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Powell and Pressburger: The Composers | reviews, news & interviews

Powell and Pressburger: The Composers

Powell and Pressburger: The Composers

Two musicians, both largely forgotten, gave the duo's films much of their power

"The music is all that matters!" Pressburger, Powell and Brian Easdale in 1947

Unlike, say, Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Michael Powell’s working relationships with musicians were cordial, particularly his collaborations with composers Allan Gray and Brian Easdale.

Gray, born Józef Żmigrod in Poland in 1902, had met Emeric Pressburger while working for UFA in the Weimar Republic, their paths crossing again in the early 1940s. Fleeing Nazi Germany for the UK in 1934, Gray was briefly interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man after war broke out, Vaughan Williams among those calling for his release as “a musician of distinction”.

Gray subsequently provided music for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter of Life and Death. Powell’s memoir A Life in Movies gives us a sense of Gray’s strengths and limitations: “… his was film music in the traditional way, applied on, mixed into the soundtrack and the dialogue of the actors, like rich glazing on a ham.”

Niven stairsThis is surely too harsh: fifty pages earlier, Powell praises the “delightful” Gray’s “sympathy and skilful orchestrations”, highlighting the ostinato piano motif which accompanies the moving staircase in A Matter of Life and Death (pictured right), later recycled by Patrick Keiller in his Robinson in Space (1997). Gray extracts maximum mileage from this disquieting, mechanical theme, its proto-minimalist repetitions mirroring David Niven’s exasperation as he struggles to choose a defence counsel. The theatrical organ flourish introducing Abraham Sofaer’s celestial judge is another highlight.

The scores written for A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going show Gray’s gift for skilled pastiche; the earlier film’s bucolic folksiness married with a luminous transcendence which recalls Vaughan Williams. And Gray’s viscerally exciting storm music adds much to the impact of I Know Where I’m Going!’s sea scenes. Gray took British citizenship after the war and continued to compose for films into the 1950s, his most famous post-P&P score being John Huston’s The African Queen. He died in 1973.

Black NarcissusBrian Easdale (1909-1995) was a prize-winning RCM graduate whose early career took in arranging and orchestrating early works by Britten. Military service saw him posted to Ceylon and India, composing music for documentaries, and a fascination with what we’d now term "world music" (plus a passing acquaintance with author Rumer Goden) led Powell and Pressburger to ask him to write music for a dance sequence in Black Narcissus. Easdale ended up providing the complete soundtrack and worked closely with Powell. Sequences were meticulously organised, the musically literate director preferring to rehearse and shoot with a piano track and ready access to a written score. Kathleen Byron’s death scene was “planned step by step, bar by bar”, the results incredibly effective coupled with Easdale’s heady accompaniment.

Gray was hired to compose the central ballet sequence in The Red Shoes but his effort was rejected after a single piano play-through. Easdale was hastily summoned and produced a replacement at breakneck speed. Modesty prompted his suggestion that Sir Thomas Beecham should conduct the Ballet of the Red Shoes, and that much of it sounds like a beguiling mixture of Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Prokofiev isn’t a criticism – as ballet music, it’s terrific, and deservedly won the composer an Oscar for Best Original Score.

The recent Chandos recording (in a performing edition made by John Wilson) is worth acquiring, the engineers giving due prominence to the eerie howl of the Ondes Martenot. Several moments stand out: I can’t resist the doomy descending brass chords heard while Moira Shearer’s Vicky is assailed by demons, and the ballet’s quiet final minutes suggest that Easdale knew his Stravinsky well. The Red Shoes’ musical sequences are unusually credible: the musicians look as if they’re playing and not miming. Do listen out for the low brass parp heard while Marius Goring’s nervous Craster (pictured below right) apologises at the start of his first rehearsal, a gag which musicians will appreciate.

Marius GoringEasdale continued to work with Powell and Pressburger during the 1950s. The former’s diary entries for 1952 and 1953 describe in detail a close collaboration with him on The Lotus of the Moon, an unrealised project based on a Hindu love story. Powell describes him at one point, perhaps unfairly, as “civilised, cultivated, brilliant and lazy”, while marvelling at Easdale’s fluency. Nothing which followed was quite as memorable, sadly, and his music for The Battle of the River Plate rarely catches fire. Still, the percussive piano riff heard over the opening titles to Powell’s Peeping Tom shows him back on form, though the film’s critical mauling harmed the careers of composer as well as director.

Easdale provided a choral work for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, inevitably overshadowed by his one-time colleague Britten’s War Requiem, and slipped into relative obscurity and spells of alcoholism. He continued to compose sporadically, producing music for radio plays, documentaries and stage productions, and there was one final collaboration with Powell, Easdale composing and conducting snippets of incidental music for 1978’s Return to the Edge of the World. He died in a Kilburn retirement home, a year after a performance of a new suite drawn from The Red Shoes had reawakened interest in his work.

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