Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) was a formidable composer of symphonies, orchestral pieces. ballets and songs. General readers will best recall his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Greensleeves; fans, his Lark Ascending and songs such as Silent Noon. Coming from a well- to- do and high-minded family, his life and ethos are somehow typical of that mid-century, BBC -and- Rations Britain which fought the second world war and went on to create things like the NHS, Welfare State and jet engines.
In 1941 that war was going very badly indeed. Having scraped through the Fall of France and the Battle of Britain, convoy losses were mounting. More worryingly for insiders, the last of Britain’s gold reserves were about to be gobbled up by the United States. in return for some distinctly vintage destroyers. It was the moment at which Britain had finally stepped down from its status as an independent power. Yet it still fought on for its democracy, its only important ally being Canada.
Hoping to out- propaganda Goebbels in the then neutral United States, the government commissioned filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to make a wartime action film with some of Britain’s then leading stars, including Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard. It concerns the adventures of a U -Boat crew trying to flee across Canada to the United States, the people they meet, and their ideas. It was a successful defence of the ideals of democracy free speech and tolerance, as opposed to falling under the rule of a single all powerful dictator. That film was 49th Parallel -and it can still be watched today.
Asanother of the Best Of British, Vaughn Williams was asked to score the film, and succeeds triumphantly. The phrasing and orchestration capture his style perfectly; newcomers will find no better introduction to his works. The version I link below is the one for original film titles, with Muir Mathieson and the London Symphony Orchestra. Modern conductors are inclined to take it faster. Listen to what audiences of the time would have recalled on VE Day!
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