfully lingering memories of the film, which is listed by the British Film Institute (BFI) as the best British film of the 20th century. Carol Reed's direction, coupled with Robert Krasker's innovative photography, ensured that it was a remarkable film.

Just four years earlier, in 1945, David Lean directed the film of Noel Coward's 'Brief Encounter'. It starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard and was creatively and sensitively photographed by the same Robert Krasker, who lived in Australia for the first twenty or so years of his life. In this case, the theme music was not written for the film. A well-loved classic, Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, was played by Eileen Joyce with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Muir Mathieson, a name seen in the credits of many British films of the time.

'Brief Encounter' appears as no. 2 on the BFI list of greatest films. Next in line is another David Lean film, 'Lawrence of Arabia' in which 30-year-old Peter O'Toole made his first major appearance on screen, alongside Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, and a host of other 'greats' including Donald Wolfit, who was born just a few houses along the road from where I was born in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and went to the same school.

The director of photography was F.A.Young and the memorable soundtrack music was composed by Maurice Jarre. It was played by no less than the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. Maurice Jarre composed the music for many other films, including David Lean's very good (but slightly inaccurate) adaptation of E.M. Forster's 'A Passage to India'. His highest achievement was probably the music he composed and conducted for the MGM film 'Doctor Zhivago', also directed by David Lean.

The haunting 'Lara's Theme' will for ever be associated with the film, but it gave rise to something of a challenge when the film was being put together. In the 1960s, it was not possible to use Russian facilities for either the filming or the creation of the music. This was the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall.

Balalaika players had to be found elsewhere. With the help of Russian Orthodox groups where they were working in the USA, they gathered together an ensemble of players. That was splendid, except that the players couldn't read music and so were unable to work with the orchestra. Their passages were recorded separately and blended later.

Sometimes, I ask friends if they liked the music in a film we have both seen. Too often they look blank and say they didn't notice it. I believe we should notice it and, more than that, appreciate its essential role in the making of great films.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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