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THINGS TO COME – Arthur Bliss

October 19, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

H. G. Wells published his novel The Shape Of Things To Come in 1933 and it immediately resonated with the public. Producer Alexander Korda was coming off the success of his last film, The Private Lives of Henry VIII, and recognized an opportunity to cash in on the popularity of Wells’s latest book. He purchased the film rights, but Wells imposed significant contractual constraints, which ensured he maintained creative control and wrote the screenplay. Korda tasked William Cameron Menzies with directing and brought in a stellar cast, which included Raymond Massey as John and Oswald Cabal, Edward Chapman as Pippa and Raymond Passworthy, Ralph Richardson as Rudolf – the Boss, Margaretta Scott as Roxana Black and Rowena Cabal, Cedric Hardwicke as Theotocopulos, Naurice Braddell as Dr. Edward Harding, Pearl Argyle as Catherine Cabal, and Sophie Stewart as Mrs. Cabal. The story paints a grim tale of a catastrophic World War, which commences in 1940 and rages for decades. After a plague pandemic in 1966 wipes out most of the populace, civilization collapses and people return to an agrarian life in small towns. It comes to pass that one day an advanced aircraft lands in one of the communities and brings news that an organization is restoring civilization to communities such as this. Civilization is reborn and an advanced society re-emerges with humanity living in grand underground cities. Yet there are those that remember the Great War, and on the eve of the first manned spaceflight to the Moon, these Luddites rebel against the new social order. The film had only modest commercial success and in the end did not cover its production costs of 260,000 pounds. Critics, however, hailed it as a masterpiece and it has served as an iconic example of thoughtful and provocative and science fiction.

Wells was an admirer of composer Arthur Bliss and, as a cinematic neophyte, brought him onboard by informing Bliss that he was to write the score first and that the film would be adapted to the music. This radical approach went against all convention of the day. It suffices to say that Bliss, who was renown for his modernist classical compositions, only took the assignment because of the creative license Wells provided. Well, the rest is history, as Bliss created a masterwork that in every way supported Wells’s creative vision. Bliss captured the emotional core of the film’s narrative, which revealed humanity on a noble quest to establish a better society; a new world order grounded in principles of science. Taken in totality, Bliss’s music offers a remarkable musical journey, which speaks to the fall and rebirth of civilization, where from out of darkness and despair is born a refulgent Utopian joy. So pleased was Bliss that he created a concert suite for his score, which survives to this day. Regretfully, producer Alexander Korda over-ruled Wells’s vision due to budgetary constraints and subjugated Bliss’s score to the film. Bliss was unavailable and unwilling to adapt his music to the film edits, so composer Lionel Salter was brought in to perform the necessary surgery. In assessing the score, we realize that Bliss’s conception was not leitmotif, but rather set pieces woven together to support the film’s narrative arc.

“Prologue” offers a magnificent score highlight, which supports the film’s opening and the roll of the opening credits. Bliss sets the tone of Act I with a dramatic and powerful exposition by strings doloroso, which bathe us in auras of melancholia, a portentous and profound despair, inescapable. A fleeting effort by solo oboe seeks to break free, yet succumbs to the waves of misery and dread. We close with a breath-taking grand flourish as the film proper opens in 1940 Everytown. We see the holiday merriment of Christmas supported by tradition hymns, which are not included on the album. Yet newspaper declare the specter of war looms. Slowly, yet inexorably horns militare join, as more and more newspapers sound the alarm of coming war, eventually silencing the yuletide carols. This scene is also not supported on the album. “Ballet for Children” offers another score highlight where Bliss graces us with splendid balletic eloquence. The Cabal family is celebrating Christmas under their tree as the children all play with their newly gifted toys. The fanciful and playful dance rhythms of Bliss’s music achieve a wondrous confluence with the scene. At 1:52 the tone changes as a solo trumpet ushers in a more festive mood, yet one with martial overtones as the party ends and exits to the courtyard where the see the sky alight with searchlights and hear a number of explosions. At 2:49 the playful ballet returns, belying the growing alarm. As they rush inside to check for news on the TV, war is announced with a call for a general mobilization. We conclude dramatically as the ballet transforms into a martial call to arms, which again ends with a flourish.

In “Attack” the army orders the people to clear the streets and return to their homes and as an attack is imminent. Trucks arriving with gas masks raises the alarm and only serves to further instill terror in the populace. Panic is unleashed as bombs begin raining down on the city, which is destroyed before our eyes. Bliss sows terror and a rising panic with trumpets of war and martial drums, which propel the action unfolding before our eyes with brutal kinetic power. “March” offers a brilliant score highlight where Bliss dazzles us with a grand and impassioned marcia militare, one which I believe to be one of the finest in cinematic history. Horns bellicoso and martial drums empower the mobilization and propel forward with purposeful and dynamic fervor. We see the arsenals of war deployed; soldiers marching, battle tanks grinding across the fields while fleets of battleships set sail. As the battle unfolds in all its destructive power the confluence of film narrative and music is astounding. Above in the sky’s enemy squadrons so numerous that they nearly block out the sun, cross over the cliffs of Dover where they are challenged by English squadrons. The aerial war is unscored. “The World in Ruins” offers a testament to Bliss’s mastery of Well’s narrative, providing the score’s most bleak passage as we bear witness to the destructive ruin of war. Eerie woodwinds lacrimoso cry out and speak to the desolation unfolding before our eyes as we see the brutal land war continuing as the years 1945, 1955 and finally 1960 display on the screen. Orchestral waves of despair wash over us as strings doloroso and elegiac trumpets weave a threnody for the war that will not end.

In “Pestilence” a 1966 newspaper headline reads “The end is in sight. Victory is coming”. Yet lower on the page lies news of a spreading plague. Bliss provides a bleak, textural soundscape whose dark auras reveal the futility of war, and the horrific plight of pestilence, which is laying waste to what is left of humanity. Plaintive strings and woodwinds writhe in agony as civilization has collapsed and we bear witness to the ravages of plague. The screen displays 1970 and relates that the plague has passed and humanity was beginning a restoration. Everytown is at war with the hill people and we see the town Chief riding into town with his cavalry carried by a rousing English marcia regale. It is a splendid moment, perfectly executed by Bliss, but regretfully not found on the album. The next day John Cabal lands his advanced aircraft and offers the Chief an opportunity to join the “Wings Over The World”, an organization that has banned war and is rebuilding civilization. The egotistical Chief refuses and imprisons Cabal. In a subsequent battle the Chief is victorious over the Hill people and captures their biplanes. His triumphant return to the city is again empowered by the marcia regale. Sometime later Gordan escapes in a biplane and warns Cabal’s friends who come to his aid, dropping bombs with sleeping gas, which subdues the town and kills the Chief. “Excavation” offers a score highlight where Cabal narrates his plan to rebuild civilization in Everytown through the excavation of the mineral rich surrounding hills. Bliss supports the imagery of great machines excavating with music which speaks to the mechanistic. Forceful anvil strikes and a driving machine-like cadence join with horns dramatico, building to a deafening stepped crescendo, which resounds in synchrony to five thunderous on-screen explosions.

“The Building of the New World” sustains the mechanistic cadence and auras of the previous cue as we see massive factories manufacturing all the items needed to rebuild the infrastructure of civilization. The music churns on relentlessly with its driving mechanistic rhythms, eventually culminating in a blaring steeped descent as we see molten metal being poured. We flow seamlessly into “Machines” where we see the forge and press of massive metallic plates used to encase buildings. Bliss astutely supports the foundry with a purposeful marcia meccanicistica. 2036 flashes on the screen and we view the rebuilt Everytown, a modernist metallic wonder. Bliss supports the imagery with grand fanfare, which is not found on the album. “Attack on the Moon Gun” reveals Theotocopulos, leader of the luddite movement inciting his fellow citizens to halt any further technological progress, and the best way to make this point was to destroy the Moon Gun. Governor Cabal is opposed and so grants his daughter and boyfriend Maurice Passworthy permission to carry out the mission. They fly to the canon and board as Theotocopulos and his mob arrive. Music enters as the mob storms the canon. We open with horns dramatico and pounding percussion as Bliss stokes the tension as the capsule is loaded and the mob climbs. At 1:03 we build to a powerful horn driven crescendo as we tick down to zero and launch the missile. The music dissipates as we observe wind currents through the clouds.

“Epilogue” provides a wondrous score highlight and perhaps its finest cue. The album presentation offers Bliss’ original conception, regretfully most of it was excised from the edited finale. The music and film synchronize at 5:39. The grand opening ascent atop repeating declarations by horn bravura and percussion was intended to support the upwards flight of the missile, but was regretfully dialed out of the film. At 0:24 strings maestoso and horns regale provide a very moving homage where Bliss captures the emotional core of Well’s narrative – humanity hopefulness and aspirational quest to establish a better society as it seeks a new world order grounded in principles of science. The melody is heartfelt and inspiring, achieving a warmth and tenderness at 1:12 when taken up by oboe, flute and kindred woodwinds, which usher in at 1:35 a supremely moving reaffirmation of the melody, which brings a quiver and a tear. At 2:12 an extended rendering of the celebratory marcia regale joins for a wonderful exposition, which crests at 5:15. A reprise of the opening fanfare at 5:39 ushers in music synchronous with the film. What unfolds is aspirational writing at its finest. Strings maestoso and horns regale provide a very moving homage to Cabal’s inspired commentary where he affirms the nobility of progress, of our need to aspire, and to never rest as we pursue and conquer our dreams. The reprise of the main melody achieves an inspired confluence with Cabal’s eloquence that is breath-taking, offering for me the film’s finest moment. We conclude grandly with a rousing drum roll flourish.

I would like to thank Mike George and Chandos Records for this restoration and re-recording of Arthur Bliss’s masterpiece work. The 24-bit recording offers pristine sound quality, provides a superb listening experience, and conductor Rumon Gamba takes us on a remarkable journey. Bliss wrote 34 minutes of music for the film, and this concert suite arrangement capture 31:58 minutes, the most that is available. We open with a portentous prologue which portends the destruction and ruin of modern war. What follows is masterful writing by Bliss as he speaks to the suffering of war, its pathos, pain and pestilence. Yet hope remains as John Cabal and the “Wings Over The World” ushers in the rebirth of civilization. Bliss’s mechanistic writing for the reconstruction was well-conceived and executed. The music of the new world abounds with optimism, yet is soon countered by a reactionary luddite revolt, which culminates aggressively in the “Attack of the Moon Gun” cue. We conclude with what I believe to be one of the finest musical cues in cinematic history, which is cloaked with tragedy as most of it was excised from the film’s extensive editing. Yet even the 1:39 minutes that made it into the film offers a testament to Bliss’s genius, as the confluence with Cabal’s oratory is sublime. For me, Bliss’s score is a seminal achievement in the annals of film score art. His inspired writing in every way enhanced the dramatic arc of the story’s narrative, thus making Well’s film better. I believe this score demonstrates Bliss’s mastery of his craft, is a masterpiece of the Golden Age, and is essential for your collection.

Editor’s Note: For those who don’t know who he is, Arthur Bliss was a very respected composer of serious, traditional classical music in England, who also dabbled in film, composing a dozen or so scores between 1936 and 1966. He was knighted in 1950, and became Master of the Royal Music in 1953 – an incredibly prestigious appointment previously held by Edward Elgar, among others. He died in 1975. The only recording of the Things To Come film score (not the concert suite, which has been recorded may times) is on the Chandos album ‘The Film Music of Arthur Bliss’, conducted by Rumon Gamba, which also features selections from his scores for the 1944 film Caesar and Cleopatra, and a 1966 TV documentary about British Royal Palaces.

For those of you unfamiliar I have attached a Youtube link to his magnificent concert suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlGywuZ9-50

Buy the Things to Come soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (2:35)
  • Ballet for Children (3:41)
  • March (3:40)
  • Attack (1:56)
  • The World in Ruins (2:42)
  • Pestilence (2:54)
  • Excavation (1:53)
  • The Building of the New World (2:15)
  • Machines (1:28)
  • Attack on the Moon Gun (1:21)
  • Epilogue (7:41)

Running Time: 31 minutes 58 seconds

Chandos CHAN-9896 (1936/2001)

Music composed by Arthur Bliss. Conducted by Rumon Gamba. Performed by The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Arthur Bliss and Gordon Jacob. Album produced by Mike George.

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