Here is another of our guest blogs about musicians making music. This time, we hear from the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, one of our local orchestras with whom we work closely. They borrow a lot of material from us, but on this occasion, Ursula tells us about a special performance which didn’t involve the library.

Film: The Battle of the Somme (originally released 1916)

Still from the film
A still from the film. (Public domain image accessed via Wikipedia).

This film from World War 1 is a silent documentary and propaganda production, shot by two government-sanctioned cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. It shows the opening weeks of the Battle of the Somme, mostly for real, with only a few staged elements. When it was released in the UK in August 1916, it was seen by twenty million people within six weeks of its release. A phenomenal number of viewers who must have been shocked by its depictions of real war and all that entailed. As the then Prime Minister, Lloyd George’s quote below gives some idea of the impact the film had.

Somme film advertisement from 1916
Advertisement from The Yorkshire Evening Post. Public domain image sourced via Wikipedia

In 2006, the Imperial War Museums commissioned Laura Rossi to compose a new score to accompany the digitally-restored film for the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The score was revived in 2016 as part of a plan for one hundred screenings with live orchestral performances to take place in 2016/17 as part of the rolling centenary commemorations of all aspects of the Great War.

The Performance

BPO silent film concert in progress
The BPO accompanying ‘The Battle of the Somme’ in Walsall Town Hall.

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra took part in an live performance / screening at Walsall Town Hall on Saturday 15 July 2017. The building is an appropriate venue as it contains two large paintings by Frank Salisbury to commemorate the ‘never to be forgotten valour of the South Staffordshire Regiments in the Great War 1914 – 1918’.

To play film music as part of a standard concert is very different from playing a score to accompany the moving image. Orchestral musicians ( and conductors) are used to playing music in their own time, varying tempos as the conductor directs, pausing in between movements, taking time to regroup. None of this is possible when the music is written to be played with a silent film. There is a very interesting  interview  with Laura Rossi about her job of composing the score to go with what is sometimes a very disparate film. The composer wrote the music to fit with the film precisely, and it is then the musicians’ job to make sure it happens. Most of the burden falls on the conductor who is largely reliant on an audible ‘click’ track to ensure that they, and their musicians, keep to the correct tempos.

We were fortunate that the film was shown on a raised screen in Walsall, allowing the orchestra to keep to its usual positions. Another performance in the West Midlands wasn’t so lucky, meaning the orchestral layout had to be rearranged somewhat, adding in another layer of difficulty.

The Orchestra

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra logo
The orchestra’s logo

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra was founded during the early 1940s. It is now one of the country’s leading non-professional symphony orchestras, drawing its members from all walks of life throughout the West Midlands. For most of its members, playing in the BPO is a recreational activity, but for others, it is a stepping stone in their musical careers.

The BPO engages professional conductors and leaders, aiming to achieve the highest possible standards of performance. Artists who have appeared with the orchestra in recent years include Peter Donohoe (the orchestra’s Patron), Jane Eaglen, Jonathan French, Aled Jones, Piers Lane, Arturo Pizarro, Eduardo Vassallo, Peter Thomas, and Sir Willard White.

Recent guest conductors have included Richard Laing (our Principal Guest Conductor), Marco Romano, Michael Seal, Paul Spicer, Jason Thornton, and Jonathan Tilbrook. The BPO has also worked with choirs such as the City of Birmingham Choir, South West Festival Chorus, Birmingham Festival Choral Society, and the Warwick and Kenilworth Choral Society.

Michael Lloyd, principal conductor
Michael Lloyd, Music Director and Principal Conductor

Under the baton of current Musical Director and Principal Conductor, Michael Lloyd, the BPO has completed its long-term cycle of Mahler symphonies, explored the music of Elgar in some depth, and has diversified into ballet and opera, including performances of complete acts of works by Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

The orchestra is based in the Bramall Music Building at Birmingham University, where it rehearses for its regular concerts, which are given every couple of months at venues in Birmingham and elsewhere across the Midlands.

Music for silent cinema

Rodde & Galifer  L'Ile enchantee
One of the many scores in the collection

Another connection with the Music Library is through its collection of music for use with silent films. Some of the blogs in this thread look at various aspects of the collection. It would be intriguing if one day, the orchestra accompanied another silent film using the scores from the Music Library.

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