10 Things You Didn’t Know About Walton’s Henry V


Christopher Plummer in the 1956 Stratford production of Henry V.

In recognition of the TSO‘s contribution to culture and arts in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford himself, well, on behalf of the Toronto City Council, has officially proclaimed September 22-24, 2011 as “Toronto Symphony Orchestra 90th Season Opening Weekend”. To kick off this historic weekend, legendary actor Christopher Plummer will star in Walton’s Henry V, which was also Plummer’s debut role at Stratford in 1956.

Want to see Plummer bring Shakespeare’s warrior king to life? Enter here to win a pair of tickets to attend the TSO’s Opening Night, where the Shakespearean theme will continue with Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and the world premiere of Kuzmenko’s piece for children’s chorus and orchestra with text from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With the opening weekend just around the corner, brush up on your knowledge and impress your fellow concertgoer with 10 things you didn’t know about Walton’s score for Henry V:

1. Christopher Plummer was inspired to take up acting after seeing Laurence Olivier‘s film Henry V.

2. William Walton — who had been working in film since the 1930s — wrote the score for Olivier’s wartime masterpiece. The Henry V score began a fruitful collaboration that would lead to Walton composing a number of brilliant scores for Olivier’s Shakespeare film adaptations, including Hamlet. “Walton’s music for Olivier reveals his acute sensitivity for narrative pace and development,” praises The Rough Guide To Opera. “As well as a sure touch in creating exactly the right mood for a particular scene.”

3. Despite this praise, Walton was rather dismissive of his film scores. The neo-Romantic initially resisted attempts to arrange them into concert suites. “Film music is not good film music if it can be used for any other purpose,” he reasoned. Later, he relented in allowing concert suites to be arranged from the Olivier Shakespeare films. It has since been arranged by composers such as Muir Mathieson (1963) and Robert Gower (1996). The TSO’s version — entitled “A Shakespeare Scenario” — was arranged by the late Christopher Palmer (1990).

4. Walton supported the film’s heroic and poetical aspects with his savvy use of plainsong and various Chansons D’Auvergne, the old folksongs of the Catalan. You can hear this in the recurrent melody Walton uses as a theme for Katherine, the French princess. But the French composer Joseph Canteloube — who was known for his orchestrations of Auvergne folksongs — never granted permission for the songs’ use, and was awarded damages after the film’s release.

5. This liberal borrowing might have been connected to Henry V‘s shoestring budget. Walton found working on the film difficult, and reportedly felt rushed to complete the music after numerous delays in production. He was also disappointed that the recording of a piano score by Roy Douglas — who orchestrated the score — went unused.

6. Despite these challenges, Olivier loved Walton’s score so much that he bestowed upon him the final screen credit, as well as the film’s last shot with the boy’s choir and the Globe Theatre’s musical instruments. “For me, music made the film,” he praised. (Walton knew this. When screened a rough cut of the film, he bluntly told Olivier that the film “was terribly dull without the music.”)

7. The film premiered on November 22, 1944, the day after the last London blackout. The battle scenes — shot with England’s only Technicolor camera — seem artificial today, but were brutal for wartime audiences. Surprisingly, critics at the time found that the music “detracted” from the actors’ performances, and it was only when Walton’s music stopped that “the music of the verse was permitted to soar as upon Shakespeare’s stage.”

8. American filmmaker Nicholas Meyer (a man responsible for revitalizing the Star Trek franchise with his direction of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) recently confessed to BFI’s Sight & Sound that Walton’s soundtrack was his favourite in all of cinema. “By the film’s mid-point, the only thing which anchors the movie to its original stylised theatricality is – you guessed it – the pounding music [...] While the battle we are watching is more or less realistic, it is absent all sound effects, which are, instead, supplied by Walton’s music. Every horse whinny, every clash of steel or flight of arrows is scored for orchestra.”

9. Christopher Plummer should be credited as “a muse” for the Palmer arrangement of Walton’s score. A collaboration in the 1980s between Plummer and Neville Marriner inspired Palmer to expand the work even further. (Plummer will also be narrating Henry V with the New York Philharmonic on Sept 17th.)

10. Of course, Plummer simply doesn’t just narrate. The music lover prides himself in having “fun” with the work: “When I speak, I get up and wander around and actually talk to the conductor and deliver some of it to the orchestra,” he says. “I know the text. It’s fun. We have a good time. I think. I hope.”