FRANCIS CHAGRIN (1905 - 1972)
When Francis Chagrin arrived in Britain in 1936, he had already left his native Romania, for largely family reasons, and adopted France for political ones. However, he embraced his new found home totally, and became very much part of the British musical scene for the rest of his life, summing up his personality makeup as ‘Romanian by birth, British by nationality, and cosmopolitan by inclination’.
He was born Alexander Paucker in Bucharest on November 15th 1905 to wealthy Jewish parents who expected their son to take his rightful place in the family business. Reluctantly he complied, if only initially, by reading for an engineering degree in Zurich, while secretly putting himself through the city’s music conservatory. After graduating in 1928 and having ‘done the right thing’ by his parents, he expected his family to allow him to pursue his musical ambitions. When this failed to materialise, he left home and made for Paris. Although he was already married for the first time, the move was doubly precipitated by his wife’s infidelities. He, ever the gentleman, saw his move to Paris as grounds for his wife to divorce him for desertion!
It was in Paris that he acquired his new name. He chose Chagrin to reflect his sadness at the divorce and being disinherited (although there was later some relaxation of this), but primarily to make a clean break from his past. Even though by now his family were willing to support him financially, he refused, preferring to make his own way by playing in night clubs and cafés chantants and writing popular songs. When he had saved enough, he enrolled in 1933 at the Ecole Normale for two years, where his teachers included Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. He began writing modest film scores, but, sensing that war was not far away, he made a trip to Britain to see how the business worked there. He fell in love with the country immediately and made it his home permanently in 1936.
In London, he continued studies with his exact contemporary, Matyas Seiber. With the outbreak of war, he was appointed musical adviser and composer-in-chief to the BBC French Service and in particular the programme Les Français Parlent Aux Français, for which he was decorated ‘Officier d’Académie’ by the French government in 1948. He spoke elegant and fluent French, and was often taken for a Frenchman. In addition, he spoke perfect English, albeit with a French accent, was fluent in Roumanian and German, knew much Italian and Spanish, and, for a trip to the USSR in October 1966, studied Russian.
Soon after his move to Britain he took an Irish bride who presented him with two sons, Julian and Nicolas, both of whom would make their mark in the acting profession—Julian most famously as the white-faced mime artist in the park in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and Nicolas as Puck in the first Covent Garden production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That he worked so hard to give his family the standard of living he knew as a boy, and which would have been his had he stayed in the family business, goes some way to explaining the huge quantity of commercial work he did—for films, television and commercials.
At the height of the war, and as a reaction to the plight of one young composer, Robert Gill, Chagrin founded the Committee (later Society) for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) as a way of allowing composers to hear their own music played rather than have it unacknowledged and unplayed by the artists and organisations to whom they sent scores. The list of composers whose music was heard through the auspices of the Society reads like a veritable Who’s Who of British composers. Britten, Tippett and Walton may not be there, but Alwyn, Arnold, Bennett, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies certainly are. In 1973, in memory of its founder, who had died the previous year, the SPNM established the Francis Chagrin Fund for Young Composers.
His own concert music ranges over most genres. In the orchestral field, apart from the two symphonies heard here, there is a Piano Concerto, a Prelude and Fugue, and a Romanian Fantasy, written for harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, and commercially recorded by him. He contributed to Gerard Hoffnung concerts with items such as The Ballad of County Down. In addition there is much chamber music, and songs in English and French. As well as conducting his own film scores, he frequently conducted orchestral concerts here and abroad, and in 1951 formed his own chamber ensemble which gave regular concerts and broadcasts of varied and unusual repertoire.
The sheer volume of his commercial work is staggering. It includes 200 films—including An Inspector Calls, The Colditz Story and Greyfriars Bobby—television (including a series of Dr Who in 1964) and many commercials—for soap, hair shampoo, tooth brushes, chocolate bars, among others. In 1963 he was elected Film Composer of the Year in the Harriet Cohen International Awards.
His friends remember him as incredibly industrious, but selfless, resourceful, urbane, and with a great generosity of heart. His fellow composer, Benjamin Frankel, who wrote several obituaries of him, struck the right tone when he wrote that Chagrin was ‘always able to see the lighter aspect of serious effort’. I met him just once when I was a student. He had come to an inner-city Arts Centre to talk about writing for films. It was an inclement night and only twenty or so people had turned up. When he came onto the stage, I felt somewhat ashamed at the meagre audience and embarrassed for him, but he turned the situation in a second, inviting us all to sit in a semicircle on stage with him. It was a truly memorable evening and instead of it being a case of lecturer and class, it became instead an intimate ‘at home’ with a living, working composer and invited friends. This was 1971; during the last two or three years of his life he had suffered a series of heart attacks—they had started as early as 1955—the fourth of which he succumbed to on November 10th 1972. Years before, conducting for Antonio’s Spanish Ballet, he had suffered an attack during the first act of a production, but remained at his post until the interval. The true professional to the last!