The symphonic score for Alexander Korda’s 1936 sci-fi classic Things to Come, composed by Arthur Bliss pre-production using scripts by H G Wells, changed the landscape of how music for film could sound.
The orchestra that was assembled to record Bliss’ music comprised primarily LSO musicians, and when the original music for Things to Come was released – the first time such music was made available commercially – it was under the LSO’s name. Things to Come set the LSO on its course as a premier orchestra for film..
Frank Strobel conducts a concert on Sunday March 26 at the Barbican with a simultaneous screening of this classic British film. Strobel is an artist whose reputation as a leading figure in the space where music meets film precedes him, and with whom the LSO have had the pleasure of working numerous times over the years, both at the Barbican and on tour.
Introductory Programme note by Neil Brand
Afterthe international triumph of his film The Private Life of Henry VIII, producer and Denham studio chief Alexander Korda met author H G Wells, whom he idolised, in a Bournemouth tearoom to discuss filming Things to Come. At the end of the meeting the two men left with a scribbled outline contract assigning Wells almost total creative control of Korda’s forthcoming film.
Wells immediately embarked on the screenplay (which he published before the film was made) with a clear-eyed idealism. He foretold the coming of another, and even more terrible, World War in 1940 (he was only three months out), followed by a period of post-apocalyptic barbarism ending conclusively with an awe-inspiring utopia built on science and organised egalitarianism.
To render this grand vision concrete, Wells chose as his visual collaborators such famous contemporary artists as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (on the run from the Nazis who had his beloved Bauhaus in their sights), Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger, most of whom rejected or failed to match Wells’ vision and moral purpose. The job of Production Designer would eventually go to Korda’s brother Vincent.
With typical panache, Wells was after nothing less than a new form of storytelling in cinema. He envisioned using ‘… form, story and music brought together (…) in a beautiful, vigorous and moving work of art, which will be well within the grasp and understanding of the ordinary film audience’. So, he approached the contemporary composer he most admired and offered him the same deal that Korda had offered Wells – a free hand in what he composed, the film summarily to be cut to fit that score. The composer was Arthur Bliss.
It didn’t help that Wells hadn’t the first idea about the practicalities of filmmaking, issuing vague, rhetorical memos and a discursive, bombastic script to the unfortunate creatives tasked with making his film. But with his ground-breaking instruction to Bliss, he had stumbled upon something which would be looked on as gold dust by any film score composer working today. Instead of having to shape his score to the demands of the finished film, the composer would be able to write long, free-form tone poems as set-pieces, responding to Wells’ scripted ideas for the film before it even went into production. The subsequent film would be built around that score. Bliss eagerly accepted.
Unlike Wells’ visual collaborators, Bliss was hardly a Modernist. Born in 1891 in Barnes, London, as a young man he was fascinated by composers Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Les Six, and he composed pieces that startled post-War audiences. But by 1935 he had, according to Grove Dictionary, ‘firmly established his position as [Edward] Elgar’s natural successor’. This, then, was Wells’ sound of the future, capable of futuristic texture but not so Modernist as to frighten the horses. From the mid-1930s onwards, concert hall contemporaries such as Benjamin Britten and William Walton were to leave Arthur Bliss sounding passé, yet with his score for Things to Come, he revolutionised both film composition and how movies could sound.
Inspired by Wells’ pre-production script, Bliss sat down to realise its imaginings with a muscular blend of pomp and Futuristic kineticism, proving himself a master of both. He caught the emotional core of the film better than any other element of its production, including Wells’ script.
Dramatic and powerful from the start, there is a dark, despairing edge to the opening scenes broken only by the Christmas ‘Ballet for Children’ as Cabal’s (Raymond Massey) family celebrate before the underscored panic which accompanies a visceral air raid. Trumpets and drums lead us into a World War which itself gives way to an eerie bleakness of ‘The World in Ruins’ and ‘Pestilence’. The wordless, five and a half-minute sequence of ‘The Building of the New World’, the closest the film would come to Wells’ vision of story, picture and music intertwined, is a relentless march, broken by disjointed fanfares and awestruck major-key climaxes accompanying the vast machines building the underground city. The final musical cue as mankind aims for the stars is a string-led statement of nobility in the face of an unknown future, passionate and moving, Bliss wearing his heart proudly on his sleeve.