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Silent film scores

Posted on 04/08/2010

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. Julie has since 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.

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

Two important scores turned up in private collections. One is for a film of the 1922 Royal Geographical Society expedition to Mount Everest filmed by Captain John Noel. Julie is also working on the score to the film of the 1924 Everest 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 he was unaware he had it.

The person involved is Patrick Laurence, grandson of the little-known composer Frederick Laurence. Julie made contact with the family to find out more 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 jazz professional and for years principal Double Bass in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. A significant part of Julie’s research focuses on the work of the extended Goossens family in the 1920s.

Julie says: “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 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 particularly exciting since it is the only surviving silent film score I know of by a British composer that is specially composed, beginning to end."

Usually, these scores are compiled from lots of little excerpts of pre-existing music, possibly with some specially composed transition passages. Julie has already started work towards having usable instrumental parts produced, a by-product of the experimental work funded by the grant she has been awarded, all with a view to a possible live performance of it at the British Silent Film Festival next April. Before long Julie also hopes to bring about a reconstruction of the rather wonderful ‘compiled’ score put together by Frederick Laurence and Eugene Goossens Snr for the original screenings of Captain John Noel’s 1924 film Epic of Everest.


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