Music at the library 

1 September 2001

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Gavin Sutherland on library music for television

The second image to be seen on the world’s first high-definition television service was Hyam Greenbaum with the BBC Television Orchestra accompanying Helen Mackay. Music has always been a key feature of many of the visual media – Lord Reith himself proclaimed that music was “the common property and common enjoyment of mankind”.

Indeed, such an importance prompted me into my chosen career (at the sight of Ronnie Hazelhurst and his Orchestra in shot on a Val Doonican show in 1979!). Live music was always going to pose a problem, though, as the demand would become too great for orchestras to deal with and the mighty power of the Musicians’ Union would restrict hours given to both live and recorded music on radio and television.

The BBC never reached an agreement about music on television until the monopoly was broken, when the fledgling Independent Television Authority set guidelines for the use of music and musicians in a visual medium.

To look at the birth of library music (or to give it its more modern term, “production music”), one needs to hark back to the days of silent movies. Picture houses in the early twentieth century often boasted large and versatile orchestras.

Versatile due to the fact that the music used to accompany the films was made up of extracts of hundreds of pieces from the classical repertoire (and some, though very little, popular music) heaved together into folders on each player’s stand. At a given cue hissed by the conductor, the music would change to fit the current mood of the scene on the screen.

One such theatre was the Duke of York’s in central London, boasting amongst its cellos one Giovanni Barbirolli, who as John (and later Sir John) Barbirolli was to become one of the leading British conductors of all time (and an early adviser to Associated-Rediffusion’s music department).

He worked six-hour shifts for seven and sixpence each, and never forgot the concentration and musicianship needed to “fit the film”: “You never knew what was coming next. It was all good training. I wish youngsters today had such work to do… Wonderful way of improving your sight-reading and quickening your mind”.

One person responsible for putting orchestras into cinemas, dealing with management and repertoire, was a Belgian by the name of De Wolfe. From such beginnings were devised the building of a library of original music used to fit scenes (a forerunner to film scoring as we know it today but no less descriptive). By the early 1940s cinema newsreels were big business, with cinemas devoted mainly to news springing up all over the country.

Given the fact that “the news never stops”, scoring and recording music for a number of different newsreels everyday was a physical impossibility, and so some companies began recording music, which could be ordered from a catalogue on 78rpm discs (and later reels of tape), to fit the various styles of the stories displayed on the screen.

A lot of these companies were linked to music publishing houses (such as Bosworth, Chappell, Boosey and Hawkes, Keith Prowse Music – better known as KPM – and De Wolfe) and the music recorded occasionally lent itself to commercial release (often re-recorded as a result) or even published. How often have we heard the phrase “Thank you for your enquiry seeking X music… This music is not available to the public”.

This was a canny ploy amongst the music publishers to avoid paying musicians additional costs, or losing out on the tidy sums brought in by usage of the music by film and television companies and the additional payments for repeat fees.

Some of the finest English Light Music composers have supplied music to these libraries, and in some cases this employment has acted as a springboard to a wider audience. Composers like Robert Farnon, Fredric Curzon, Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Ronald Hanmer, Ernest Tomlinson, Trevor Duncan and Sidney Torch from the golden era, and Keith Mansfield, Alan Hawkshaw, Alan Tew, John Gale, Ron Goodwin and Paul Lewis of more recent times.

The key was to capture a mood within a few bars in order to enhance a visual scene, introduce a programme, capture an atmosphere or help along the plot of a set piece of film or television. All library music records came with descriptive titles, a short description both of mood and often orchestration and timing down to the second.

The music could never afford to hang around stylistically, either – when the musical taste of the times changed the composers had to re-invent themselves in a new style, and still do!

Johnny Hawksworth, now well into his seventies and living in Australia, produced a sheet of paper containing about two dozen different styles of music and told me “Got to find music to fit all of these categories, all of the time!” Hard to imagine one so mature writing ‘techno’ pieces, but he does!

One of the most versatile composers in this field around today is Paul Lewis. He is often quoted as “the greatest composer nobody ever heard of” and his work spans forty years in the business in many capacities – library music composer, Assistant Music Advisor at ABC Television for four years, concert hall composer, and dedicated film and television composer.

His first library pieces were “Golden Countryside” backed with “Epic Voyage” for Southern Music in 1960 (at the tender age of seventeen!). They were recorded in Belgium and conducted by Dennis Berry. Paul’s prodigious output runs to about 1500 titles for libraries such as Southern Music, Joseph Weinberger, Peer-International, Studio G and, of course De Wolfe, (still in family hands, with son James as head of the empire now).

During the 70s and 80s Paul could compose, score, copy and record an entire album for De Wolfe in just two weeks (usually in between TV jobs) – “and tunes too, not just padding” he says. His inspiration could come from the most bizarre sources – he played me a lovely track once, from 1964, called “With K in Mind”. Paul received a letter from a girlfriend at the time, simply put it on the music desk of the piano, and began to read it, playing as he went!

His colourful orchestration is always commented on by many of his peers (once prompting Mike Ross-Trevor, famous London sound-engineer for the likes of John Williams and Elmer Bernstein, to comment “This isn’t television, this is Hollywood!”), and Paul puts this down to a low boredom threshold when it comes to orchestration.

Library music is as important today as it always was, since independent production companies can often ill-afford a newly commissioned score for a programme (“Tell me about it!” says Paul) and day by day the libraries around the world produce new music that might just become famous, or might just become mere background music for a short film extract. You can never tell, at least until the PRS cheque comes through!

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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