When ‘talkies’ first started to spread their wings in the mid 1930s, a need for orchestral scores to accompany the increasing visual ambitions of the films was identified. So, who was to write this music? Film music specialists like John Williams and John Barry did not exist at this point in time. The world of tunes and arrangers that was musical comedy was fine for Judy Garland/ Mickey Rooney films but couldn’t meet the needs of the serious and grand films that were increasingly in production. The obvious solution to this was to ask to established classical composers to provide the necessary orchestral heft and gravitas. This led to composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Russia, and Milhaud and Honegger in France being enlisted, while in Hollywood composer such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner were imported from Europe.

In Britain, a similar story was true and one of the first composers to be recruited into writing for film was Arthur Bliss, whose score for Things To Come (1936) was for perhaps the most ambitious production in British ‘talkie’ cinema to date. With a script by H.G Wells and masterminded by the powerhouse that was Alexander Korda, a score of considerable substance was needed to cap the project.

What they got from Bliss, who was at the time at the peak of his composing career, was perhaps his greatest score. So powerful is the score that it is has been often given the accolade as being the most important British film music ever written. The only problem proved to be the quality of the score itself, in that it is the music you remember and not the film. The best film music enhances the whole production and doesn’t overshadow it, as composers like Bernard Hermann knew only too well. Not that you can blame Bliss for this embarrassment of riches; at this early stage in the development of film music, these creative subtleties had yet to be developed.

However, it remains a mystery as to why this fabulous score has now become absent from the concert hall, as have virtually all Bliss’ works. Perhaps one explanation is that there is a creeping snobbery about ‘serious’ composers who have written for film? An article about Vaughan Williams music from the 1980s confirms this suspicion. It divided his music into two categories, pre- and post- his first film score 49th Parallel from 1940-41. The argument was that this lowbrow form had hopelessly infected the purity of VW's music. For example, the Fifth Symphony (1943) was a cheap ‘infected’ version of the Pastoral Symphony; likewise the Fourth (1934) and Sixth (1947) Symphonies. And the arch-enemy of Vaughan Williams’ greatness was the horror that was the Sinfonia Antartica (1952) based on the music for Scott of the Antarctic.

Time has proven this analysis to be spurious in relation to Vaughan Williams, whose reputation has grown considerably in the past 20 years despite his foray into the ‘grubby’ world of film. However, one could argue that William Walton has fared less well. His bank of works composed prior to his film music scores has secured him a solid position in the concert hall, but the works that came after his first film score The First of the Few (1942) are played far often and are not as admired. How often are works such as the Second Symphony, the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, Capriccio burlesco or the Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten programmed? Only the Cello Concerto has found a tentative foothold in the repertoire.

For many composers, the allure of a good income was a great temptation. Prime examples were the all but forgotten serialists Humphrey Searle and Elizabeth Lutyens who paid their bills composing music for Hammer Horror films while writing some of the most avant-garde British music of her time. Lutyens managed to be one of the most respected British composers in the 1960s despite composing music for The Curse of the Werewolf at the same time. But for Lutyens her creative credentials were something of a birthright, being the daughter of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Sadly her music has also disappeared from the concert hall and even the recording studio.

The real victims of film music snobbery were composers such as William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold, whose concert ambitions were yet to be achieved and whose concert style was an extension of their film music. Both were hugely successful and respected film composers, Arnold being only the second British composer after Brian Easdale, to win an Oscar for his score for David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai.

Arnold wrote 116 film scores and in the process drove himself to drink, a string of breakdowns and suicide attempts. Sadly, his concerts works, including a splendid nine symphonies, were critically ignored and remain largely unplayed in the concert hall, despite being perhaps the most impressive British symphonic cycle after Vaughan Williams’ nine. Arnold was forever ‘infected’ by populism and remains so.

The age of the ‘serious’ British composer writing for film has well and truly passed, with the exception of Michael Nyman, who has suffered the same fate as Malcolm Arnold. We now have an army of composers who specialize in this genre and who produce a large amount of serviceable and professional music in a vast range of musical styles. However, there are times when one longs for a great tune or a darkly disturbing atmosphere that comes from a composer whose art is their life and not their trade.