Sunday, September 12, 2010

First of the Few and the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue by William Walton

"The First of the Few" was a British wartime film from 1942 about the creation of the Spitfire aircraft and the superhuman production efforts led by its designer R. J. Michell. William Walton wrote the score for the movie and later extracted the "Spitfire Prelude and Fugue" from the cues:



The prelude was developed from the music for the opening credits of the film. Broadly stated fanfares and a lyrical escalation prepare a march that begins at [0:45]. The concert version extends the march by redeveloping the fanfare music as a transition, and it does not have the fade away used in the film.

The fugue appears near the end of the movie where it is used as a classic device for intensification. At [1:26:00] everyone is looking for Mitchell but even his wife is unsure of his whereabouts. He has gone to see a doctor [1:26:16] and discovers that his health has been compromised. "I'm afraid your a rather sick man, Mr. Mitchell." says his doctor. Mitchell learns that if he rests he will survive, but if he continues to work he will live only another 6 or 8 months.

[1:27:49] Mitchell resurfaces at work. He is told that "the plane needs to be ready in 12 months: that's all the time we can give you."

"It will be ready in 8 months," he says over the fugue theme, "because that is all the time I can give to you."

The fugue spins in six-bar phrases and gathers momentum. There is a brief sequential episode [1:28:52] and then the subject returns in an intensification where scenes from the factory are overlaid on images of Mitchell's face.

A surprising feature of the concert-version fugue is a lyrical centerpiece for solo violin. This music was woven in from a musical cue in a powerful central scene that appears in the midst of the struggles to complete the spitfire in the film.

Mitchell enters a darkened room [1:29:51], and opens a bay window. The violin interlude voices his sacrifices. He looks out the window and listens to the birds. His wife comes in the room and the music becomes suspended in their conversation.

They talk, gradually, about his imminent death, and Mitchell decides to rest. But he glances down [1:33:58] at a newspaper headline: "German Bombers Wipe Out Spanish Town." The lyrical music begins again, and he moves forward, working at full speed.

The fugue is reprised [1:34:36]. Elements of the march played during the opening credits are fused into the fugue, until the march and fugue are combined in counterpoint. The plane is pushed onto the runway.

The music was shaped carefully by ideas from the film and it is wonderful to hear how, when heard as an independent concert piece, the music whispers of its origins.

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