June 20, 2004
When the music starts …

I love that moment in train movies when the train finally starts, and with it, the music.

CruelSea.jpgYesterday I watched The Cruel Sea on the telly, and to judge by that, it's the same with ship movies. I realised that I was actually watching this movie properly for the first time in my life, because the beginning was completely new to me, even though I know the book well. Exquisite stuff from a young and beautiful Denholm Elliott as one of the officers, squaring up with silent contempt to Stanley Baker's bullying First Lieutenant ("And don't you forget it!"). Then as later, this superb character actor could make putty out of star actors, for as long as he was allowed to be in it. (He got drowned a little later.) Anyway, when, after the introductions and a spot of training, they finally sailed off to war for real, the music started, just the way it does when the train starts up in The Silver Streak or in Murder on the Orient Express.

There are quite a few symphonies which work like this as well. The music starts at the start, of course it does. It has to. It's music. But it doesn't go anywhere. It merely establishes itself, pitches its tent, takes control of the ship, packs all the passengers into the train, introduces itself to itself, so to speak, often with quite a fanfare, but with no sense of motion, of going anywhere. And then when that's all done, the music really starts, that is to say, it starts out on the journey that will be the substance of the symphony. Two symphonies especially spring to mind – Elgar One and Mahler Two –and I'll bet that if you listened to them, you'd pick the exact moments that I'm talking about.

With classical music, this sense of a journey getting under way is often achieved with a change of key, with further changes as further progress unfolds. With movies, the simple fact of music itself is often the announcement of the beginning of the real journey. Either way, these are precious moments. (I seem to recall writing here about the corresponding moment in The Dam Busters, when Barnes Wallis finally cracks one of his model dams and the water (and the music) suddenly gushes forth. But I've had a look through the archives, and apparently this is my first mention of this classic moment.)

I had a date later in the afternoon, and wasn't be able to watch all of The Cruel Sea. But it has been out on DVD for a while and I will get it if the price is right.

I wrote most of this posting while The Cruel Sea, what I watched of it, was still in progress, and noted down in particular the Jack Hawkins line: "… how to die without wasting anyone's time …". That sums up a whole generation – doesn't it? – the last of them leaving us only now. This was a hell of a journey, in other words. The phrase "face the music" suggests itself. For us, that's Fred and Ginger. For them, that too, but also rather more.

The Cruel Sea even managed to make Donald Sinden sounds non-ridiculous. Now there's a first, or maybe a last would be more accurate.

Also, while googling for links, I learned that Alan Rawsthorne did the music. I like Rawsthorne's music. He was, I believe, one of those Communists whose views about world politics (if not about the local misfortunes that may have given rise to them) I loath and detest, but whose approach to art I like a lot. I particularly recommend this Chandos disc of his piano concertos. And if you follow that link you will also find, just below, info about the Naxos disc of (almost) the same pieces, also very good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:57 PM
Category: Classical musicMovies