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Andrew Ford

The four years prior to the period covered by this new volume of Britten’s letters had been difficult for the composer, with the first real setbacks in a hitherto charmed career. In 1954, his opera Gloriana celebrated the dawn of a new Elizabethan age by looking back to the final, troubled years of the first Elizabeth’s reign, in particular her private life. Not only did the opera fail to please the first-night toffs, it was also the subject of questions in the House of Commons, the Establishment having hoped for something more like Merrie England in the coronation year. Then, in 1956, Britten’s only ballet score, The Prince of the Pagodas, caused him unprecedented difficulty: this most fluent and professional of composers was encountering something like writer’s block.

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Claudia Gorbman, in her ground-breaking and much-admired book Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (1987), invites us to imagine an alternative cinematic universe, one in which music has never played a part. Imagine if this were the norm, and imagine, after years of being accustomed to films in which music was absent altogether, attending a film such as the 1940s weepie Mildred Pierce and hearing the ebb and flow of Max Steiner’s luscious orchestral score. ‘What sheer artifice this would appear to the viewer! What a pseudo-operatic fantasy world! What excess: every mood and action rendered hyperexplicit by a Wagnerian rush of tonality and rhythm! What curious music, as well – robbed of its properly musical structure, it modulates and changes color, chameleonlike, in moment-to-moment deference to the narrative’s images.’ Of course, film music does not always defer to the narrative’s images, but Gorbman makes a good point: our willingness to admit music – music which emanates from a source external to the action on screen – as a perfectly normal constituent of film. It is surprising that we don’t find music in film surprising.

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In his opening sentence, Andrew Ford explains that, ‘The seventy-something pieces in this volume were written over fifteen years for a range of publications and occasions’. Indeed, in the sixty-eight titles that constitute Undue Noise, forty-four of which began life in the ABC organ 24 Hours, Ford confronts us as critical theorist, copious reviewer of music, text and film, diarist, sleeve note writer, radio commentator and university lecturer.

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