Open Cock­pit

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Steve Slater

Stir­ring, sooth­ing, and strik­ing mu­sic can all en­hance aviation

Aviation Prom con­certs have be­come a sta­ple fea­ture of the air­show cal­en­dar in re­cent years, with air­craft (pre­dom­i­nantly clas­sic) per­form­ing to a back­drop of (mainly clas­si­cal) live mu­sic. There have been ex­cep­tions to the clas­si­cal theme, most no­tably when the Great War Dis­play Team per­formed over Kneb­worth ahead of a per­for­mance by the heavy metal rock band Iron Maiden, the cen­ter­piece of which only be­gan af­ter lead singer Bruce Dickinson had landed his Fokker Dr-1 Tri­plane and leapt onto the stage!

Most Proms how­ever con­tain more con­ven­tional favourites, with many drawn from film themes. Per­haps one of the most in­stantly recog­nis­able is the ‘Dam­busters March’, writ­ten in 1955 for the film of the same name. Over the years it has be­come syn­ony­mous with both the movie and the real Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise, and one would swear that its base un­der­tones were de­signed to har­monise with a Rolls-royce Mer­lin− or four.

In fact, de­spite be­ing born in Huck­nall, its com­poser Eric Coates left to study mu­sic in Lon­don long be­fore his lo­cal air­field re­ver­ber­ated to the sound of Rolls-royce aero en­gines. He didn’t even write the march with any film in mind at all.

Coates’ in­ten­tion had been to com­pose a piece in­spired by Ed­ward El­gar’s ‘Pomp and Cir­cum­stance’. Then, a few days af­ter com­plet­ing the com­po­si­tion, he was con­tacted by the film’s pro­duc­ers. De­spite hav­ing a pro­found dis­like of writ­ing film mu­sic and turn­ing down nu­mer­ous other re­quests, he was told that this was “a film of na­tional im­por­tance” and− thank­fully for pos­ter­ity− pro­posed the piece as the film’s theme.

One of the greats of Bri­tish film com­po­si­tion, Ron Good­win, was the com­poser of a higher-tempo score for 633 Squadron, the 1964 epic fea­tur­ing a squadron of low-fly­ing Mos­qui­tos at­tack­ing a chem­i­cal plant at the end of a long, nar­row Nor­we­gian fjord. The film was di­rected by Walter Grau­man, who had him­self won the DFC while fly­ing USAAF B-25 Mitchells on missions dur­ing WWII, and its star ac­tor Cliff Robert­son was a fly­ing fa­natic, who owned, among oth­ers, a Tiger Moth, Messer­schmitt Bf108 Tai­fun and a Spit­fire. Al­legedly, one of the prime mo­ti­va­tions for Robert­son tak­ing the role was an op­por­tu­nity to hitch a ride with Neil Wil­liams in one of the Mos­qui­tos!

In ad­di­tion to 633 Squadron, Ron Good­win wrote the film themes for Where Ea­gles Dare and Force Ten from Naverone as well as the bril­liantly com­i­cal Those Mag­nif­i­cent Men in Their Fly­ing Machines. Even now, al­most half a cen­tury since the film was re­leased, I’ll guar­an­tee that the mo­ment you hear those first rau­cous trom­bone notes you’ll in­stantly ‘name that tune in one’!

An­other Ron Good­win clas­sic was his open­ing theme for the 1969 film Bat­tle of Bri­tain, a piece of mu­sic which sub­se­quently changed sides from the Axis to the Al­lied camp. The mu­sic was orig­i­nally en­ti­tled the ‘Luft­waffe March’ and was played at the start of the film as Luft­waffe Gen­er­als re­viewed a spec­tac­u­lar line-up of no less than sixty Heinkel 111 bombers. How­ever, fol­low­ing over­tures (for­give the pun) from among oth­ers the Band of the RAF, the mu­sic was reti­tled ‘Aces High’ and is now reg­u­larly played by mil­i­tary bands across the UK.

Per­haps the daddy of all such pieces of aviation-re­lated film mu­sic is most likely ‘Spit­fire Pre­lude and Fugue’, the or­ches­tral piece which Wil­liam Wal­ton ex­tracted and ar­ranged in 1942 from mu­sic he had writ­ten ear­lier that year for the mo­tion pic­ture The First of the Few. The film was pro­duced and di­rected by Les­lie Howard, who stars as R J Mitchell, the de­signer of the Spit­fire. Howard’s role was all the more poignant as he was killed on a Lis­bon-to-lon­don civil­ian air­liner the fol­low­ing sum­mer, shot down by the Luft­waffe over the Bay of Bis­cay.

Fel­low Bri­tish film icon David Niven co-starred in The First of the Few as a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter that rep­re­sented Jef­frey Quill, Mutt Sum­mers and Ge­orge Pick­er­ing, the Spit­fire’s first test pi­lots. How­ever the cast also in­cluded real Bat­tle of Bri­tain pi­lots in­clud­ing Wing Com­man­der ‘Bunny’ Cur­rant, Squadron Lead­ers Tony Bart­ley, Brian King­come and P J Howard-wil­liams, Flight Lieu­tenants ‘Jock’ Gil­lan and ‘Rob­bie’ Rob­son and Fly­ing Of­fi­cer David Ful­ford, who all made cameo ap­pear­ances.

The First of the Few was one of four films re­leased in 1942 with mu­sic by Wal­ton and it helped es­tab­lish him as a ma­jor fig­ure in English mu­sic. Its pop­u­lar­ity was such that the ‘Spit­fire Pre­lude and Fugue’ was given an en­thu­si­as­tic re­cep­tion when it was first per­formed as a con­cert piece on 2 Jan­uary 1943 by the Liver­pool Phil­har­monic Orches­tra, at the con­cert hall in the bomb-dam­aged city.

Of course, there’s no short­age of mu­sic with no con­nec­tion with air­craft or films at all, that can equally grace a fly­ing Prom score­line. Any­one who has heard sky­larks singing above an air­field will have their mem­o­ries reawak­ened by that most English of pieces, Ralph Vaughan Wil­liams’ ‘The Lark As­cend­ing’.

A per­sonal favourite of mine, per­haps less well-known, doesn’t have any­thing to do with fly­ing at all. It’s from Sylvia, a clas­si­cal bal­let writ­ten by Léo De­libes in 1875. It is all about a myth­i­cal huntress, but in­dulge me by lis­ten­ing to a move­ment called ‘Les Chas­ser­esses’ and you’ll see why I’m itch­ing to match it with a fast-flow­ing aer­o­batic se­quence. Bet­ter still, lis­ten, close your eyes and imag­ine a Spit­fire ca­vort­ing among tow­er­ing cu­mu­lus. You’ll see just what I am get­ting at.

The Dam­busters March has be­come syn­ony­mous with the movie

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