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Researcher unearths previously unknown British-composed silent film scores

Posted on 02/05/2010

Dr Julie Brown, from the Department of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, has discovered previously hidden musical scores for silent films in various attics and archives. Prior to her discoveries, only one surviving full score was known about. Dr Brown has now been awarded a £145,000 British Academy grant to explore the musical film fitting techniques used in the UK for the screening of early pictures.

Dr Brown says, “Finding these scores was an extremely laborious process, searching through archive listings, often under obscure headings, and following up hunches by directly contacting surviving relatives. Even major libraries and archives didn’t know they had what I found there.”

Dr Brown discovered two important scores in private collections. One is for a film by Captain John Noel taken of the 1922 Royal Geographical Society expedition to Mount Everest filmed by Captain John Noel. “I’m also working on the score to the 1924 expedition, on which Mallory and Irvine tragically died. However, the one score that is fully composed from beginning to end by a British composer actually turned up in someone’s attic – and likewise he didn’t know he had it,” she added.

The person involved is Patrick Laurence, grandson of the little-known composer Frederick Laurence. Dr Brown made contact with the family to find out about Frederick’s involvement with scores that he put together in collaboration with Eugene Goossens Snr, father to a generation of famous British musicians: composer Sir Eugene Goossens, oboist Léon Goossens and the two harpists Marie and Sidonie. Frederick Laurence married Marie Goossens in 1926, and through them the musical tradition continues. Their son Tony Laurence, now 81, is a gifted jazz pianist, and their two grandsons are professional double bass players - Patrick with London Symphony Orchestra and Chris as a jazz professional and for years principal Double Bass in the Academy of St Martin in the 1920s.

Dr Brown explains: "I asked Patrick whether he had any surviving scores, diaries or letters. At first he had very little to offer me of direct relevance to my silent film research. However, two months later he emailed me back later saying, ‘I have just found some more of Fred Laurence's scores in my loft!’ He’d found one of the scores I’d initially asked about, which was all rather exciting, especially since this is the only surviving silent film score I know of by a British composer that is specially composed, beginning to end.”

Dr Brown says these scores are usually compiled from lots of little excerpts of pre-existing music, possibly with some specially composed transition passages. She has already started work towards having usable instrumental parts produced, a by-product of the experimental work funded by the grant, all with a view to a possible live performance of it next April at the British Silent Film Festival. Before long she also hopes to bring about a reconstruction of the original score to ‘Epic Of Everest’ (J.B.L. Noel, 1924).


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