Listening to Britten – Love from a stranger


Image from Wikipedia

Love from a stranger – Incidental music for orchestra (18 – 26 November 1936, Britten aged 23)

1 Title music
2 Traffic music
3 Brighton
4 Love music
5 Channel Crossing
6 End Titles

Director Rowland V. Lee
Duration 10′

Audio clips

Love from a stranger can be heard on the NMC website, part of a release including film scores by Roberto Gerhard, Elizabeth Lutyens and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Background and Critical Reception

Modeled on a short story by Agatha Christie, Love from a stranger was a Trafalgar Films picture starred Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone. It was the only feature film for which Britten supplied a soundtrack, and it was not a happy experience for the composer. Much of his material was cut and altered, prompting him to say he would never write for the screen again. Perhaps sadly – given the quality of some of his GPO commissions – he was true to his word.

The score for the film was rescued by Colin Matthews, who assembled a performing score using Britten’s sketches and by listening to the soundtrack on the film itself. The surviving suite of six numbers was assembled and recorded by Matthews’ record company, NMC, in 1999, and released in 2004.

There were silver linings to Britten’s discontent with this score, however. One of them was meeting Boyd Neel for the first time. Neel was the musical director for the production, and was impressed by Britten’s speed of thought and invention under extreme pressure, where he had to call on the assistance of the composer Grace Williams to ensure the score was finished on time. He was to call on those for the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. Then, as John Bridcut points out, the other silver lining was a handsome payment for the composer’s time of £200.

Thoughts

Colin Matthews’ efforts are vindicated in the ten-minute suite that survives from the film. There is a brief Mahlerian march that makes up the Title music, then a descriptive piece that evokes the traffic, but pride of place goes to the more substantial Love music movement.

Here again is the influence of Mahler in the use of chamber forces within the full symphony orchestra, but the baleful alto saxophone solo is a moment of mellow beauty. This proved another chance for Britten to write for an instrument whose popularity within classical music was growing – and the composer himself had just written for it as part of the orchestra for Our Hunting Fathers.

Channel Crossing also dances gracefully to a Mahlerian waltz, and the alto saxophone appears again in the final third, as do swaying strings, before the End titles wrap up a beautifully scored if slightly derivative piece of writing for the big screen.

Recordings used

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jac van Steen (NMC)

A colourful performance, with a winning alto saxophone solo in the love music.

Spotify

Love from a Stranger can be found as the first six tracks on this intriguing album of Four Classic Film Scores from NMC.

Also written in 1936: Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf

Next up: Temporal Variations

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