O for a Wooden O

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O for a Wooden O

Henry V: London 1600, by William Walton (1944)

First Encountered 1956?

Shakespeare was in my blood from the git-go.  Perhaps the second movie I ever saw[1] was the Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1953 Julius Caesar with James Mason and Marlon Brando.  My mother had taken me to a moviehouse in Reno, where we were establishing divorce residency, and it was hot and un-air-conditioned.  But I insisted on sitting through it twice (which one could do in that bygone era).  I may not have understood that much of the language or the story, but I just loved the sight of the togaed men and women striding around and striking poses in ancient Roman sets.  For my seventh birthday, my mom and stepdad took me to see an open-air production of Comedy of Errors at the Toledo Zoo.  I laughed my head off.  So when a University of Michigan film series brought back Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V, it was without question I’d go.

I’m not sure if we got the record album before or after seeing the movie.  It was a series of 12-inch 78s in sleeves bound together like a book with covers (the style for albums in those days).  I can’t even find a vintage copy listed today on e-Bay.  But I believe the contents have been decanted onto the British Composers series CD pictured to the right above.  Although the cut that I gave the most play was the music for the battle scene, which is wonderfully exciting and bombastic stuff, what made the biggest impression on me about the film itself that night in the Art Department Auditorium at the University of Michigan was the opening music, which I’m not even certain in retrospect was part of the album (though it’s part of the aforementioned British Composers CD with some other stuff I’m certain wasn’t in the movie either).  I may have only experienced this music in the theater – at least until I got much older.

I have to describe the visual first, which is the first series of images in the film.  A playbill flutters through a blue sky.  When it drifts into focus, it reveals that the Globe Theater is putting on “Henry the Fift” today, May 1, 1600.  Then suddenly we are looking down at the Tower of London, embarked on a pan something like a helicopter flight over the London of 1600, Shakespeare’s London.  The camera comes to rest over the Globe Theater, Shakespeare’s “wooden O.”  Today, of course, that shot would be a riot of CGI, and “sold” with all kinds of tricks so one practically believed one was looking at a real city three hundred years before the invention of photography.  (Think Peter Jackson’s visual fabrication of Minas Tirith in The Two Towers.)  This wasn’t nearly that good, though many of the chimneys actually smoked and some of the boats moved on the Thames.  But it certainly wasn’t laughable.  In fact, it took my breath away.

Nor was that all.  We catch a glimpse of a flag being hoisted above the Globe, then cut to a closeup of the man in the tower raising the flag.  After he secures it, he lifts a trumpet to his lips and sounds a summons.  This is a cue to the orchestra a story below him to play an overture, and we follow a long pan from the orchestra around the interior of the Globe as the theatergoers troop in.

London, 1600, indeed!

I can’t fail to mention, either, that London was where I’d come from.  I barely remembered it, having left when I was only two.  But even though I was American from birth (and have the Embassy papers to prove it), partly I always thought of myself as British.  A huge hand-illustrated map of London hung in my room from the time I can first remember (and it’s still on my office wall, though the scarlet ink has faded to near-illegibility).  The European world I’d left, to suddenly find myself in a Great Lakes college town, still seemed in some ways more my home than where I was.  And suddenly, there was my “real” home right in front of me again.  The sequence made me nostalgic for a place I’d never been.

Okay, and then you add Walton’s music.  I know there are people who find him in some way facile.  He was capable of doing the “serious” stuff like the 12-tone row that kicks off the third movement of his Symphony No. 2,[2] but he was basically a conventional composer who worked in conventional idioms.  But making that observation some kind of putdown is like saying you’re too sophisticated for representational painting; if you want to be like that, fine, but don’t expect most of us to follow you.  For most of us, Andrew Wyeth will do nicely, along with the Stellas and Rothkos and Bacons.  Walton was out to rouse the emotions.  And he did it about as well as anyone writing for the screen.  It’s no accident that the premier film composer of our generation, John Williams, obviously reveres the man; you can hear Walton in lots of what Williams has written.[3] Walton (like Williams) was a master of using the huge orchestral palette to sock you in your gut (to mix metaphors unapologetically).

And what Walton does in this title sequence is miraculous.  The music, found in both compilations,[4] ties beautifully with the screen images.  First, a flute trill, a stylized birdsong that goes on and on, growing ever more elaborate, which coordinates with the fluttering playbill.  As we find ourselves suspended above the Tower, Walton ushers in a brass chorus that barks out a sort of sonic “oyez!”  Pay attention.  Then, slowly, strings do an upward crawl, telling us we are on the verge of something magnificent, a sort of dawn of anticipation like the sunrise sequence in Daphnis and Chloe, swelled, like Ravel’s, by choruses that sound as if they come from the Empyrean.  Then, as the camera settles over the Globe, it all shrinks to a tiny point, a little trill, until the trumpeter comes into view above the Globe to summon London’s theatergoers, and of course the movie audience inside, to watch a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  The stately dance that follows the trumpeter is played as source music, ostensibly by the musicians sitting below the man with the flag.

After that welcome, you’d follow Walton not just down into the Globe, but anywhere.  God knows I did, as this blog will partly illustrate as this series goes on.


[1].          The first was some Charlie Chaplin.

[2].         It will give you some idea how much of a Walton nut I rapidly became that I know Symphony No. 2 mainly from the first recording, done with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, which I can heartily recommend.  Critics have pointed out that this third movement 12-tone row was no true serialism, no spitting in the eye of tonality, as was the vogue then, but just a roundabout way of emphasizing a G minor.  Still, the point was made; he could do that stuff.

[3].         A point made amusingly in this video.

[4].          Track 1, the “Prologue” cut, on the Neville Marriner recording pictured left, above, is the more stirring rendering, although it carries through beyond the sequence I’ve just described.  It’s Track 15, “London 1600 [with chorus]” on the British Composers rendering.  Neither carries exactly the dynamics or, to my ear, the exact orchestration, of the movie original.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for album art and production photos

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