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John Barry - Film Composer

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John Barry conducting a small orchestra in a TV studio from 1964

John Barry Prendergast was born on 3 November, 1933, to a cinema-owning father and a classically-trained pianist mother in York, England. He was therefore immersed in film and music from a very young age. He went into the army in 1948, and was a soldier until 1957, during which time he took a qualification in composition. When he left the army, he formed a group called the John Barry Seven, who for the next five years or so released a number of singles and did assorted performances, live and on television. At this stage, the group's and his music was far removed from what film fans know today as the 'John Barry sound', being very much rock and roll in style. This fashion was continued in his early film scores, for movies such as Beat Girl and The Amorous Prawn1.

James Bond

John Barry was asked to work on the music for a film called Dr No and this was the point at which his career really started to take off. Of course, at that point, no-one anticipated that the James Bond series would be so long running. For the first two Bond movies there were two composers involved in the films: Barry and Monty Norman worked on Dr No, and Barry and Lionel Bart (best known for the musical Oliver) on the second in the series, From Russia With Love. The quality of these two scores led to him being retained for Goldfinger and by that time he was firmly installed as the composer of Bond.

Dr No/The James Bond Theme

What is now known to millions as the 'bond theme' was originally conceived just as the opening title music of that one movie. The twanging steel-stringed guitar riff played originally by Vic Flick, who worked playing the guitar parts on all the Bond movies scored by Barry and also License to Kill. Even today there is doubt as to who actually composed the title piece. Monty Norman is credited with it in the film itself and several court actions over intellectual property rights have sided with him. However, it does seem odd that, if Norman does deserve full credit for the theme, he did not write for any of the other Bond films, what with the theme fitting so well with the whole Bond idea. Some suggest that what actually happened is that the producers of the first film had some problems with his theme and called John Barry in to rework it.

Whatever the precise sequence of events, John Barry was still involved in creating one of the most recognisable pieces of film music ever. A lecturer once played only the first two notes of it to a large group of university students - the interval between them only a minor second, yet 85% of the students recognised the piece. These rising and falling semitones combined with the entrance of the ostinato2 guitar riff following the same pattern, immediately creates a sense of tension, important in later films where the theme tends to enter in the build up to some action and making the music recognisable straight away. This initial passage then contrasts with the later drama when initially saxophones and then the entire brass section take on the secondary tune. This is classic John Barry style - very brash, very 1960s with muted trumpets playing a loud major-key tune over lower brass staccato harmonies and trombone run-off notes. The drama is easily evident in the music and it is not by chance that the very loudest section, with the two tutti3 major seventh chords, followed by tonic bass note, then repeated, often in later films coincides with the very climax of the action on screen.

The James Bond theme appears at least once in every subsequent Bond film, with the exception of Goldeneye, as initially Barry and then all the other subsequent composers realised its growing synonymity with the series.

John Barry was responsible for the scores of all of the films up to The Living Daylights and wrote the majority of the title songs for these, in collaboration with lyricists such as Leslie Briscusse and Don Black. Each employed a popular artist (at the time) to sing on the track; such as Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Moonraker) or Tom Jones (Thunderball). Although some of the films they were composed for were of varying quality there are some outstanding musical cues in the films. On her Majesty's Secret Service and The Living Daylights are sometimes considered the scores most worthy of praise. This is by no means a complete list, but below are some of the best individual sections, in no particular order.

Outstanding Work

From Russia With Love

The theme song to From Russia With Love does not appear until the end of the film and is a lilting, slightly sad ballad in a minor key. It is sung by Matt Monro, accompanied by legato strings. However, the real hidden treasure is what occupies the opening titles position instead. This is a reworking of the same tune, again played in the same manner by strings, but this has a characteristic John Barry spin put on it, with 'ethnic' drums in the background, a tablar providing a driving ostinato beat and an entirely appropriate (with large parts of the film set in Turkey) eastern feel. As with a lot of his work, muted trumpets and trombones play syncopated harmonic figures beneath and in imitation of the main tune. Later the tune turns seamlessly into the familiar Bond theme, showing how central the one motif was to his musical thinking, particularly in scoring the early films.

Thunderball - Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

This is a slow jazz waltz, very syncopated, with a very virtuosic-sounding melody played on saxophone filled with lazy yet intense emotion, very much typifying the film's main character. Yet again, massed brass provides the full range of harmony through short paraphrases, some of them musical quotations from the theme from the original film's accompaniment. In addition to this there is a single flute which provides an answering phrase to each of the saxophone's, in a call and response pattern.

Thunderball - Bond Joins Underwater Battle

While scoring From Russia With Love, John Barry composed a piece known simply as 007, which was conceived as a secondary theme for James Bond. This is musically his best arrangement of it. Like many action movie cues, it moves from suspense and atmosphere into action and drama. The beginning creates the atmosphere though the absence of a melody as such. Very short abstract phrases create an eerie and slightly unearthly atmosphere as they leap about the whole compass of pitches and all sections of the orchestra, in particular low brooding notes on tuba and double basses, vibraphone motifs moving skittishly up the scale, and long legato notes forming a sort of tune played on Barry's favourite - the alto flute. Then all of a sudden there is a uprush as violins play the same three note phrase over and over again and the secondary theme intrudes into the reverie created. This is very discordant and polyrhythmical - 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 is how the bars are subdivided rhythmically and this unusual irregularity in combination with the jarring dissonance of some of the chords results in a sense of chaos which fits the underwater battle of the scene. The rhythm also sounds incomplete because of its inequality and this drives the music forward. Instrumentation is as usual, much brass, with staccato filled parts. Low brass provide a strong bass foundation and a piccolo also features at the end of some of the phrases, playing a very high broken chord.

You Only Live Twice - Main Title

Sung by Nancy Sinatra, the title song to You Only Live Twice is a marvellous example of one of the principle features of John Barry's composition: his superb use of the string section. The piece begins with a massive string arpeggio, starting with the basses and working right through cellos, violas and violins stretching over five octaves. Immediately the nature of the harmony is stated. Throughout this and in many of his other works, the massed string orchestral sound is full and rich. The sound is always completely homophonic4 and in keeping with the key, producing a very warm effect which in this case complements the range and tonality of Nancy Sinatra's voice well.

You Only Live Twice - Capsule in Space

The accompanying music to this scene, which is more or less at the start of the film, is a masterpiece of writing to evoke a mood. The scene involves the spacecraft of Blofeld 'swallowing' the American craft. Of course this could not actually be filmed and so had to be created using special effects. At the time these were still relatively primitive and with a limited budget as well, the results are quite good but not brilliant. Yet despite this the scene is still very dramatic and this is due in no small part to the music. The serene opening, with a very sustained legato melody interchanging between flutes and violins over harp arpeggios and an extremely soft but regular timpani beat, ensures a peaceful mood to go with the emptiness of space. As is often the case with Barry, it is the intrusion of the brass section (he was a trumpeter himself) which signals the change in mood. Softly at first they enter and then slowly crescendo, playing a simple repeating tune as the unknown capsule approaches. Then, as the American spacecraft is swallowed up, the music reaches a peak with a different brass motif, played by tuba, then trombones, then trumpets, higher and higher as the initial suspense is fulfilled to a background of urgent, driven, strings. The music ends on a dissonant final chord played by the whole brass section, just as the closing jaws of the capsule severe the space walking astronaut's cable. The astronaut and capsule drift apart, in silence.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Theme

Although this movie is often given short shrift because of the ill-fated change from Sean Connery to George Lazenby in the title role, the theme is regarded by many as the best piece of film music that John Barry has written. This is chiefly because of the counterpoint of the bass progression, which is just a simple downward moving pentatonic scale, set against the magical calls of the horn section. The melody the French horns have, and also later the trumpets, moves mostly by semitones and this produces an extremely smooth lyric tune which is completely homophonic with the accompanying parts. Again, these complex chords (diminished or augmented seventh chords, inversions, suspensions for example) makes for a very rich sound which constantly flows forward, but without the more driven nature of some of his other work. This is because the minims (half-notes) of the bass occur on the strong beats of the bar- the first and third, unlike in other faster-paced pieces where either all of the beats have equal weight or the off-beats are stressed to give a more syncopated jazz feel. Instrumentation is as per most of Barry's dramatic film music: prominent brass, strings and flute.

Other Work

Of course, John Barry composed music for many films other than James Bond. These include Somewhere In Time, Born Free, Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, Raise the Titanic and Dances with Wolves. A complete list can be found at the Internet Movie Database.

Out of Africa is particularly recommended listening as John Barry uses French horns in an entirely different context to his habit, to create a very relaxed mood in conjunction with smooth violins playing legato. The feel of the piece is overall very serene but at the same time tinged with sadness due to the minor key. Harmonically, the texture is relatively thin, but this is necessary so as not to overpower the quiet and subtle melody.

Post-Bond, John Barry's work has broadened and his style changed so as to be less aggressive and brassy and at the same time he has stopped scoring so many films, now maybe doing only about one a year. He has composed other music in addition to his film scores, for example his orchestral work The Beyondness of Things in which there is still unmistakable hints of his film-music style.

Further Reading

Thank You for the Music

John died of a heart attack aged 77, in New York, on 31 January, 2011.

1The Amorous Prawn is sometimes called The Amorous Mr Prawn.2An 'ostinato' is a short musical phrase repeated over and over.3A 'tutti' passage is one where all the musicians are playing together.4Music is said to be 'homophonic' if it consists of a melody line and accompaniment, for example in a hymn. By contrast, contrapuntal music has two or more melodies at the same time.

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