Somme on tour

The Philharmonia Orchestra playing to The Battle of the Somme at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall, London, in 2006

Silent films going on tour with live orchestral accompaniment is not something that happens too often. So it is particularly pleasing to be able to report the forthcoming tour of The Battle of the Somme (1916), the iconic First World War documentary filmed by J.B. MacDowell and Geoffrey Malins, with orchestral score by Laura Rossi. Rossi’s exceptional music (the first scored for a British feature-length silent since the silent era itself) was first heard at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall in London in 2006, and can now be found on the Imperial War Museum’s DVD release (the background to film and DVD can be explored further on this Bioscope post).

The tour dates are:

The music has been scored for (to quote from Rossi’s site) 2 Flute (2nd doubling Piccolo), 2 Oboe, 2 Clarinet in Bb, 2 Bassoon (2nd doubling Contra Bassoon), 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in Bb, 3 Trombone, 1 Tuba, 1 Timpani/Percussion, 2 Percussion, Harp, Piano, Strings. You can listen to sound clips, view video clips, see a sample page from the score, purchase/download the CD or purchase the DVD, and more, all from this link on Rossi’s site.

Rossi’s press release says this about the film:

The Battle of the Somme remains one of the most successful British films ever made. It is estimated over 20 million tickets were sold in Great Britain in the first two months of release, and the film was distributed world-wide to demonstrate to allies and neutrals Britain’s commitment to the First World War … The Battle of the Somme gave its 1916 audience an unprecedented insight into the realities of trench warfare, controversially including the depiction of dead and wounded soldiers. It shows scenes of the build-up to the infantry offensive including the massive preliminary bombardment, coverage of the first day of the battle (the bloodiest single day in Britain’s military history) and depictions of the small gains and massive costs of the attack.

while the Bioscope has this to say about the film:

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

This is a bold venture indeed (particularly with four different orchestras) and hopefully further such screenings will follow, especially as we are getting that little bit closer to the war’s centenary. Rossi has more recently composed a score for the film’s follow-up feature, The Battle of the Ancre (1917), sound clips for which can also be found on her site, as well as her earlier work composing for the British Film Institute’s acclaimed Silent Shakespeare DVD.

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