37 Days is a three-part drama directed by Justin Hardy that covers the time between the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 at the hands of a Serbian nationalist and the entry of Britain into the First World War. Rather than being full of romantic sub-plots that can clutter many a good historical story (the 1983 TV mini-series The Winds of War immediately springs to mind), writer Mark Hayhurst focuses instead on the political discussions (on a number of sides) that were held behind closed doors, as well as the associated chain of events leading up to war being declared. It’s a drama where the characters of men rather than historical events are the important factors deciding whether countries go to war or not; where ill-informed assumptions, decision and indecision of key individuals leads to an escalation of circumstances and to global conflict that will result in the death of millions of people. 37 Days, a made-for-television drama from the BBC, has a stellar British cast including Ian McDiarmid as Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal statesman who was the serving Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of war. The original score is by British-born composer Andrew Simon McAllister, to me (at any rate), a relatively unknown name who is probably best known generally for his music for the 2011 BBC documentary series Planet of The Apeman: Battle For Earth.
A drama billed as focusing in almost forensic detail on the conversations and discussions that ultimately leads to war did ring some alarm bells when I was considering what sort of score 37 Days would be. And knowing little about the composer didn’t help with trying to anticipate any possible style the music would be built around. A significant portion of the score is based around solo piano and “37 Days Theme” opens the score strongly, with the piano laying out a strong and forceful theme. The use of the piano throughout the score is associated particularly with significant aspects of the story: the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo (“The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand”) and for a key player in events – the British Foreign Secretary (“Sir Edward Grey”). Each of these piano motifs seem related to one another in structure, echoing perhaps the linking of each aspect of the story to one another within the larger mechanisms that, together, lead to war. Although this aspect of the score is strong, a the first two-thirds of the album is let down by the use of functional ostinatos (e.g., “A Vote For War”, “Kaiser Orders Mobilisation”) and synths, the latter generating relatively uninteresting textures (“Favourite Part of The Day”, “Dear William”). It is distracting to hear that some of the synths seem particularly jarring in style compared with the rest of the string- and piano-based score (e.g., “German Politics”, “The 3 Cousins”). It all adds up to being a score that is surprisingly disjointed and sounding somewhat distant and disconnected to the drama of the story.
What’s already been said applies only the first two-thirds of the album: McAllister’s score is saved in the final third of the album. Suddenly, haunting piano and ominous strings take over the scoring duties, hinting at the human cost to come. In particular, “The Lamps Are Going Out All Over Europe” (a fragment of a famous quote attributed to Sir Edward Grey on the eve of Britain’s entry into the First World War) captures Grey’s assessment of the consequences the war will have on people. A dark passage of history is about to unfold and the appearance of solo cello towards the end of this cue ramps up the cost that is about to be paid for in human lives lost. 37 Days closes with the longest cue on the short album, “10 Million Died”; a eulogy (for piano and solo cello) to those who died in the Great War. The effect of this highlight cue is tempered somewhat though because of the track’s resemblance to Arvo Pärt’s famous composition, Spiegel im Spiegel. The closeness to such an iconic piece is particularly distracting and, for me at least, disrupts the composer’s strong ending to the album.
McAllister’s score for 37 Days has a number of highlights that are certainly worth hearing: the solo piano tracks associated with the main aspects of the drama and the final third of the score when piano and strings come to the fore are certainly pleasant on the ear. But the album as a whole just doesn’t seem to gel particularly strongly. These strong piano-led portions of the music just don’t sit well with the mechanical ostinatos or the choice of synths. Perhaps hearing the various parts in context would help ground the score together better as a whole. Or it may be that this 25-minute album can only scratch the surface of a musical composition written for a drama that runs to 3 hours and is hindering the true representation of the score. As a concluding note, the inclusion of some SFX during “Kaiser Orders Mobilisation” was a surprise and not particularly welcome. There is certainly enough here on this album for me to want to hear more of McAllister’s score, especially within the drama and I await the opportunity to do this. 37 Days is available as a digital download at the usual online stores. Piano sheet music of the 37 Days main theme for certain eReaders is also available.
- The Road To War (0:22)
- 37 Days Theme (1:06)
- A Vote For War (2:01)
- German Politics (0:59)
- Signing Your Own Death Warrant (1:29)
- Sir Edward Grey (0:41)
- The 3 Cousins (1:15)
- Favourite Part of The Day (2:07)
- Dear William (2:59)
- The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand (2:19)
- Kaiser Orders Mobilisation (1:19)
- The Violation of Belgium (1:36)
- The Lamps Are Going Out All Over Europe (1:30)
- Losing Young Men (1:38)
- 10 Million Died (3:24)
Running Time: 25:52
Darkened Room Music (2014)