Laura Rossi | The Battle of the Somme | Virtuosa Records VRCD001 | TT67:29 | 5 tracks | 2006 / 2008
July 1st 1916 marked the beginning of one of the British military’s most bloody wartime engagements, The Battle of the Somme. Lasting five months, the battle saw Commonwealth and French troops attempt to push back German forces and while it is now believed to be a crucial moment in the eventual allied victory over Germany, it remains the single most atrocious event in Britain’s military history. Some 400,000 British soldiers perished in the battle; 20,000 on the first day alone.
British film cameras were on the ground during those fateful days, held by cinematographers G.H. Malins and J.B. McDowell, and their reams of footage were thought to be so impressive (and important) that the British Topical Committee decided to cut it together into a feature length film. The Battle of the Somme was released in 1916 and allowed audiences at home the chance to share in the terrible events and stand alongside their brave heroes, albeit from a cinema seat. The film was a box office smash, way before such things were thought of, and 20 million tickets were sold in the first two months of release and with those figures in mind it’s not hard to believe that The Battle of the Somme remains to this day one of Britain’s biggest box office successes.
In 2006, to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the film, The Imperial War Museum, commissioned a brand new score to accompany it. The producers looked to young British composer Laura Rossi, a composer who had previously written acclaimed work for the BFI’s Silent Shakespeare series and who has gone on to score the likes of London to Brighton and The Cottage. This re-scoring project saw her create a weighty musical undercurrent for orchestra and when the score was performed live to film in 2006, it was a big hit. Two years later, in time for the 90th Anniversary of the end of the First World War itself, the film has been released on DVD and features Laura’s beautiful score, which itself has finally been made available on CD by Virtuosa Records.
The score is presented in five parts, essentially one per film reel, and it takes in the preparations for battle, the angst and excitement of the young soldiers, the ultimate shock of battle on the bloody first day itself and its aftermath. In ‘Part One’ the orchestra moves through busy and scintillating orchestrations; scampering woodwinds deliver a windswept energy and an almost joyous melody appears. You cannot ignore the Williamsesque imprint here, one which weaves throughout and which is a testament to this young composer’s fine ability. This first section is at once heroic and brimming with optimism, spirited and youthful. Distantly rattling snares punctuate here and there, serving to remind us of what they are there for, while the crashing tympani rolls bring the ultimate reality home with shocking intensity. This opening movement is lengthy at over 16 minutes and a whole gamut of emotions are taken in. Optimism leads to fear and apprehension with the arrival of tremolo strings and erratic woodwind lines – a recurring refrain which lingers here until the final minutes as Rossi returns to a somewhat heroic meter, akin to a Western in some respects with woodblock, percussion and low brass a’la Copland. With the toll of a bell and more creeping woodwinds and strings, the reality of war looms again.
The remaining parts see further melodic touches, with motional and somewhat jaunty colours achieved with broad strokes and subtle orchestral nuances. There’s a great sense of movement in Parts Two and Four, some trepidation early on, while the mid-point of the second movement offers more Americana-like structures and colours. Later we’re reacquainted with the heavy tympani rolls, which are often shadowed by strikes on the bass strings of the piano, while in ‘Part Three’ a wind machine adds an atmospheric tone atop low tympani rolls as the attack begins. This third movement is somewhat even tempered, furtive in places and elegiac in others. It has a suitably haunted quality, which becomes lofty with rising arpeggios and sweet oboe, while the tempered strings keep it anchored.
Strings and woodwinds dance round each other, caressing meandering lines, in the fourth movement, which later features a resounding four-note horn call, echoed by fiddle in places. The horn always has a noble sound, perfect for this palette and emotional standpoint. In time it is joined by trumpet for a five-note motif and once again the work of John Williams springs immediately to mind.
Rounding off the score is another hefty 16 minute movement, which takes a more reflective tone to begin with, emotional certainly and at times moving. Tempered strings and sweet solo violin push through fluttering woodwinds for a more sustained feeling, while later on the trumpet delivers a ‘last post’ style refrain. A buoyancy is found at the 8 minute mark, with snare rolls and strings bringing about an almost joyous finale, respectfully celebrating the brave lives lost. The Williamsesque theme reappears in the final minutes, giving off something of a triumphal air, though again one of respect and honour; it is quite a sweeping adrenaline rush though as the orchestra unites before the strings are left to wrap things up, eloquently drawing the work to a close.
You cannot deny the power of this score; Laura Rossi very adeptly creates an emotional picture through impressive orchestral writing which is at once colourful, honourable, celebratory and moving. The performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra, under Nic Raine, is pristine and the CD package hugely interesting as it features extracts from the diary of a stretcher-bearer from the 29th Division – Fred Ainge, Laura Rossi’s Great Uncle. The Battle of the Somme is a fine memorial of music, for a point in history that should never be forgotten.