Alexis Bennett is an Edison Fellow at the British Library Sound Archive, and is currently completing his PhD in music at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also Associate Lecturer. He is also a composer and performer. Here he writes about his research on composer Francis Chagrin.
Each donation to the Sound Archive at the British Library carries with it a certain air of mystery, especially if the format on which it is recorded has made reproduction difficult without specialist help. This was certainly the case for the materials donated by the family of the composer Francis Chagrin (1905-1972). Nearly all of the 484 recordings contained in the collection are lacquer discs of session recordings conducted by Chagrin. There are also some BBC shellac discs from his days working for the BBC French Service.
Francis Chagrin was Romanian by birth, but settled in London via Paris. His recordings were discovered in a garage by his family and donated to the British Library in 2006. Many of these discs are from the war period, during which he worked in London for the BBC French Service, a branch of what is now the BBC World Service that broadcast to occupied France. It is a fascinating trove of propaganda announcements, jingles, and other items, all set to music by Chagrin. They have arresting titles, which in themselves might give a sense of the kind of items that were being broadcast to the French: ‘Ne va pas en Allemagne’ is a sombre chant set to a dark orchestral accompaniment, and ‘Ça ira’ adapts an old revolutionary song.
When the discs were donated to the Sound Archive, they were digitized by the specialist staff so that researchers like me can listen to them repeatedly without damaging the originals. I am currently undertaking the task of cataloguing these recordings and aligning them on the British Library cataloguing system with the manuscripts and other special materials on Chagrin (these include scores, letters, cue-sheets, etc).
Research into the Chagrin materials can shed light on some of the ways that the composer borrowed from his own back catalogue. Early in his career, and soon after he settled in London, he scored a documentary called Five Faces (Alexander Shaw, 1937). It examined different groups of people living on the Malay Peninsula. Trawling through the BBC discs, (some of which are made from shellac, not lacquer) I found a French Service jingle that reuses the opening musical material from that film. The score for the film, and by implication for the material used in this jingle, is also held at the British Library. To the left is an image of the shellac disc and you can hear it in the attached file.
Five Faces BBC French Service
There are some recordings that do not originate from Chagrin’s French Service work, notably a broadcast recording of his Prelude and Fugue for orchestra (1947), which was performed at the Proms (then still called the Promenade Concerts); and a good representative sample of some of his film music, much of it now somewhat obscure, like his score for the rare documentary The Bridge (J. D. Chambers, 1946), which examined postwar reconstruction in Bosnia. This is an interesting case in point, in view of my cataloguing work, since by cross-referencing the sound recording of this film score and the manuscript for his concert work Yougoslav Sketches, it can be ascertained that the latter is simply an adaptation of the former. I’m not the first to make this particular connection (the musicologist Philip Lane worked on a CD recording of some of this music in 2005), but it is exciting to be collecting together all these materials at the British Library and cataloguing them in such as way that general readers and listeners can understand these links between paper sources and sound recordings easily.
Other, possibly more well-known, music can be found among these recordings, like cues from Chagrin’s score for the Disney film Greyfriars Bobby (Don Chaffey, 1961), which dramatizes the tale of the eponymous Edinburgh dog, a Skye terrier who allegedly slept by the graveside of his favourite human, Jock. This music shows Chagrin’s light-hearted side, but his skill and craftsmanship shows through (he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris).
You can read a detailed examination of the Chagrin archive in my forthcoming article for a special edition of Journal of Film Music, due Summer 2016:
Edison Fellowships are awarded annually by the British Library and funded by the Saga Trust.