Walton had been working in film since the mid-30s before writing the score for Laurence Olivier's wartime masterpiece, Henry V (1944). Olivier described Walton as "extolled to the skies. His paleness and coldness made the passionate blaze in all his music a thing of wonder and amazement." Olivier produced, directed and starred in Henry V, a play he had acted on stage in his army uniform) and radio. Charles Laughton, the famous stage and film star who witnessed his debut in the role at the Old Vic, told him "my boy, you are England.
" The film premiered on November 22, 1944, the day after the last blackout in London, and its success as Shakespearean adaptation stemmed from the vivacious and endearing performances of its cast. Battle scenes, shot with Britain's only Technicolor camera on the manicured grounds of an Irish estate, now look artificial, but their brutality was all too immediate to wartime audiences. Above all, Henry's unique identity emanates from its stylized medieval sets, purloined from the illuminated masterpiece, Trés Riches Heures.
The symbiotic relationship of cinematography and music in Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) inspired both Olivier and Walton, who scored Henry for orchestra (including tabor and harpsichord), treble and mixed chorus, first heard in the Daphnis and Chloe-like vocalise in the film's prelude. Walton's quasi-Elizabethan music includes tunes adapted from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a passacaglia commemorating Falstaff's death based on the drinking song "Watkins Ale" and a wistful minuet "Touch Her Soft Lips", revealing delicate nuances behind Pistol's rustic bravado.
The recurrent melody Walton borrowed from Chansons d'Auvergne becomes the leitmotif for the insouciant French princess. Its composer, Joseph Canteloube, never granted permission for its use, and was awarded damages after the film's release. Variations on the 15th-century song "Reveillez-vous, Picars", included in Vaughan Williams's 1933 Henry V band suite, simmer beneath the 15-minute Agincourt sequence. Henry's victorious battle with the Dauphin, punctuated by the clash of swords, is masterfully choreographed to the staccato rhythm of Walton's dissonant chords.
The influence of Eisenstein, who had edited Nevsky's famed "Battle on the Ice" montage to Prokofiev's score, is unmistakable. A cappella chanting of Non nobis Domine, followed by Walton's chorale treatment of the traditional Agincourt Song, signal the armistice. Olivier said, "for me, music made the film" and acknowledged this by bestowing on Walton the final screen credit. So too, does the last long shot of the robed boy's choir (and their conductor, played by actor/dancer Robert Helpmann) and musical instruments in the Globe's galleries.
When Olivier screened the completed film for Walton, the composer remarked, "I'm very glad you showed it to me, because I must tell you I did think it was terribly dull without the music."
This version of the Henry V Suite, arranged by Sir Malcolm Sargent, premiered at the September 14, 1945 Proms, under Walton's baton. — Cheryl Kempler.
This note was written for a 2002 performance at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.