Toby Haggith from the Imperial War Museum interviews Laura Rossi about her involvement composing the score for The Battle of the Somme .
Toby Haggith – How does composing for this project (The Battle of the Somme) compare with other film work you have done?
Laura Rossi – The main difference is the structure of the film is quite loose – there are some very contrasting scenes juxtaposed, for example there is a scene where happy soldiers are receiving their mail and then the picture suddenly cuts to a pile of dead bodies in a crater, so it was hard to get the right tone and make the music flow between such contrasting scenes. Also, in other films I have scored the dialogue tells the story and the music is there to underline or enhance it in shorter cues that flow in and out of the scene. Here the music was needed to be continuous because it is a silent film and it has a much bigger role – to try to enhance the films structure and make the images easier to follow and help you to concentrate on what is happening on the screen.
T.H – Can you tell me about your family’s connection to the Battle of the Somme?
L.R – It wasn’t until I mentioned to my Aunt that I was going to visit the Somme battlefields that she told me that my great uncle Fred was in the war and she had a couple of his diaries somewhere in the attic. She dug them out and posted them to me and we took them to the Somme and read them over there and coincidentally found out that we were staying in the village next to where he was positioned on July 1st 1916 so we tried to retrace his footsteps and visited many of the places he had been to. He was the only one of his Pals out there who didn’t get killed. He was a stretcher-bearer and attended the 29th division on the Somme on July 1st so it was possible he could even have been in the film.
T.H – How did this personal connection to the battle affect your work on the film?
L.R – It was amazing to find out that my uncle (who I knew – he survived the war) had been through all this stuff and it really made it all come to life for me. It made me feel closer to the men in the film and it made me watch the film in a different way and helped me to write it from the soldiers’ point of view.
T.H – Tell me a more about the visit you made last summer to the Somme battlefield. Did this inspire the composition and if so how?
L.R – Well we stayed in a lovely guesthouse in Auchonvillers owned by a wonderful lady called Avril Williams. After each day of exploring we would sit in her lounge drinking wine with all the other guests and discuss all our experiences and everyone’s connections with the war. I really learnt a lot from her and the other guests staying there. We went over for the July 1st ceremony at the Lochnagar Crater as well as other ceremonies at Thiepval and Beaumont-Hamel. We also went to where Malins filmed the famous Hawthorn mine explosion and visited the many war graves and trenches. You can still walk across the fields and pick up shells 90 years later. The trip was very inspiring; it was a very sad but incredibly moving experience.
T.H – When we were choosing sections for the promo, you talked about how challenging it was to write the music for such a ‘dark’ film. Can you elaborate for us by referring to a couple of examples from the film?
L.R – It was very challenging writing music for this film because it has some really sensitive scenes of the dead and wounded. I wanted to deal with some of the more shocking or distressing scenes in a sensitive way, not overloading them with over-romantic or tragic music but something more simple that can give you time to think about what you are seeing on the screen. For example for the famous trench rescue scene I decided to just use a couple of instruments: a solo oboe and harp. I didn’t want the music to be too emotional or tell you what to feel, as the images are powerful enough themselves.
T.H – How did you tackle some of the ‘longeurs’ (e.g. the pan across the shelled buildings and trenches) and repeated visual themes in the film (prisoners and casualties filing past the camera)?
L.R – I tried to make some of the more lengthy or repetitive passages in this film more watchable. For example for the scenes of battered landscape at the start of part 5, when watched silent this section seems incredibly long but with music added it seems to make it flow more. I wanted the music to draw you into these sections as they are actually very important moments in the film as they are the few moments where you are given time to reflect on the images without quickly cutting to the next shot
T.H – What did you set you to achieve when writing this music (e.g. you said to me that you wanted to produce a score that would help others to understand and appreciate the film and the battle)?
L.R – The more involved I got with the film and the more research I did I realized how important the film is and what an enormous responsibility I had to write music that appropriately fits these images. The cameraman Malins said in his book that in this film he wanted to ‘capture the atmosphere of the battlefield and show the spirit of our fighting men in the most accurate and reliable way’ and I have tried to stay true to this in the musical score.
I felt the film needed a strong but simple melodic score to help hold it together and sustain the audiences attention for 74 minutes of footage so that it works as a film on it’s own – not just as separate clips played within a documentary as many people have seen it. I feel it is really important for people to watch this film in its entirety to get a feel for what it must have been like as I think it takes a while for it to sink in that these images really are real and I think watching it in this way is much more moving experience.
T.H – You told me you conceived the music in 5 separate movements, can you elaborate?
L.R – The film has a very loose structure; the preparation of war/ the Bombardment/ the aftermath of the battle and the continuation of the war but I think on a first viewing it is quite hard to follow as there are such contrasting scenes placed side by side. As the film was originally compiled into 5 reels I felt the film lent itself very well to being written in 5 movements which I think helps to enhance its structure. I also felt that the film needed a slight pause between each of the 5 parts so that the viewer is given a brief moment to reflect on the images just seen before quickly launching into the next part of the film as it is quite difficult to watch the entire film in one go and I think it helps to break it up this way. Also, having new musical material at the start of each new movement helps sustain the audiences attention by giving a fresh start each time.
I felt the film needed a Finale ending to musically complete the film but I didn’t want it to be too celebratory or sentimental but just to finish the film showing the spirit of the soldiers because I think this film is important not just as a historical document of the battle (which gives us a good insight into what it was like) but also as a homage to all the men who fought or died for their country.
T.H – Tell us about the music you wrote for the scenes at the start of part 3?
L.R – The start of Part 3 (the attack sequence) is probably the most famous part of the film. It is the peak of the film and of the battle and for me it was irrelevant whether these images are faked because it’s such an important moment that we all know actually happened so I think it is important that it is there. I wanted to mark out this moment but it was difficult to know what to write for these images. I considered having a minute’s silence (and later found out that it was sometimes screened this way) but in the end I decided to create an eerie, unnerving atmospheric background by using low drum rumbles with thunder sheet and wind machine. I then had the violins entering one by one playing high string harmonics that gradually builds up to create a high dissonant chord to give the feeling of tension.
T.H – Are there any moments in the film that particularly stand out for you?
L.R – One of the most poignant moments in the film is in Part Five where the soldiers are resting and cleaning up after the battle and some wave and smile and show off their souvenirs from the battle. For me this is a very emotional moment as it is one of the few times we actually see the men as individuals (not just a group of soldiers) and really look into their faces. I wanted the music to be emotional and strong here to enhance the images of these men who have just been through this terrible battle yet still put on a brave face and smile at the cameras.
T.H – You did a lot of background reading to help you understand the battle and the film-making of Malins and McDowell. Did this help with the composition?
L.R – Yes I also watched many films and documentaries and read many letters and diaries of the soldiers. I was particularly interested in the soldiers’ point of view and doing all this research helped me to write the music from this angle.
T.H – On the 1 July you came to the Museum to hear Stephen Horne play the J. Morton Hutcheson 1916 medley for the Battle of the Somme. At the time you said you were glad that you had not heard this version while you were working on the composition and that it was completely different to what you had produced. Can you elaborate?
L.R – I decided not to listen to the current video with improvised piano accompaniment or the Morton Hutchinson version of suggested pieces as I didn’t want to be influenced by it. I really wanted to be influenced by the film itself and write music I felt fitted the pictures and made them come to life. The Morton Hutcheson medley was much more positive and light hearted than I imagined. I enjoyed the old tunes played for the campfire scene and some of the marching themes but other parts I found really strange such as the start of Part 5 where the happy marches seemed a very inappropriate thing to play against scenes of devastation.
I think it is interesting to hear the medley and see how it was watched in 1916 (as it was screened partly as propaganda, to boost morale and provide support for the war) and I think the Morton Hutcheson music reflects this) but I think someone watching the film today would watch it in a completely different way as we now can look back in hindsight and we already have a pre-conceived idea of what the war was like from watching documentaries and reading books so I wanted the music to follow the action on the screen so that you are drawn into what’s happening in the film and watch it in a very real way.
T.H – How has working on this project affected you?
L.R – I have become really interested in the 1st world war and I now have a much clearer picture of what it must have been like to be a soldier in the Somme battle and what a horrific time these men went through. In fact I have watched this film so many times that when I go to sleep at night I sometimes see these soldiers faces! I think this film brings you closer to the reality of the First World War and I feel very passionately that others should know more about it.