Sunday, March 26, 2023

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The film mogul Alexander Korda released his science-fiction vision Things to Come in 1936. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are on the war path, spreading liberal doses of death, famine, conflict and pestilence over our (unspecified but obvious) sceptered isle. In their wake rise fascism, ignorance and regression – there’s an image in the film of two horses in harness to a Rolls-Royce – until a new world order establishes peace, and the human race starts to rebuild, with the film ending a century later with the first moon flight. H. G. Wells’s novel has proved remarkably prescient.

Korda’s film was groundbreaking in its ambition, style and design, and it also played a crucial role in expanding the importance of movie music. Arthur Bliss’s score initially had that rare privilege of being the tail that wagged the dog in terms of the film accommodating the music, and there are substantial set pieces, including a long entr’acte and a big number for Korda’s vision of a harmonious future. The finished result, however, was very different, with music cut or not used at all. The LSO played for the soundtrack and for the first commercial recording, and this reunion of orchestra and screening has been a project long in the making. Frank Strobel has made film scores a specialty, and his cueing of the big sections sounded seamless, played with confidence and glamour.

Bliss (born in 1891) lived a generation after Vaughan Williams and died in 1975, much honoured, a year earlier than Britten. He wrote the Things to Come music when his style had become more conservative and English, and often compared to Elgar’s. The swagger of the ‘March’ dominates the film’s first half, brilliantly served by the LSO, and later there is a pastoral sweep to the music. The speech element on the soundtrack fared less well, sounding like a badly tuned radio station played at full volume. You got the gist and the cut-glass English accents, but you leave the film humming the score and recalling the visuals – especially the costumes which must have influenced the Star Trek look.

But the genesis of the film seems to have been a nightmare. In the end, Korda didn’t use Wells’s script, and he brought in Muir Mathieson to rework Bliss’s score. (Mathieson’s daughter Fiona went on to play Clarrie Grundy in The Archers.) It’s a miracle that the end result coheres so well, and, whatever the difficulties, Bliss’s contribution was a triumph.


Music for Things to Come, directed by Alexander Korda, based on H. G. Wells’s novel The Shape of Things to Come

London Symphony Orchestra

Frank Strobel

This review will also appear on Classical Source