Cultural Crossroads: British Film Music in the 1930s

Bennett, Alexis. 2019. Cultural Crossroads: British Film Music in the 1930s. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis gives a historical account of British film music in the 1930s, and re-interprets the period as an important artistic and cultural crossroads. The film scoring scene in the UK between the consolidation of sound film and the beginning of the Second World War was complex, rich and varied, and marked a stylistic intersection between competing and often contrasting traditions, aesthetic sensibilities, and practical approaches. The music that was produced for theatrical features and documentaries in the period grew out of a situation wherein its creators lacked a well-defined precedent for what they did. Some composers or musical directors were drawn towards experimentation; others transferred practices from other forms, such as the stage musical, operetta, or live accompaniment to silent film. In this project, I offer a detailed revision of received notions of the period in response to the lack of extant research and the assumptions of the few music scholars who have — briefly and insufficiently — examined it. The thesis arguably represents the first substantial work of scholarship on British film music of the period.

The chapters that follow identify trends, tendencies, and fashions; but I also show how none of these became mainstream practice. This applies both to the methodology composers adopted when working on scores, and to the character and function of the music they wrote. I challenge assumptions about the perceived qualitative divide caused by the ‘Quota Act’ by comparing scores written for ‘quota quickies’ to music composed for ‘prestige’ productions. It is a study that assesses the modes of creative film music practice and the variety of styles produced, set against the state of the film industry and the broader cultural climate of Britain in the 1930s. The means by which this is achieved is threefold: 1) the use of primary sources such as the films themselves, manuscript scores, and other archival materials, to illuminate creative practices and aesthetic approaches; 2) in-depth assessment of secondary film-musicological texts that have brought the subject into their field of vision; and 3) the drawing-together of items of criticism and journalism of the period under study to further inform findings.

A principal aim in this thesis is to demonstrate that the relative lack of scholarly attention the subject has attracted is disproportionate to the sheer variety of creative approaches to film scoring in Britain in the 1930s, and that by giving a multi-faceted overview alongside close examination of films, composers and music directors, and their scores, new perspectives on this period can be drawn.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Film music, 1930s, Britain

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



31 May 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Jun 2019 11:30

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:14


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