FROM RUMANIA TO ENGLAND: The Musical Career of FRANCIS CHAGRIN (1905-1972)
By Philip L Scowcroft
Chagrin was born Alexander Paucker in Bucharest on 15 November 1905 and initially trained (in Switzerland) as an engineer, changing course to a musical career, despite family opposition, in the 1930s. He studied first in Paris (with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas ofSorcerer’s Apprentice fame) while earning money playing the piano in night clubs and composing light music, and then in London with Matyas Seiber. He settled here in 1936 and married an English girl, by whom he had two sons. He died on 10 November 1972.
During the war he worked as musical director and composer for the French section of the BBC Overseas Service (1941-44) for which the French government later decorated him. He retained his connections with the Corporation thereafter. Also during the War (1943) he founded and ran the Committee for the Promotion of New Music (later SPNM) to help build a platform for younger composers to have their works heard. This is not to say that his own compositions were avant garde. Serious music he did produce, but this was always accessible and one suspects that did not commend him to the BBC music hierarchy in the Glock era. Certainly his two symphonies (1959, published 1967, and 1970), rather French in idiom, were not often played, nor were his Piano Concerto, Wind Octet and string orchestra pieces like Lamento Appassionato, Prelude and Fugue, premiered at the Proms in 1947, and an Elegy.
However he had considerable success with his lighter music which also included works for string orchestra: Three Bagatelles, the five Aquarelles (portraits of five children) and Suite Mediévale. Like many light music figures he relished composing "old" pastiche music, other examples for fuller orchestra being a Renaissance Suite, similar to Warlock’s Capriol, the Orchestral Suite No. 1 and theSarabande for oboe and strings (or piano). Chagrin conducted various orchestras, including some ballet ensembles (he indeed composed music for ballets) and his own Chagrin Ensemble, so it was not surprising he wrote so many orchestral miniatures, dances like Mirage (a tango), Concert Rumba andCastellana (a Spanish dance) and other miniatures including Chanson d’Amour, Reverie, Thrills of Spring, Promenade, Berceuse, Clockwork Revels, Trickery and Alpine Holiday, arranged by Ronald Hanmer, which could serve as concert items or, hopefully, as "library" music. In 1956 the BBC commissioned him to write the Rumanian Rhapsody for harmonica and orchestra (at that time Larry Adler was in his pomp) for the Light Music Festival of that year. For non-orchestral instrumental combinations most of his output was light in character and much of it was appropriate for younger musicians including the Divertimenti for wind and brass quintets, Four Lyric Interludes, All Together Now, for wind band, Improvisation and Toccatina for clarinet and piano, recorder pieces (in which he derived inspiration from the work of Carl Dolmetsch) and the Olympic Sketches for a quartet of clarinets (I suspect these were inspired by London’s Olympic year of 1948).
Chagrin wrote large quantities of incidental music, for the theatre, including Shakespearean productions, at least three songs from which achieved publication, for films, for radio and later for TV. So much of this is, by its nature, ephemeral, though occasionally there was an opportunity to recycle, as with The Beggar’s Theme (from the film "Last Holiday") and the Yugoslav Sketches, from a documentary film of 1945. No such rescue work was done on the scores for well-remembered large screen features like "An Inspector Calls", adapted from J B Priestley, and "The Four Just Men" and "The Clue of the Twisted Candle", both adapted from Edgar Wallace. Altogether Chagrin composed over 200 film scores including those for documentaries and Hoffnung cartoons. His work for radio included incidental music for plays and also, interestingly, "production music" like Two Fanfares, Dutch Signature Tune and Focus, Opening and Closing Theme Music for which, as the BBC owned the manuscripts, suggest they had "cut out the middlemen" of the music publishers.
His writing for the voice comprised mainly arrangements of popular French songs, a few original French songs, and some English songs, one taken from the 1954 film "Colditz Story" and others, with titles, such as Only Tell Her That I Love Her, We’ll Go No More A Roving and Time of Roses, which suggest they are slightly updated drawing-room ballads. He compiled various vocal medleys for radio use including one, unsurprisingly, of French National Songs.
Chagrin may have been particularly fond of French music but several of his lighter works show an awareness of the British light music heritage. The Nursery Suite (Daybreak, Mischief, Daydreams and Playtime) (1951) is a thematic orchestral suite in the Eric Coates/Haydn Wood template, while Helter-Skelter, reworked film music, is an example of the light, bright British concert overture. One or two of his miniatures have, I believe, been recorded during the last generation, but we could do with the revival of so much more.
In 2005 the CD "The Film Music of Francis Chagrin" was released on Chandos CHAN 10323. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Conducted by Rumon Gamba plays Chagrin’s music from Helter Skelter, An Inspector Calls, The Colditz Story, Greyfriars Bobby, Four Just Men, The Intruder, Easy Money, Last Holiday and The Bridge. The Charles Williams 78 of the Beggar’s Theme from the film ‘Last Holiday’ is also available on Guild GLCD 5109.
This article first appeared in the Robert Farnon Society’s magazine "Journal Into Melody" in June 2009.