Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > OLIVER TWIST – Arnold Bax


October 24, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

After the success of his Charles Dickens film adaptation Great Expectations in 1946, director David Lean decided to adapt another of Dickens’ novels for his next film – Oliver Twist. He sold his idea to General Film Distributors who agreed to bank roll the film. Lean brought back as much of the same creative team as possible with Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan in charge of production. Lean would again direct and he and Stanley Haynes wrote the screenplay. An exceptional cast was assembled, which included; John Howard Davies as Oliver Twist, Alec Guinness as Fagin, Kay Walsh as Nancy, Robert Newton as Bill Sykes, Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger, and Diana Dors as Charlotte.

The film is set in London England in the early 19th century and offers a damning, unflinching social commentary on child labor, domestic violence, street criminals, and the abuse and exploitation of orphans. It follows the life of Oliver Twist whose mother dies with his birth and how he thereafter is exploited by the parish workhouse. He runs away to start a new life in London where he falls under the auspices of Fagin, who manages a network of street pick pockets. One day Oliver by chance is mistakenly arrested for allegedly pick pocketing a wealthy gentleman Mr. Brownlow who takes a liking to him and brings him home to be part of his family. Oliver is treated warmly but later kidnapped by the old gang and held for ransom. Eventually a murder leads to public outrage over the gang, which ends up not only securing Oliver’s freedom, but reveals that Mr. Brownlow is actually his grandfather. Oliver now, after years of longing finally has a home and family, he can call his own. The film was a commercial success, an earned universal critical acclaim as one of the finest literary translations in cinematic history. The film however failed to earn any Academy Award nominations.

For the score for Oliver Twist, Lean approached one of British classical music most acclaimed practitioners, Sir Arnold Bax. Bax had been something of a prodigy, and was well known for his symphonic poem Tintagel, as well as the seven symphonies he wrote in the 1920s. He was appointed Master of the King’s Music by King George VI in 1942, but his output declined significantly during WWII and he entertained thoughts of retirement. However, when he was entreated by the film’s creative team to write the score to Oliver Twist, he unexpectedly agreed, despite only having written once for film previously, a short wartime propaganda film called Malta G. C. in 1941.

Upon viewing the film Bax understood that the Dickens tale offered a grim tale and commentary on British society, which thankfully concluded with a happy ending. He saw Oliver as the essential thread of the film’s tapestry and we discern that often his supportive music speaks from the lad’s perspective, with orchestrations using a youthful, vibrant and lightness of being to reflect his diminutive stature.

Two support his soundscape, Bax used three primary themes, two of which are original, and two secondary themes. The Locket Theme supports the locket Oliver’s mother carried with her portrait, his only clue, and connection to his family. There is an aristocratic, maestoso nature to the theme, which often is declared by trumpets. It alludes to Oliver’s aristocratic ties to the Brownlow family. The string borne Oliver’s Theme supports his identity, yet also speaks to his yearning for familial love. The theme is tender, brings the necessary heart to the grim film, and serves most of all to bond the audience to the boy. For the third theme Bax interpolates his orchestral piece “In Memoriam” (1916). He uses it masterfully for a maestoso paean of hope, which unfolds with magnificence during the finale when Oliver is at last warmly reunited with his family. A secondary theme for the imperious, and insufferable Mr. Bumble emotes as a classic plodding, marcia pomposa, which perfectly aligns with his waddling rotundness. The Pick-pocket Theme born by spritely strings and woodwinds animato support the boy’s pick-pocketing, offering energy and mischief. Bax wrote for a number of scenes set pieces, which served to provide mood and setting support. Lastly, four pieces of source music were also included to provide the necessary cultural authenticity, including ‘My Hat, It Has Three Corners’, ‘He Don’t Know When To Stop’ by Frederic Lewis and Ronald Hill, and sewttings of the traditional poems ‘Camberwell Road on a Sunday Night’ and ‘Tippitiwitchet’ with music by Guy Warrack.

“Prelude” opens with tremolo violins, which usher in the Locket Theme on warm familial trumpets as a man strikes a gong, initiating the roll of the opening credits. At 0:30 Oliver’s Theme on high register strings supports the display of the film title. The melody is yearning, which speaks to the boy’s desire for love and family. We return at 1:13 to the Locket Theme, which reprises on trumpets. At 1:35 we close with a pizzicato and tremolo strings misterioso to conclude the credits. “The Storm” was dialed out of the film, replaced by wind sound, thunder and eerie string harmonics. It reveals a young woman walking alone on a desolate country road as dark storm clouds and winds overtake her. She is struggling, hobbled by labor pains and seeks refuge in the foreboding Parish Workhouse. Bax’s original conception, presented here on the album offers a very different approach, which I believe offers a score highlight with outstanding dramatic writing. Initially the musical narrative is more animated as we see her walking along a country road. It begins to darken at 0:55 gaining a sense of urgency at 1:13 as the storm closes in and the skies blacken. At 1:54 drums rumble and a crescendo of desperation, one of the score’s finest passages, surges as she wills herself ever forward towards the workhouse.

“Oliver’s Birth” reveals Oliver’s mother receiving her newborn son by the doctor, kissing him, and then passing away. The doctor advises Mrs. Thingummy that it is all over, and she opens up the shutters. Sunlight streams into the room and Bax supports with warm, refulgent strings. The doctor leaves, and at 0:13 strings surge as she sees the locket around the young women’s neck. The Locket Theme blossoms on trumpets as her eyes reveal she covets it. A tender Oliver’s Theme joins on strings delicato as Mrs. Thingummy picks up the boy and walks through the orphanage under signs declaring, “God is Love”. Slowly the music become plaintive with undercurrents of woe as script portends a hard life for Oliver under the ministry of the Beadle and the Matron, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble.

“Picking Oakum” reveals that nine years have elapsed. Oliver is on his knees scrubbing the floor when the Beadle arrives and commands him to join him before the board. Tense quivering strings reveal the lad’s trepidation, with a solo oboe doloroso supporting his summons. In the film an interlude of silence supports the taciturn Chairman informing Oliver that he is an orphan, is benefitting from their charity, and should be praying and thankful. He is told he will be taught a trade so he may support himself – picking oakum. At 0:17 a plodding marcia del lavoro with woodwinds of woe support his early morning trudging through the snow. The march is sustained as he separates individual strands of old rope, which will be used as water sealing caulking on ships. At 0:46 sliding strings support a ladle pouring a liquidly porridge into Oliver’s bowl. The cue after 1:21 is dialed out of the film. The scene reveals the boys salivating after looking through a grate down on the Board eating a sumptuous repast. The toiling march reprises followed by an aching narrative of desire as we see them hungering for the food below.

“Oliver Asks For More” reveals Oliver audaciously breaking precedent by daring to ask for a second helping of porridge. The kitchen master is outraged, and he and other board members all shout “What!” Bax supports with tentative strings as Oliver approaches to make his request. Each “What!” is punctuated and ultimately unleash a crescendo of outrage. Later, Mr. Bumble successfully convinces Mr. Sowerberry, a mortician, to purchase Oliver. Ominous woodwinds, joined by strings support Bumble’s sales pitch, crowned with satisfaction when Sowerberry agrees. “Mr. Bumble’s March” reveals Mr. Bumble escorting Oliver to Mr. Sowerberry’s business carried by his marcia pomposa “Oliver Sent To Bed Among The Coffins” reveals Oliver less than warm reception by Sowerberry and his family. They believe him small and so order him to the kitchen to eat cold leftovers so he may grow. He is then told that he will sleep below the reception counter and is provided a candle lantern. Bax sows an unsettling misterioso borne by eerie strings, muted horns and a chattering xylophone as Oliver enters the room. They close the door behind him and he explores, and discovers to his horror, dozens of coffins. He gets into his floor bed, and after gazing across the room, blows out his candle supported by a playful woodwind flourish.

“Oliver As Funeral Mute” reveals Oliver and fellow apprentice Noah busily scrubbing the floor supported by a string ostinato energico. This segment of the cue was dialed out of the film. The music softens as Sowerberry advises his wife that he intends to make Oliver a funeral mute because of his handsome looks. Later at a funeral, Oliver leads the procession of mourners supported by a mournful duet of flutes playing Oliver’s Theme., followed by a souring descent of sadness as he walks behind the hearse. At 1:42 English horn doloroso emotes the Locket Theme as the aged Mrs. Thingummy visits the undertaker’s shop looking for Oliver, but Noah informs her that he has not returned from the funeral. She is desperate to see him, and faints. “The Death of Mrs. Thingummy” reveals her on her deathbed, wishing to make a confession to the matron. Bax weaves a sad tapestry of regret using the Locket Theme. We believe that she confesses that she stole Oliver’s locket and offers it up, but this is implied and not shown in the film.

“The Fight” reveals Noah again bullying Oliver, with disparaging remarks regarding his mother being the final straw. Oliver explodes in anger and pummels him supported by an energetic orchestral torrent of violence. Bax uses instrumental lightness, speed and upper register sounds to support the diminutive Oliver’s fury. The rest of the family attempts to restrain him, but are themselves struck. Yet eventually they manage to lock him up in a closet. (*) “Mr. Bumble Is Summoned” reveals the Sowerberry’s wife summoning the Beadle after suffering Oliver’s tirade. His walk-through town is supported by his signature marcia pomposa. Mr. Sowerberry enacts punishment with the rod and sends Oliver to his room. In “Oliver’s Sleepless Night” Oliver is angry, crying, and unable to sleep, so he resolves to leave, packs up his meager possessions in a kerchief, and at dawn sneaks out of the shop determined to make the long journey to London. Bax offers a tender, but sad musical narrative carried by piano gentile, muted horns with woodwind adornment. Yet all is not lost, as we discern a kernel of hope in the notes. “Oliver’s Flight To London” was dialed out of the film. As we see Oliver running through the streets and later on country roads Bax offers again speaks to Oliver’s diminutive size with lightness atop pizzicato strings, trilling woodwinds and scurrying strings.

We see Oliver walking on the crowded, bustling streets of London as a street band plays source music. He catches the eye of the Artful Dodger, the leader of Fagin’s gang of juvenile pickpockets who befriends the lad. “Oliver Meets The Artful Dodger” offers a wonderful score highlight. Bax sows suspense and uncertainty as the boys set off for Fagin’s den through the serpentine London streets. At 0:41 as they ascend several staircases of a derelict building the music becomes increasingly more energetic and adventuresome, propelled by trumpets spiritoso. As they emerge from a building and cross atop a rooftop bridge with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background, horns maestoso empower a solemn, grandiose orchestral declaration, which culminates in a flourish. “Fagin’s Romp” offer one of the score’s most entertaining and hilarious highlights. It reveals The Artful Dodger bringing Oliver home to meet Fagin, and the rest of the boys. Fagin offers Oliver a lesson in the art of pick-pocketing by pretending to be an old gentleman while a number of his boys try and fail to rob him. The Artful Dodger then demonstrates his skills by successfully stealing all the contents of Fagin’s pockets, to Oliver’s hilarious delight. Bax supports with a vibrant animated musical dialogue propelled by spritely strings, rhythmic horns energico and drums.

“Oliver’s Pickpocketing Lesson” offers a wonderful kinetic score highlight. It reveals Fagin giving Oliver tips on pick-pocketing. Bax reprises his music from the previous cue, but with different orchestration, adding playful woodwinds to a lighter, more boy like rendering. Later, in “Pickpocketing” Oliver decides to test his new found skills and joins Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger on his first pickpocketing spree. The spritely Pick-pocket Theme born by strings and woodwinds reprises as we see the boys descending to the street. In “The Chase”, the Artful Dodger begins pick-pocketing a lone gentleman shopper, as Oliver observes. The shopkeeper yells thief and Mr. Brownlow turns to see Oliver, who he believes is the thief. The boys all make a dash to escape capture as a pursuit by several men ensues. Bax whips his orchestra into a propulsive string furioso with woodwinds energico, offering classic flight music, which propels the boys frantic run to escape. The other boys escape, but Oliver is brought down by a face punch from a local man and captured. “Oliver Faints In Court” reveals a woozy Oliver being interrogated by the magistrate, and eventually fainting. Bax speaks to his oncoming somnolence with clever us of bassoon and clarinet with cello glissando. In “Comic Panic”, Nancy, who is Bill Sikes’s moll, sees Oliver being carried out from the court in Mr. Brownlow’s arms, and reports back to Fagin and Bill. Pandemonium ensues as they are all terrified and flee, fearful that Oliver might give away their whereabouts. Bax propels the pandemonium with an energetic reprise of the Pick-Pocket Theme.

“Oliver at Mr Brownlow’s House” offers a score highlight with elegant writing for woodwinds, strings and piano. Bax offers permutations of Oliver’s Theme in an extended musical narrative that speaks to Oliver’s new life in the Brownlow residence, where he is mothered by the kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin. The cue for me offers the finest composition of the entire score, and a testament to Bax’s brilliance. We open with warm familial warmth borne by soothing clarinet and piano with harp adornment as we see Oliver asleep with Mrs. Bedwin sitting vigil. Strings tenero join at 0:54 as Mr. Brownlow and Mr. Grimwig visit, joined by a solo violin delicato as they return to the parlor to discuss the boy while playing chess. Grimwig is distrustful and warns that no good will come of this. At 1:38, it is morning and Mrs. Bedwin opens the curtain to flood the room with light, supported by strings tenero, a violin delicato, and idyllic woodwinds of dawn. She welcomes the boy and with maternal love by caressing his face, which at 2:48 elicits him to sit up and then hug and kiss her, supported by surging strings romantico. At 3:01 Mr. Brownlow visits and a danza gentile unfolds, and ushers in a meandering piano tenero as he learns that his true name is Oliver Twist. They serve him breakfast in bed and we see Oliver’s eyes light up with happiness.

(*) “Bumble and Monks” reveals the two meeting at a pub where Monks inquiries about Oliver, and his mother. Bax supports the traditional song “My Hat It Has Three Corners” play in the background. Later Monks pays the matron to tell the tale of Oliver’s birth, her subsequent death, and the theft of her gold locket. The matron states that she died before she could reveal the name of Oliver’s father, and then surrenders the locket to Monks. Bax supports with a plaintive rendering of the Locket Theme. “Oliver At Play” reveals him happily swinging in the garden supported by a string and woodwind borne scherzando rendering of his theme. After 0:48 the music reprises, but is dialed out of the film as the scene to which it was attached showing him playing with a piece of wood was edited out of the film. “The Portrait” reveals a paternal Brownlow warmly bonding with Oliver in his library. Oliver happens by chance to gaze up and see a portrait on the wall, which is his dead daughter, but also, unbeknownst to both, Oliver’s mother. A misterioso full of longing with allusions to his theme support. Oliver is then tasked to return some books to the library. In “Oliver’s Abduction” vibrant, youthful woodwinds offer a child-like march as we see Oliver walking to the library, unaware that Bill Sikes and Nancy are observing. They intercept him, declare aloud to a gathered crowd that he is her delinquent young brother, and abduct him. Bax offer menacing music, which surges with desperation as he is dragged away. However, the music to support this after 0:28 was dialed out of the film.

“Mr. Brownlow’s Grief” reveals his grieving disappointment that Mr. Grimwig’s prediction that Oliver would return to street life has apparently come true. Strings doloroso speak to his immense disappointment, and usher in at 0:50 a lament by wistful piano. At 1:01 a grim musical narrative of menace, joined by Oliver’s Theme on an aggrieved piano of woe support him being dragged to Fagin’s lair. At 1:24 dire horns and a foreboding string tremolo resound as Fagin and his boys see through a window Oliver being returned. “Nancy’s Hysterical Outburst” reveals a tirade of regret as she realizes she should never have brought Oliver back to this gang of thieves. She attacks Fagin, only to be knocked unconscious. Bax unleashes a tempest of anger, followed by a diminuendo and gong strike as she goes down. Oliver is then locked in a room for the night and at 0:18 we return to a despondent Brownlow playing chess with Grimwig. Bax supports with a musical narrative of woe borne by strings melancholia, which speak to Brownlow’s devastation.

(*) “Reward” reveals Fagin discovering a poster offering a reward for the return of Oliver Twist, which he tears down. Later we see Bill and Nancy drinking at a pub as the crowd sings traditional East End songs. Fagin joins them and encourages Bill to use Oliver on his next burglary, to which he agrees. Later Nancy overhears Fagin revelation about Oliver’s true identity and decides to meet with Mr. Brownlow. “Nancy’s Flight In The Rain To Meet Mr. Brownlow” reveals a cold rainy night with Bill departing with Oliver and Fagin for a burglary as the Artful Dodger lurks in the shadows. Soon afterwards Nancy sneaks out of the house and makes her way to London Bridge, where she has an appointment with Mr. Brownlow. The Artful Dodger stealthily pursues, overhears the conversation, and later reports back to Fagin. Music enters as Nancy begins her secretive run through the dark alleys of London. Bax supports with scurrying strings, fluttering flutes with kindred woodwinds and muted trumpets. At 0:54 a diminuendo of unease reveals Nancy believing she escaped undetected as she makes her way to the rendezvous. A woodwind borne misterioso unfolds as she encounters Brownlow. Horns and woodwinds solenne support her revelations as the Artful Dodger lurks unseen in the shadows, overhearing every word. The auras Bax sows with the passage of woodwinds and horns is exceptional.

“Dawn After The Murder And Bill Sikes’s Rêverie” reveals Fagin informing Bill of Nancy’s betrayal, which fills him with rage, and he responds by going to their flat and brutally clubbing her to death. The next day music enters at dawn atop French horns serene in an idyllic passage, using a melody interpolated from Bax’s orchestral piece “In Memoriam”. Light streams in joined with a morning breeze as a bereft Bill sits, plagued by guilt and his inner demons as Nancy’s body lays on the floor. Bax sows a horrific musical narrative using eerie tremolo strings, trilling woodwinds and dire horns of doom as he is assailed by a montage of phantom wordless voices and images. We close dramatically atop a crescendo of fear as Bill unlocks the door and flees the murder scene. In “Wanted for Murder” 0:00 – 0:35 was dialed out of the Film. The Artful Dodger discovers Nancy’s corpse and flees in terror, supported by a frantic agitato. Later police announce the grisly murder publicly to the community and post wanted posters for Bill Sikes empowered by dire fanfare declarations with trumpet counters, which end dramatically atop a drum roll. Brownlow confronts Monk, exposing his culpability in the death of his daughter, and disappearance of his grandson, Oliver. Ultimately, Sikes dog leads the police to their lair and they arrest Fagin and his boy gang. Sikes flees with Oliver hostage, but is shot and falls to his doom from the rooftop.

“Finale” offers a glorious score highlight. It reveals Oliver’s rescue, declared by celebratory fanfare, which transforms the declarations used in the cue ‘Wanted for Murder’ into a joyous major modal rendering. This usher is an extended rendering of Bax’s orchestral piece “In Memoriam” (1916), which supports Oliver’s joyous reunion with Mrs. Bedwin and his grandfather, Mr. Brownlow. We conclude with warm, familial love, as Oliver runs happily to the Brownlow manor to begin his new life. At 2:17 the film concludes atop fanfare maestoso, which launch the End Credits. Bax offers a paean of joy with reprises of Oliver’s Theme, and the Locket Theme, which concludes with grand magnificence. “Alternative Finale” is a bonus cue, which offers Bax’s original conception of the film’s ending. It opens the same as the film version and also proceeds also with a maestoso rendering of Bax’s orchestral piece “In Memoriam” (1916), but at 1:20 the music demurs and assumes a more tender and tranquil expression, which concludes softly with a warm and familial flourish.

I would like to thank Brian Pidgeon and Chandos Records for this magnificent rerecording of Arnold Bax’s masterpiece, ‘Oliver Twist’. The 24-bit recording with a dynamic range up to 48dB provides state of the art audio quality, and the performance of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Rumon Gamba, was superb. It was late in his career that Bax was persuaded to write music for films, beginning with Malta G.C., followed by ‘Oliver Twist’. Bax immediately grasped that at the core of this dark narrative was Oliver, a young lad who is alone in the world, who yearns for a family that will love him. His approach to his soundscape was to employ primary and secondary themes, while interpolating a number of source songs. Throughout the score Bax embodied the sensibilities of a cinematographer, infusing the film’s narrative with aural auras, which spoke to setting, circumstance and the emotional dynamics of the actors. He captured the film’s emotional core with the child-like Oliver’s Theme and the maestoso Locket Theme, which symbolized Oliver’s aristocratic familial lineage. Themes associated with the rotund and insufferable Mr. Bumble who was animated by a waddling marcia pomposa, and the spritely and mischievous Pick-pocket’s Theme each contributed wonderfully in supporting the film’s narrative. The masterful interpolation and application of his concert work ‘In Memoriam’ empowered the film’s final scenes, culminating with a grand exposition abounding with familial warmth. Bax expertly brought his concert hall compositional sensibilities to this score, and I believe in scene after scene a beautiful cinematic confluence is achieved. I highly recommend this superb album for you collection, which features one Bax’s Magnum Opus, and of the best examples of British Golden Age scores.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful sixteen-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFo8Ukw5nus

Buy the Oliver Twist soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (1:54)
  • The Storm (3:20)
  • Oliver’s Birth (2:48)
  • Picking Oakum (2:10)
  • Oliver Asks For More (1:22)
  • Mr Bumble’s March (0:31)
  • Oliver Sent To Bed Among The Coffins (2:11)
  • Oliver As Funeral Mute (2:34)
  • Death Of Mrs Thingummy (2:03)
  • The Fight (1:25)
  • Oliver’s Sleepless Night (2:28)
  • Oliver’s Flight To London (0:31)
  • Oliver Meets The Artful Dodger (1:58)
  • Fagin’s Romp (2:05)
  • Oliver’s Pickpocketing Lesson (0:41)
  • Pickpocketing (0:57)
  • The Chase (1:59)
  • Oliver Faints In Court (0:46)
  • Comic Panic (0:55)
  • Oliver At Mr Brownlow’s House (6:04)
  • Oliver At Play (1:24)
  • The Portrait (1:03)
  • Oliver’s Abduction (1:09)
  • Mr Brownlow’s Grief (1:46)
  • Nancy’s Hysterical Outburst (1:23)
  • Nancy’s Flight In The Rain To Meet Mr Brownlow (3:17)
  • Dawn After The Murder (3:25)
  • Wanted For Murder (1:25)
  • Finale (Original) (3:09)
  • Finale (Alternative) (3:23)

Running Time: 60 minutes 33 seconds

Chandos CHAN-10126 (1948/2993)

Music composed by Arnold Bax. Conducted by Rumon Gamba. Performed by The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Arnold Bax. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Rinker. Score produced by Arnold Bax and Muir Mathieson. Album produced by Brian Pidgeon.

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