Saturday, September 18, 2010

Vaughn Williams: "Prelude: 49th Parallel" (1941)

PhotobucketThis is the Prelude to 1941 Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger wartime drama, "The 49th Parallel', here performed by the Shepton High School Full Orchestra of Plano, Texas. The film was not released in the USA until 1942 (under the title, 'The Invaders"). It won an Academy Award for Pressburger for
Best Screenplay.
This prelude was composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams. The film follows a group of desperate German navy officers and men who, after their submarine is disabled after an attack in Hudson Bay, try to cross hundreds of kilometers to reach the Canadian border with the United States, hoping to be interned into a then-neutral United States. The film served as a propaganda drama about the contribution of Canadians to the war effort, and a none-too-subtle remainder to the Americans that the war in Europe was coming closer every day.

The Narration after the prelude sets one of the themes of the film---how in a world engulfed in war, two large nations live in peace with one another:

"I see a long, straight line athwart a continent. No chain of forts, or deep flowing river, or mountain range, but a line drawn by men upon a map, nearly a century ago, accepted with a handshake, and kept ever since. A boundary which divides two nations, yet marks their friendly meeting ground. The 49th parallel: the only undefended frontier in the world. "


  1. The trailer for the film:

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  2. I cannot ever resist Vaughn Williams. I would know his music anywhere. ( Raif by the way...some people don't know.)
    The most profound, I think, are his Synfonia Antarctica, & The Sea Symphony from which I wrote a poem with a few of the quotes of Walt Whitman.
    Who wrote the narration?
    This is beautiful.

  3. Oh, my goodness. You posted this while I was typing....

  4. He is a great composer, Lucija, and yes I spent a long time mispronouncing his first name until I heard it on radio enough times.

    "The Lark Ascending" is also a major work. Williams served as a stretcher-bearer on the Western Front in the First World War. The loss of so many friends, fellow soldiers and artistic peers had a profound effect on his later music.

    I will try to see who wrote this narration.

    I hope you share your poem if you'd like on your site.


  5. Yes, I put this up and then decided I needed to add the preview to give folks an idea of what the film is about--unlike most films of this period, the main actors are the "enemy", trying to escape from the hunters---the various segments of Canadian soldiers, Mounties and unwitting individuals forced to take action. That reason alone puts it a couple notches above the average WWII action drama.

    I think the prelude was written for the film by Emeric Pressburger.

  6. "That reason alone puts it a couple notches above the average WWII action drama."
    Yes, it certainly does.

    My poem may already be in my site, but if not, I can copy it from my group notjustpoems. I have no special style, I'm very eclectic, & this symphony moved me deeply.

  7. If it moved you as much as this prelude and the postlude from the film moved me--and other Williams works directly for orchestra, I can well understand your enthusiasm, Lucija.

  8. This is the link:

    This is the only time I've used narrative or quotes in my poems.
    I would post it from youtube, but I'm sure that you know it well.

  9. In the process of finding the poem, I found another that is apropos at this time. I wish you could also see the pictures that accompany the poems.

    …..A Dorsimbra
    …Lucija Jovanovic ©

    A battlefield where darkened blood was wrought
    Man to man beneath the smoldering sky
    Opposing sense of justice there was sought
    Lethal blows hand to hand and eye to eye.

    If all laid down their arms
    Would peace descend
    Humans mend
    The killing field?

    White crosses needlepoint the endless green
    Beneath lies naught but dust of those once live
    They whisper in the winds remembering
    A battlefield where darkened blood was wrought.
    This is written to a precise form; the pictures are dramatic & poignant.

  10. Hi. I was able to get the photographs to the poem on my site. They're much more dramatic on the black background of nojustpoems.

  11. wow that is a powerful "piece" an illustration of a wonderful "peace"...thanks Doug

  12. A great film Doug which has been in my collection for some time, and it's perhaps time to revisit it.

    A point of fact though, I think there are many undefended national boarders now, especialy in the EU.

  13. Very poignant. I'll have to get over to your site and check out this on yourt site Lucija. Thanks.

  14. Well put Mike. Some one gave me the CD soundtrack to several musical themes and interludes to Michael Powell's great films--this music was so outstnading just on its own I wanted to share it.

  15. This film and Noel Coward and David Lean's Royal Navy feature "In Which We Serve", another wartime drama, were two of the best films about WWII made during the war. They were also the first British films I saw on VHS. I have them in my collection as well.

    You raise a good point--we have many more undefended borders indeed. The reason I included that prologue was that in 1941 Canada and the USA were likely the only major nations that had a realtively peaceful border. It was that way long before 1941, and I'm glad one can now travel unhindered through the EU. May it always be so for all our neighbors on both sides of the Atlantic.

  16. Another great film indeed. In which we serve is likewise in my collection Doug. You may wish to look at another Coward film, 'This Happy Breed' which is a charming story about one family in the intervening years from the end of WWI and the start of the second war. A fascinating social document I found.

  17. Thanks for the recommendation Jim. I had forgotten that one.

    "This Happy Breed" is a film I have only seen bits of in documentaries. I obviously need to see in its entirety.

  18. I saw This Happy Breed when I was a student. Different times, but families actually gathered together in one room instead of whizzing upstairs looking at the screen of a computer. Gran disappeared upstairs once or twice, I seem to remember!;-)

  19. Beautiful poignant music, Doug.

    Wonderful also to see youngsters with such talent. They will never forget this time of coming together as an orchestra! Bravo, Bravo!

  20. It is a favourite of mine. A wonderful social comment of the period as well.

  21. I enjoyed the film very much. Wasn't it written by Noel Coward?

    The people in the film were real characters.

  22. Thanks for the links Jim. How eerie that the play the film was based on was originally scheduled to open on or near the very day war was declared!

    It sounds like dissimilar to Coward's earlier "Cavalcade", which I did see. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in America and is, among other things, a cavalcade of all the British stars and character actors who came to Hollywood with the coming of the early sound era. Coward's emphasis in this play was on the upper and lower classes, a theme I thought was quite similar to the "Upstairs Downstairs" television series of the early 70's.

  23. It was a bit of a surprise for me to find the best recording on You Tube of this theme coming from a high school orchestras. I may be stretching things a bit, Cassandra, but I can't help thinking Williams poignant score here was inspired chiefly by his memories of the Front in the last war.

    Not only should they all be proud, this performance it hopefully be available to them to show their children some day when they go to music classes.

  24. Doug I don't know where you find these but you literally do find some of the most interesting things within these blogs. This really does up the bar.

  25. You are probably right, about Vaughn's war experiences. That kind of thing must scar one for life.
    I suppose music is a marvellous release when dark memories cloud the day.

    It really does the heart a power of good to see such talented youngsters. They get a lot of flack from adults, but there are many really decent teenagers about.

  26. I think those losses must shatter so many people, artistic or otherwise. At least Williams could "say" something of his grief through music:

    War I can only imagine is some immense power impossible to totally comprehend unless you were actually there, and perhaps not even fully grasp what happens to you until later. For those of "The Lost Generations" of 1914 who fought it out or just tried to survive in the trenches for four years across the Low Countries to the Swiss border, it must have seemed like an even greater hell. Few people I think expected such a long and costly war, nor grasped how much war had changed with the advent of machine guns and heavy cannons that could throw explosives for dozens of kilometers.

    And, yes, Cassandra, though kids of this caliber above do not grab the headlines, there are a lot of young people I agree who have both discipline and put their hearts into study and making arts come alive for others.

  27. It's amazing how much there is on the web, Jack. I can't take much credit.

  28. A beautiful piece of music, very well done. Thanks, Doug.

  29. Never saw Cavalcade, probably my snobish ignorance at work there. I'll keep an eye open for a copy Doug.

  30. Or it could be its just hard to find the movie, Jim.

    I do think its an interesting set of stories, and I'm always interested in how the recent past in Britain, Europe and North America is dramatized for people who lived through the times. Which brings me back to the subjects in "49th Parallel".

  31. This is truly something that I had thought of a few times and Doug how you do have something that truly is much more here. You really do know history. And for the life of me when I first saw this I literally had to come back a few times. As I do love history and especially when I saw the title it was a natural to look at this and it's amazing what you do on here, not because it's about Canada each time I come in here I literally do have to go through it a few times and all I can say is your a great historian in many ways there Doug.

    There literally isn't one person that blogs like you that I have seen.

  32. Thanks Jack, but you give me way too much credit here.

    I'd like to think i'm unique, as we all are. Or I've just seem too many movies, take your pick. :-)