Muir Mathieson

“Mathieson’s credits as Music Director reads like a history of the British films from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.”

James Muir Mathieson, the son of the painter and etcher John George Mathieson, was born in Sterling Scotland on the 24th January 1911. His early years were spent studying the piano at Sterling High School, where at the tender age of 13 he became conductor of the Stirling Boys Orchestra. He won a scholarship and studied composition and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music under Arthur Benjamin and Malcolm Sergeant. His career soon took off, when Alexander Korda signed him as Musical Director for London Films at Denham Studios, Buchinghamshire, in 1931. He later became Head of the Music Department at Denham.

Although Mathieson had worked as assistant musical director on Korda’s very successful The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) his first credited film score was The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) which was composed by the Russian Mischa Spoliansky and Catherine the Great (1934). A year later he was responsible for introducing one of his teachers from the RCM, Arthur Benjamin and they collaborated on the excellent score for Korda’s The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937).

His first cinematic triumph came when he persuaded Arthur Bliss to compose music for Korda’s celebrated production of the H.G. Wells film Things To Come (1936), which was later successfully released on a 78 rpm gramophone recording.

"The music is a part of the constructive scheme of the film."

In 1935 he deputised for Sir Malcolm Sergeant and conducted performances of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall. It was there, amongst the massive cast, that he met his future wife, the ballerina Hermione Darnborough. They later lived in a beautiful old farm house, just a few miles away from Denham Studios and had four children.

He continued to direct the music scores for an incredible amount of major releases and was recording part of the soundtrack of The Four Feathers, when in March 1939 there was a royal visit by Queen Mary to the Denham Studios. It was there that she watched him conducting three choirs; while scenes from the film was projected over head. In five years Mathieson had put British film music firmly on the map, although he was said to have regarded American studio composers and musicians as technically more advanced.

His wartime service was spent busily working for Arthur Rank at Denham, the Film Centre, Crown Film Unit, the BBC and the Army, Navy and Air Force Film Units.

Although Mathieson was described as a ‘Music Director’ he also conducted many radio and theatre scores during this period, including the stage version of Tolstoy’ s War and Peace, the music for Alan Burgesses The Passing of Crab Village and the very first music film recital at the Stoll Theatre in 1943. In 1944 he conducted a full season at the Saddlers Wells Opera. But he mainly remembered as the most prolific conductor in British films. One of his single most important works was his music for the film Dangerous Moonlight (1941) which included Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto which was played on the film soundtrack by pianist Louis Ketner with Mathieson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. His work with the London Symphony Orchestra went on to include William Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and ‘Oliver Themes’ by Arnold Bax for David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). Mathieson also found time to direct Benjamin Britten’s film, Instruments of the Orchestra in 1946.

In the early 1950’s Mathieson worked for Walt Disney on his British made live-action movies-often as Music Director and Conductor of The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He collaborated on many occasions with the composer Clifton Parker (whom he had discovered) and together they musically scored such classics as Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood (1952) and Sword And The Rose (1953). Mathieson also worked on Walt Disney’s Rob Roy (1953), Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and also uncredited on Kidnapped (1960). He went on to compose music for movies such as Circus of Horrors (1960), Hide And Seek (1963) and Crooks Anonymous (1962).

As Musical Director, Mathieson was nominated for an Academy Award along with Larry Adler for the Genevieve (1953) score and in 1957 he was awarded an OBE.

In 1969 Muir Mathieson became conductor of the Oxford County Youth Orchestra originally founded by his brother John a year earlier. He held this position until his death in Oxford on 2nd August 1975.

Described as the ‘doyen of British film music,’ Mathieson’s importance can not be over-stated. He was the music director for over 600 films and about 400 shorts. He was responsible for introducing some of the most famous British composers such as Arthur Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold, to the composition of orchestral scores for films.

"All that remains is for it to be unreservedly recognized that music, having a form of its own, has ways of doing its appointed task in films with distinction, judged purely as music, and with subtlety, judged as a part of a whole film. It must be accepted not as a decoration or a filler of gaps in the plaster, but as a part of the architecture."

Muir Mathieson (1911-1975)


Clement of the Glen said...

Muir Mathieson
Walt Disney's Story of Robin Hood
Denham Studios

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Neil said...

What a wonderful contribution to films and music by Muir Matheson whose name must appear on more credits than almost anyone I could think of. He must have been hugely admired in the film world. I notice his war years were spent at Denham helping with wartime films as this would have been considered a vital morale booster. I do remember that his daughter played Clarrie Grundy in the Archers on radio but she died tragically. I hadn't realised that he worked so much for Walt Disney. He must have worked with all the film greats and was born in an era that enabled him to earn his living working at Denham and all the major studios. It must have been wonderful

Clement of the Glen said...

Truly an unbelievable talent. And still a rarely mentioned pioneer of the British movie industry. I believe he should have been knighted.

His daughter, Fiona Mathieson became an actress and Muir was the elder brother of Ealing film conductor Dock Mathieson.