Female film composers are a rarity but there are some wonderful examples of talented women working behind the scenes who managed to flourish under the tight deadlines imposed by film studios while creating memorable music for the movies.
One of my favorite female composers is the late Elisabeth Lutyens who was born on July 9th in 1906. On the occasion of what would have been her 109th birthday if she had managed to live that long, I thought I’d celebrate her career in British horror films where Lutyens earned her “Horror Queen” moniker by composing some of the genre’s most innovative, accomplished and unsettling soundtracks.
Lutyens started life as the daughter of Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton and the famed British architect Edwin Lutyens. She was one of five children and inherited her father’s ambition as well as his creative passion. Her parent’s marriage was not a happy one and it became especially strained when her mother developed an obsession with the study of Theosophy along with Eastern mysticism, which she cultivated in their children. Much like Spiritualism, Theosophy had become somewhat fashionable in 19th century Britain, particularly among the upper classes. In an effort to win her mother’s affection and stand out in a family of would-be writers and one towering architect, 9-year-old Lutyens told her parents that she wanted to become a composer and they encouraged her to take piano and violin lessons. Seven years later she began training at École Normale de Musique de Paris (National School of Music of Paris) and this was followed by a brief period of private study in London with the accomplished composer John Foulds. In 1926, Lutyens enrolled in the Royal College of Music where her focus was on musical composition.
At the same time, Lutyens was developing a passion for the modern minimalist musical styles of Arnold Schoenberg and Claude Debussy while her contemporaries were more interested in bombastic German composers such as Wagner and championed the English Musical Renaissance that favored the works of Alexander Mackenzie, Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. This, along with the fact that she was one of the few women in her field, put Lutyens at odds with some educators and she never received any significant recognition for her composition abilities from the Royal College of Music.
Outside of her music studies, life also became rather difficult for Lutyens when she decided to make a clean break from Theosophy. This put a serious strain on her relationship with her mother and the situation caused Lutyens to suffer her first of many bouts with acute depression. Compounded by personal insecurities about her appearance and abilities, Lutyens’s depression developed into dependency on alcohol that would eventually lead to a complete mental breakdown forcing her to spend several months in a psychiatric hospital during the 1940s.
Despite these problems that plagued Lutyens throughout much of her life, in 1931 she managed to co-organize the impressive female-centric Macnaghten-Lemare-concerts in London along with violinist Anne Macnaghten and conductor Iris Lemare. They supported the work of new composers like themselves and the three women regularly held concerts together under the Macnaghten-Lemare banner, which become a fixture of London’s classical music landscape until they dissolved in 1936. During this time, Lutyens also married a singer named Ian Glennie and the couple had three children together but their marriage, much like her parent’s union, was not a happy one and Lutyens eventually left Glennie after falling deeply in love with conductor and BBC music producer, Edward Clark. The couple had a child of their own together in 1941 and married a year later but due to a falling out with the BBC, Clark found it difficult to find steady work and this left Lutyens with the burden of being her family’s main income provider.
With four children to care for, Lutyens turned her attention towards radio and film. She began composing music for numerous documentary shorts made in association with various organizations including Pathé News, British Transport, The UK Atomic Energy Authority and the BIS (British Information Service). In 1948 Lutyens became one of Britain’s first female feature-length film composers after scoring the funny and somewhat suspenseful spy yarn, PENNY AND THE POWNALL CASE, featuring Christopher Lee in one of his first villainous roles as a Nazi sympathizer. In an interesting twist of fate, both Lutyens and Lee would eventually find lasting success working for Hammer Films and Amicus Productions.
For Lutyens, her first broad success in the competitive world of film composition came in the form of an atypical crime drama Hammer produced called NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (1960) detailing the trial of an accused child molester. Although not a standard monster movie, the suspense is ratcheted up by Lutyens skillfully executed score and Freddie Francis’ striking cinematography. The film received a lot of attention in Britain (both good and bad) and when Freddie Francis was hired to direct PARANOIAC (1963) for Hammer, Lutyens was brought on board to compose the soundtrack. In Francis’ autobiography The Straight Story from Moby Dick to Glory, a Memoir he describes his working relationship with Lutyens during the making of the film and her considerable contributions:
“Elisabeth Lutyens wrote the music for PARANOIAC. She had done the music for NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER, which I had thought was so good, and of course I realized that for this type of psychological thriller, the music is all too important. Knowing Hammer, she was probably asked to do the picture because she was cheap but I’m delighted that she did. I showed her the film and told her my feelings about what was required. Then Hammer’s music specialist, (conductor) Philip Martell, had a chat with her and she went away and wrote a terrific score. It helped so much to create the mood I had tried to instill in the visuals.” – Freddie Francis
Francis’ highly stylized approach to shooting PARANOIAC allowed Lutyen’s avant-garde musical sensibilities to flourish and she made considerable use of her talents to create surprising soundscapes that weaved together noises found in the natural world with the formal music she had composed. Lutyens was also experimenting with long, jarring and unexpected silences that unnerved viewers expecting murders, mayhem, and other horror scenes to be accompanied by bombastic noise that commanded your ears and eyes toward the screen. Instead, she worked with the film’s powerful visual language to sustain suspense with silence and sound generating an organic sense of unease within the audience.
After lending her considerable talents to Terence Fisher’s science fiction thriller THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964), Lutyens began collaborating with Freddie Francis at Amicus Productions on the horror anthology DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) where she was able to continue exploring her minimal approach to composing while introducing modern elements, such as the electric guitar, into her score. She also had to work with a number of collaborators (although they probably never actually met) who provided accompanying music for the film including jazz musicians Tubby Hayes and Russell Henderson as well as pop singer and songwriter Kenny Lynch. Lutyen’s previous experience included working on jazz-infused scores with a tropical feel for films such as THE BOY KUMASENU (1952) and WHY BOTHER TO KNOCK (1961), so she was no stranger to exotica. This becomes evident when you listen to the way she was able to effortlessly combine elements of her distinctive sound with popular music of the day. DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS is unique in this regard, which makes it a great introduction to Lutyens’s film work.
Lutyens must have gotten along well with Freddie Francis because she went on to make two more films with the director and celebrated cinematographer; THE SKULL (1965) and THE PSYCHOPATH (1966). THE SKULL was Lutyens personal favorite of all the films she worked on and it provided her with the opportunity to experiment with flutes, strings and the organ while introducing more foreign musical elements into the mix such the cimbalom (a Hungarian dulcimer) creating a hypnotic current of sound that seductively winds its way through the film. Other horror films would follow including THE TERRORNAUTS (1967) and THEATRE OF DEATH aka BLOOD FIEND (1967) that reunited her with Christopher Lee for the fourth and final time and cemented her place among our greatest horror film composers.
Her work is commendable, particularly in an area where women haven’t had much success, and although Lutyens was meant to feel somewhat ashamed of her “Horror Queen” moniker due to the critical stigma surrounding these cheap and quickly made films, she didn’t run from it. In her later years, she seemed to celebrate her hard-earned title by wearing vibrant “monster” green nail polish that became her fashion trademark.
In the essential (for soundtrack lovers) Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde, author David Huckvale concludes his chapter on Lutyen by explaining the importance of her contributions to film composition with the following quote:
“Lutyens’s harmonic language in these popular horror films scores isn’t as radical as her serial-inspired concert works, her scores nonetheless modernized the soundtrack with both their motivic and instrumental minimalism.” – David Huckvale
While I agree with his summation I would argue that if you extensively explore her work alongside the soundtracks she composed, listeners will find that there are some recurring similarities. Much of Lutyens music, particularly later in life, is rather dark, jarring and cinematic. Her background in Theosophy and Eastern mysticism is apparent in the otherworldly atmosphere conjured up by her film scores and is also evident in the music she created outside the studio system. She once referred to her music as “Eerie Weirdness” while composing her last soundtrack for the erotic Dutch thriller, MY NIGHTS WITH SUSAN, SANDRA, OLGA & JULIE (1975) and that fitting term could easily be applied to much of Elisabeth Lutyens extraordinary output.