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Rare British silent film score performed at Barbican

Posted on 01/04/2011

A still from the original film reproduced by kind permission of Sandra Noel

An intriguing silent film score by British composer Frederick Laurence, found in the attic of his grandson thanks to research by an academic from Royal Holloway, University of London, is being heard again for the first time since 1925 at the Barbican Cinema on Friday 8 April as part of the British Silent Film Festival and ‘Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain’ conference.

Specially composed for the London run of Morozko (Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, 1924), a delightful soviet film based on the well-known Russian fairy tale ‘Father Frost’, Laurence’s score is a significant find.

The score was discovered while Dr Julie Brown, from the Department of Music was researching silent film music in 1920s Britain for a book she is writing. She approached the family about the score, and although initially they didn’t think it survived, it was later unearthed in a box of Laurence’s scores safely tucked away in the attic.

Dr. Brown, who has reconstructed and resynchronized the music with the film, said: “The score is significant because it is the only original ‘special score’ for a silent film by a British composer or cinema music director known to survive from the 1920s. All the other British ‘special scores’ that I know of are compilation scores - that is, scores consisting of movements or sections from pre-existent music (classical, popular or “photoplay mood music”), put together in a kind of pot pourri, with or without specially composed short connecting passages. This one was composed from scratch, and is very interesting.”

The reconstruction and resynchronisation was funded by a £145,000 British Academy grant as part of a research project headed by Dr Brown entitled ‘Film Fitting in Britain, 1913-1926’, and the performance is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research network ‘The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain’, as part of its final conference which will enable as many people as possible to hear this music for the first time in over 80 years.

According to Dr Brown very few silent film ‘special scores’ of any sort are known to have survived in Britain – though she adds that she hopes many more will turn up in other people’s attics.

Laurence's score, by contrast, is not only entirely original; its musical language reflects aspects of 1920s musical modernism. It is also scored for an ensemble that was highly unusual for the 1920s cinema pit: two violins, viola, cello, double bass, and harp. This harp part, however, was most likely composed for Marie Goossens one of two professional harpists in the Goossens family and the one who became Frederick Laurence's wife soon after Morozko’s London run. The score was conducted by Marie’s father and Laurence’s soon-to-be father-in-law Eugene Goossens Snr. Although little known today, Frederick Laurence enjoyed some early successes as a concert composer in the twenties, and had a couple of Proms. 

At the Barbican Cinema on 8 April a distinguished line-up conducted by Philip Ellis of the Birmingham Royal Ballet will present this rare performance with the film. The all-important harp part will be performed by Lucy Wakeford (recipient of the first Marie Goossens harp prize at the Royal College of Music a few years ago), while well-known classical and jazz musician, Chris Laurence, the composer’s grandson, will perform the double bass part. The other musicians include Rita Manning (vln), Patrick Kiernan (vln), Bill Hawkes (vla) and Nick Cooper (vc).



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