A Conversation with Gerard Schurmann by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.12/No.46/1993
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Would you briefly describe your background in music and how you became involved in film scoring?
I must have inherited my initial musical interest from my mother, the daughter of Hungarian parents, who was an accomplished pianist. She had studied with Bela Bartok at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, and with Josef Hoffman in the USA. I studied composition with Alan Rawsthorne, piano with Kathleen Long and conducting with Franco Ferrara. In my early days I was regularly engaged by the British Film Society to improvise music whenever their fortnightly Sunday afternoon shows at the Scala Theater in London included silent films. They used to rent a concert grand piano especially from Steinway’s. It was positioned to one side of the stage just below and in front of the screen, and I was allowed one run-through with the film the day before. The Society operated from the premises of The French Club in St. James’ Place, and my remuneration consisted of ten guineas in cash plus all I could eat and drink at the club after the event.
I vividly remember, for example, a musical marathon to accompany a screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMPKIN, complete, and also, by contrast, a surrealist gem called THE SEASHELL AND THE CLERGYMAN which provided ample scope for bits of rather outlandish improvisation.
What were some of the first films you scored?
My very first feature film was an Anglo-Dutch co-production called NOT IN VAIN. The director was a Frenchman, Edmond Greville, and the film starred Raymond Lovell in the role of a Dutch farmer during the German occupation. Peter Ustinov, playing a Dutch priest, and Mai Zetterling both contributed cameo parts. I recorded the music with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at Cinetone Studios, just outside Amsterdam. In England, major feature films represented an impenetrably closed shop to a young composer, but it was Rawsthorne who in the end devised an effective, altruistic plan which led to my first opportunity at Ealing Studios, and the music for THE LONG ARM (directed by Charles Frend) and MAN IN THE SKY (directed by Charles Crichton). These were quickly followed by THE TWO-HEADED SPY (directed by Andre deToth), CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, CONE OF SILENCE, THE CEREMONY, DR. SYN – ALIAS THE SCARECROW, THE RUTHLESS ONE, DAY IN DAY OUT, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, KONGA, THE HEADLESS GHOST, THE BEDFORD INCIDENT, THE LOST CONTINENT, ATTACK ON THE IRON COAST, etc.
How would you describe your personal approach to scoring films? Is there a certain technique or method you use?
I don’t suppose that my approach to scoring films is in any way different from any other classically trained composers who work in the medium. When I was once asked by an over-anxious Hollywood producer if I had made myself familiar with “the latest click track technique”, I answered him in the affirmative, but pointed out that such methods were invented to simplify the job of scoring and recording, not make them more difficult as he seemed to imply. In practice, I hardly ever feel the need to use a click track.
How did you become associated with Hammer films?
John Hollingsworth, the Music Director of Hammer Films, contacted me and asked if I would be interested to write the music for their latest production, which was called THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND. I attended the screening of a rough cut, and there met Anthony Hinds, the producer, who told me a woeful story about money, and how quickly the job had to be finished if they were not to go broke!
How would you describe your approach to scoring CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND? This was a sparse but effective militaristic score.
CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND had been filmed on a small budget, and there was apparently little cash left for the music, but the script, a really powerful and gripping drama, impressed and moved me by the way it had been acted, directed and edited. Furthermore, the action was set in a couple of Japanese internment camps during the War, and the fact that my mother had suffered similar internment by the Japanese in the former Dutch East Indies helped to make the subject a very poignant one for me.
What kind of orchestration and size of orchestra was used on this score?
Post-production on the film was at the old Anvil Studios in Beaconsfield, where the music scoring stage was very small. A group of about thirty players was probably the limit that could be accommodated, and I therefore concentrated on using woodwind, horns and brass, with a smallish string section, and a battery of percussion used mostly a la Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’.
Would you describe your very different approach to scoring Hammer’s THE LOST CONTINENT? This score maintains an interesting contrast between the horrific shock music and the jazzy-pop bossa-nova melodies. How was this style decided upon?
THE LOST CONTINENT, by contrast, was the most expensive and lavishly budgeted film Hammer had produced to date. When they offered it to me, an earlier score written by Benjamin Frankel had been discarded. I was not free at the time of the offer, but Hammer paid me the compliment of waiting until I became available a few months later. The style of the music was decided upon in the course of several discussions between Michael Carreras, the director, Philip Martel and myself.
What difference did you find when working for Philip Martel on THE LOST CONTINENT as opposed to John Hollingsworth on CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND? To what extent did either of them enforce their own musical ideas upon their composers? How closely did they work with you?
Both John Hollingsworth and Philip Martel were good musicians and cooperative technicians. John was a classically-trained orchestral French horn player, turned symphonic conductor, and Phil really came from the other end of the musical spectrum. To answer your other question, neither of them tried to force any musical ideas on me at any time, and I hardly saw them, if at all, between the music spotting stage and the first recording session.
How closely did you work with the directors on these films?
I never met the director of CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, but got to know Michael Carreras quite well while working on THE LOST CONTINENT.
Were there any special challenges on these Hammer scores, either in composing the music or in recording it?
In CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND the principal challenge was the need to produce a heavy, dramatic sounding score in a rather tiny recording studio; while in THE LOST CONTINENT, with the use of a very much larger orchestra, our carefully laid musical schemes and preparations were in the end totally undone by the most ruinous final dub it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. The man in charge was, I believe, the supervising editor, who had impressed me before I ever started to write the music by his rudely arrogant and patronizing manner. So utterly appalled was I by this gentleman’s demeanor that I refused to go to any of the dubbing sessions. I now admit that had I been there I might perhaps have been able to prevent some of the very worst from happening, but it just seemed to me to be a lost cause at the time.
Early Hammer scores, under music director John Hollingsworth, tended to be more traditionally styled and orchestrated, while those under Philip Martel grew more modem in orientation and instrumentation. How do you feel Martel changed Hammer film scoring, and how effective do you feel each music director’s style was in supporting horror films?
The gradual, but discernable change in orientation during Philip Martel’s time was undoubtedly somewhat influenced by the evolving fashions in film music of the period. This probably all emanated from Hollywood, and these trends were perhaps more readily assimilated by him, coming as he did from a non-classical music background, than would have been the case with John Hollingsworth. Other composers may have had a different point of view, but I do not think that either of them had any particular influence on the way I scored my music for Hammer, beyond the fact that they were both competent and experienced craftsmen and musicians.
One of your most impressive scores was that for THE BEDFORD INCIDENT. Would you discuss your experience working on this film?
The director, James B. Harris, unfamiliar with the music scene in England, apparently chose me after viewing half a dozen feature films with music by different composers. When I was invited to meet him at Shepperton Studios, Richard Widmark, the co-producer and one of the stars, was still there, involved in the editing. I liked the film very much and we spent several days in discussions about the music. Widmark’s idea was to have the film lavishly underscored, but after his departure Jimmy Harris and I decided on a much more economic use of music. I really enjoyed the experience of working with Jimmy who was very knowledgeable, and actually a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music. There was just one stipulation he kept making and insisting on. This was that it should be a very modern score which would not date quickly. In the event he was very pleased with the result, claiming that the music would still sound modern thirty years later. We’re almost there, and I wonder if he was right.
Your last film was CLARETTA in 1984 – but prior to that you hadn’t scored a film since 1968’s THE LOST CONTINENT. What caused the 16-year hiatus, and what brought you back for CLARETTA, a World War II epic about Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci?
It was really a combination of circumstances that brought about the 16-year gap, but foremost among these was that I had become very busy writing concert music, and wished to keep myself free for a while to concentrate more exclusively on that side of my work. Consequently, I stopped looking for film work, and gradually film work ceased being offered to me. I made attempts to re-start my film career in the late ‘70s, but found by then that most people knew me only as a concert music composer, and were surprised when they heard about my list of film credits. Furthermore, the industry in England was going through a great recession at the time. The invitation to do the music for CLARETTA was accompanied by an offer to spend five months in Rome, enjoying lavish hospitality and ample time to record the music in stages with the Santa Cecelia Symphony Orchestra.
What are your current musical activities? Do you still do film work?
I’d love to do more film work. The last film that I scored was CLARETTA. My current commitments are to a number of chamber music and symphonic works, among which is a commission for a Concerto for Orchestra from Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Beyond the occasional stint as composer-in-residence, or giving lectures and seminars at a number of universities which I have enjoyed visiting, I have never been tempted to teach, since the prospect of doing so on anything like a regular basis had not appealed to me. Being an experienced conductor, I do still get invited to conduct performances, and occasionally a whole concert of my music, here and there.
Any final comments about your career as film composer?
I have almost always enjoyed my experience of working in films. For one thing, it makes a welcome change for a composer to work with other people for a while. Usually the producer, the director, the editor, and the music editor are all being very supportive and their enthusiasm at the recording sessions when they see what the music is doing for the picture is often quite touching. Film music, compared to the composition of concert music, requires a very different approach and discipline. In the first place, it is meant to accompany a story, in the telling of which visual images always take precedence. Benny Herrmann often used to say that there is no opportunity in films to write meaningful music as such, and only the right kind of sound is needed to give added meaning or direction to a scene. This is a rather extreme personal view, but it does serve to point up the very fundamental difference.