Composer and conductor Carl Davis discusses Czech connections: from The World at War to The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Carl Davis, photo: CTK

Jan’s guest in One on One is the world-famous conductor and composer Carl Davis. Mr Davis, who has composed hundreds of scores for TV and film, recently appeared in Prague to conduct the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Jan caught up with the conductor at Prague’s Obecní Dům to discuss his remarkable career as well as Czech connections: writing the scores for films like the French Lieutenant’s Woman and series like The World at War. The first thing he asked Carl Davis about was whether he knew early on that film and television would play such strong roles in his career.

Carl Davis, photo: CTK
Here’s what he had to say:

“I deliberately made a bid for it, because I had a very global view of music could do and be and I had some models. You know, the really good guys like Mozart and Beethoven – they did a lot of jobs! Mozart wrote minuets which very popular and Beethoven wrote show music and music for plays and all sorts of jobs, for dance. There was a mentality in which you actually wrote for the market and I liked that… and took that on board.”

Which composers working in film and television were an inspiration when you started– if any?

“I grew up in the heyday of Leonard Bernstein in New York, so the sense of variety and the idea of being talented in many things was there as an example. I always liked the Europeans who came to Hollywood but I also liked composers in Europe: William Walton in England, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Russia, and many composers in France, who all did work for film. I arrived at the idea that I might be a composer quite late – at the age of 18 – but before that I had a very complete musical training. I was already working at some opera companies as an accompanist and a repetiteur. I always knew I wanted to work and live in Europe and eventually I decided for London.”

What was London like at that time?

“I was really looking forward to the kind of dark, theatrical, almost artificial London from literature and theatre and when I came in 1960 it really was that, in the sense that it was only 15 years after World War II. London had been heavily bombed in the war and it was very shocking to have this impact, very dark. There were no rules about coal, everything was black and grey and dirty. The theatre was very serious in tone and intellectually it was very alive. I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it.”

How would you characterise some of your bigger projects from the 1970s?

“Well, one of the interesting things that I did was a TV series called The World at War. It was a big series – 26 hours. One of the important things, when you write for film and TV, is the titles. The titles set the tone and mood and signify what the audience can get ready for. If you can invent something very striking it can be enormously helpful. You come in from the kitchen when you hear it on the TV. More than that it has to inform the series, so I had to choose a model, I knew it was going to go around the world. It occurred to me that there were certain aspects of Czech music – Smetana and especially Martinů - that I like very much: a particular chord progression that goes from Minor to Major, where you go from something tragic that is then resolved in a major key. In a way, Czech music was my model for The World at War theme.”

That’s not the only Czech connection: you worked on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which had a Czech-born director…

“Yes, Karel Reisz. He was one of the Jewish children rescued in the late 1930s in the kindertransports [organised by Sir Nicholas Winton – ed. note]. He always had a slight Czech accent, even though he was just a child when he came.”

What was it like to work on The French Lieutenant’s Woman?

“It was quite hard. It was a very intellectual film with a script by Harold Pinter. The book existed in several layers of time: part of it was about a contemporary film unit making a film that was set 100 years earlier and you had equal weight on the present as the drama of the 19th century story. You had to help, by ear, to distinguish the present-day and the past: the present-day was poppy or jazz, while the Victorian period was very romantic, more Brahms. It was very interesting working that out, although Karel was a very troubled man. Sometimes he was very insecure about the material: sometimes I had to pressure him to outline specifically what he wanted. But it was fine in the end: we talked it out and worked out the music together.”

You’ve come to the Czech Republic on numerous occasions; what would you say was one of the more exciting performances you conducted here?

“I was asked back for the Prague Spring festival and this had a lot to do with Libor Pešek. At that time, he was the principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, going to and fro between Liverpool and Prague. He brought the orchestra over very often, so they were the ‘best Czech orchestra’ outside of the Czech Republic – he used to say! I had a commission at that time because in 1991 the Liverpool Philharmonic celebrated 150 years and they commissioned me to work with Paul McCartney on the Liverpool Oratorio. We came here for the Prague Spring and went to the cathedral up on the hill and did the McCartney, which had been written for a cathedral (the premiere was in the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool). So, that was quite a thrilling way to get to know the city: seeing the Smetana Hall and the public at the Prague Spring - and then doing the oratorio at the cathedral.”