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HENRY V – William Walton


Original Review by Craig Lysy

It was WWII and Great Britain was in the midst of her greatest struggle as the Allies prepared for the 1944 Normandy invasion. Prime Minister Winston Churchill exhorted Laurence Olivier to fashion a film to rally and boost British morale for what he envisioned to be her finest moment – taking the offence to the Nazi’s and liberating France. For Olivier this became a passion project, which consumed him. After William Wyler turned down his offer to direct, Olivier took an unprecedented and audacious move – he would assume the roles of producer, director and actor! He cast himself in the titular role and surrounded himself with a fine cast, which included Renee Asherson as Princess Katherine, Robert Newton as Ancient Pistol, Leslie Banks as the Chorus, Felix Aylmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Helpmann as the Bishop of Ely. Olivier’s vision was clear from the very beginning; he would maintain fidelity to the original Shakespeare play although he would stylize it for the cinematic presentation.

The story offers a classic tale of ambition, war and conquest. Henry V suffers an affront to his honor when the French Dauphin sends him tennis balls as a birthday present – an allusion to his youth and experience. Henry resolves to invade France and retake the throne he believes rightly belongs to his House. He leads his army across the channel and proceeds directly to Harfleur, which he subjects to siege. He rouses his troop with an inspiring speech where he utters the now famous lines: “Once more… unto the breach! Dear friends, once more!” He takes Harfleur and proceeds to the French court at Agincourt. The English gain the upper hand with their archers and the fact that the French heavy cavalry get bogged down in the muddy fields. A counter French action against his defenseless camp leads to the slaughter of countless boys and squires. Henry is outraged and challenges the French Constable to personal combat. He suffers two blows, one to his helmet, which decks him, and one that knocks the mace from his hand. Yet before the Constable can strike the fatal blow, Henry launches a crushing head strike with his metal-handed gauntlet that kills him. He wins the day, gains the hand of the French princess Katherine in marriage, and is proclaimed heir to the French throne by King Charles VI.

The film is paradigmatic in that it marks the first time an adaptation of Shakespeare to the cinema was both critically and commercially successful. It earned significant accolades, among them four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor Best Art Direction and Best Film Score. While it did not win any of these, the Academy bestowed and Honorary Award to Laurence Olivier for his outstanding achievement as producer, director and actor, in bringing Henry V to the cinema.

Olivier and co-producer Dallas Bower first met Walton during the filming of As You Like It (1935). Bower was impressed by his music and convinced Olivier that he was the right man to score Henry V. Walton recognized that the film provided a massive tapestry for him to compose, one filled with grandeur, chivalry, romance and heroism. He also understood that like an opera, he would have to support the eloquence and narrative pace of Shakespeare’s words. He decided early that he had to infuse his soundscape with poetic English and French source melodies. For the French scenes he interpolated three local folk songs from “Chants d’Auvergne” by Joseph Canteloube; “Obal, dinlou Limouzi”, which supports with a madrigal air our introduction to the French Court. Later, it is rendered in a more angelic form as his theme for Princess Katherine. “Bailero”, which is emoted by a solo English horn and used to support the Duke of Burgundy’s oration, and lastly “L’Antoueno”, which emotes as a wondrous epithalamion. For the scenes at the French Court, Walton interpolated “Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Barry” from the Medieval Book of Hours. Two contemporaneous French songs were also interpolated – “Reveillez-vous Piccars” and “Agincourt”. For the English scenes Walton drew upon the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a fine collection of Elizabethan keyboard music. He also adapted “Rosa Solis”, a clavichord piece written by Giles Farnaby to be articulated by girls and boys chorus. Lastly, Walton understood that he had to juxtapose French and English identities during the battle scenes. To that end he used the “Spirit of England” and “Reveillez-vous Piccars” as anthems, succeeding on all counts.

Upon completing the film, Olivier was effusive with his praise, stating, when all was said and done that Walton’s music actually makes the film. Lastly, the reader is advised that this CD presentation does not offer tradition score cues, rather Christopher Palmer has adapted it into a 61 minute concert piece of ten cues for orchestra, chorus and orator – Christopher Plummer. It is comprised of 90% of the original score and offers a truly impressive and dramatic operatic presentation of Walton’s masterpiece.

“Prologue” offers a splendid score highlight, which perfectly sets the tone of the film. We open to blue skies with a parchment seen in a fluttering descent. A dazzling flute line animates its journey. As the parchment turns and displays the film title, author Will Shakespeare and the opening date of 1 May 1600 at the Globe Playhouse in London. Walton grandly launches with heraldic fanfare and wordless chorus a majestic offering the “Spirit Of England Theme”, which captures the indomitable spirit of the English people. At 0:48 a pastorale with wordless chorus carries us aloft for a moving panorama of London, which concludes gloriously with a flag rising at the Globe theatre. A sparkling bridge ushers in a solo trumpet fanfare at 3:24, which announces the imminent opening of the play. Spirited madrigal music animates the crowd as they take their seats. At 4:36 solo trumpet opens the play and unleashes Plummer’s sterling prose. At 5:47 string, harp and clavichord join to support the narrative. At 8:52 following the end of the soliloquy Walton introduces his adaptation of Rosa Solis, a clavichord piece written by Giles Farnaby. Orchestra animato joined with a spirited girls and boys chorus carries the moment. Fanfare at 7:36 ushers in with magnificence the Overture, which abounds with quintessential English pageantry, pomp and circumstance, culminating with a glorious flourish!

“Interlude: At The Boar’s Head” offers a powerfully emotive cue full of contrast. Bassoons introduce Pistol’s Theme, a comedic and playful tune as Pistol arrives at the Boar’s Head pub. It is announced that Falstaff is ill with fever and at 1:47 the tone changes markedly as Walton introduces Falstaff’s Theme, a sad passacaglia. The melody is sad and emoted as a flowing lament, which portends his doom. In “Embarkation” Walton’s score bookends Plummer’s inspiring oration. We are offered a rousing cue abounding with bravado and sunny optimism! The King and his troops assemble in Southampton in preparation of launching an invasion of France. As Henry declares his intentions we are offered an inspiring marcia grandioso, which carries him onward in fulfillment of his destiny! “Interlude: Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” offers sadness as Falstaff has died. We see Pistol and his companions offer their condolences to Falstaff’s mistress, and Walton supports the pathos with his theme, now emoted fully as a lamentation.

“Harfleur” offers the war being waged in earnest as English troops storm its beaches. Walton opens with harp glissandi, horns bellicoso and strings animato, which offer a prelude to Henry’s immortal words; “Once more… unto the breach! Dear friends, once more!” At 2:10 Walton propels the English forward into the breech with spirited orchestral energy, which gains celebratory force. After unleashing canon fire, which brings down the city’s walls we close with a dark orchestral descent. “The Night Watch” offers a splendid cue with a perfect marriage of film narrative, oration and music. The scene reveals the prelude to the battle next day. Both armies are encamped and it is nightfall. Portentous distant and muted fanfare sound as Plummer begins his soliloquy. The mood is pensive; the fleeting calm before the storm, and Walton sows unease, replete with trumpet calls. Yet as Henry walks among his encampment we hear a muted, yet warm and hopeful Spirit of England Theme, which supports his progress as he comforts his men. This is just exceptional! “Upon The King!” offers a fine soliloquy by Plummer (King Henry) who is contemplative, questioning, and unsure as he gazes on the symbols of his kingship – the crown and scepter. He prays for courage and victory, with Walton crowning his oration with a muted regal horn phrase of the Spirit of England Theme.

We come now to “Agincourt” where the score achieves its emotional apogee, a tour de force where Walton earns Walton immortality with one of the finest battle cues ever written, The cue is complex in that Olivier shifts to and fro between the two armies, requ iring Walton to do the same using the competing Reveillez-vous Piccars and Spirit of England anthems. It is dawn and we are blessed with refulgent orchestral auras, which bely the coming carnage. The French are cocky and Walton supports this with a sparkling string ostinato and horns trimphanti. A diminuendo takes us to the English camp. Plummer commences his St. Crispin Day speech, which he uses to inspire and rouse his troops, who stand outnumbered 5 to 1. At 3:23 horns bravura sound and launch an extended passage of horn fare as his now inspired men organize for battle. At 3:45 we return to the French camp atop orchestral comedy as heavy-laden French knights are lowered onto their horses. A rousing rendering of the French anthem Reveillez-vos Piccars supports their cockiness and preparations. Snare drums, proud horns and woodwinds propel a festive march as the French knights toast to victory. At 4:36 the march hardens with determination as we see the English digging in pikes as their archers prepare. At 4:46 horn fare ushers in prancing woodwinds and playful strings, which supports the ride of the Sir Montjoy, ambassador for the French Constable who issues a demand for ransom or battle to Henry. Regal fanfare supports his dismount and walk to Henry. After Plummer’s oratory, where he summarily rejects the offer, the onslaught begins with snare drum percussion, which supports horn declarations of the Spirit of England Theme.

We come now to the battle. The heavy French cavalry beg in their advance with a slow, steady, yet inexorable increase in their gait until a full charge is realized. Walton supports this with snare drums, trumpet fare and a fierce ostinato, a slow building accelerando growing to crescendo. At 8:31 as the accelerando crests, the orchestral charge collapses into chaos as volley after volley of English arrows cut down the French. A counter charge by the English troops corrals the French into a muddy pit where they mercilessly slaughtered. At 9:50 strings furioso support the French cavalry’s flight. As they regroup The French Constable leads a despicable attack on the English camps, slaughtering the unarmed boys and squires. A propulsive rendering of Reveillez-vos Piccars supports the carnage. At 11:06 Walton uses snare drums, eerie strings and plaintive echoes of Reveillez-vos Piccars to usher in the aftermath as the Dauphin abandons the battle and rides to safety. Upon seeing the dead boys, Plummer offers an elegy, which Walton makes poignant with refulgent religioso strings of the Agincourt Song. At 13:51 an outraged Henry seeks vengeance and rides back to confront the Constable. Walton whips his orchestra into fury to support their intense personal battle. When Henry strikes the Constable down, there is no celebration, but instead an orchestral expiation. A masterpiece cue!

In “Interlude – At The French Court” Henry the conqueror arrives at the French court. Walton interpolates selections from Joseph Canteloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne” to support the narrative. For Henry’s entry, we are treated to a celebratory “Obal, dinlou Limouzi”, which is alight and sparkles with child chorus. At 1:43 comes one of the score’s most beautiful passages, a woodwind lover’s dream come true. Walton offers the tender “Bailero”, which is emoted by flute and solo English horn to support the Duke of Burgundy’s oration. In a scene change, Henry is attracted by Katherine, daughter of King Charles VI, and requires her hand to solidify his claim to the French throne. As such he is with determination and resolve wooing her to become his queen. At 3:38 following the Duke’s oration, the “Bailero” is transmuted into a pure, more angelic form, a theme for Princess Katherine. Now carried beautifully by ethereal women’s chorus. What a wonderful cue. In “Epilogue” Katherine at last succumbs to Henry’s wit and charm, and agrees to his proposal. Plummer commences his oration and at 1:12 we bear witness to the final song “L’Antoueno”. As Henry and Katherine walk up the aisle in pristine white wedding attire Walton supports the ceremony with the song now rendered in grand celebratory form as a wondrous epithalamion. This is glorious! We conclude with a scene change back to the Globe Theater, which Walton supports with a choral rich reprise of “Rosa Solis”. We again pan out over the theatre and view the London skyline as a parchment is again seen in a fluttering descent, this time ending with a display of the End Credits. A final rendering of the Agincourt song sung by chorus supports the credits. We conclude the film with a final credit display, that of William Walton, grandly supported by a final majestic statement of the Spirit of England Theme. The final three cues offer the original source songs from which Walton drew inspiration.

The sound quality is exceptional and the presentation, flawless. Normally I eschew film scores infused with dialogue, but not so here. What Plummer offers here is not dialogue but instead the sublime poetic prose of the master himself, Shakespeare, a man under who prose found its highest expression. For me, this presentation is no different in form than opera. Folks, I agree with Laurence Olivier’s declaration that Walton’s music makes the film. The incorporation of French and English source songs created an authentic ambiance, and the use of “Spirit of England” and “Reveillez-vous Piccars” as anthems to juxtapose French and English identities during the battle scenes was brilliant. In scene after scene we bear witness to a sublime confluence of oration, imagery and music. In my judgment Walton succeeded on all counts and penned a masterpiece, his Magnum Opus for the ages. I highly recommend you add this top 100 score to your collection and savor its unique presentation.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link to the splendid “Prologue”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH0JJIrs5lA

Buy the Henry V soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (9:20)
  • Interlude: At the Boar’s Head (4:29)
  • Embarkation (3:29)
  • Interlude: Touch Her Soft Lips and Part (2:13)
  • Harfleur (3:48)
  • The Night Watch (5:21)
  • Upon The King! (3:46)
  • Agincourt (15:15)
  • Interlude: At the French Court (5:16)
  • Epilogue (7:52)
  • Appendix 1: Rosa Solis (2:26)
  • Watkin’s Ale (2:01)
  • Obal, Dinlou Limouzi (1:37)

Running Time: 67 minutes 02 seconds

Chandos CHAN-8892 (1944/1991)

Music composed by William Walton. Conducted by Neville Marriner. Performed by The Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and The Choristers of Westminster Cathedral. Narration by Christopher Plummer. Orchestrations by William Walton. Score produced by William Walton. Album produced by Brian Couzens and Christopher Palmer.

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  1. January 11, 2019 at 9:32 am

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