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