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Music

New versions of The Snowman score can’t cause its legacy to disappear

Composer Howard Blake was less than impressed by an all-vocal take on his classic score for The Snowman.

The soundtrack to the 1982 adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman uses subtle orchestration to bring the hand-drawn on-screen animation to life. A swirling flute solo accompanies the boy as he reaches up to place a hat on the newly built snowman’s head.

Then, as he draws the mouth and stands back to admire his creation, the musical ensemble comes together with a flourish. The distinctive treble vocals (later popularised by a cover sung by Aled Jones) are universally known: “We’re walking in the air/ We’re floating in the moonlit sky/ The people far below are sleeping as we fly.”

After snowman and boy have touched down under the aurora borealis, they enter a dark and snowy forest, accompanied by an ominous passage in the strings. This soon develops into another famous tune as the duo joins a party, hosted by none other than Father Christmas. Snowmen play flutes, tambourine and fiddle, while snow people dance.

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The way this particular theme has been treated in a new vocal arrangement has not pleased Howard Blake, composer of the original score. “You can’t recreate it through vocals,” he explained to Carolyn Quinn on Radio 4’s PM programme. “How might it sound?” asked Quinn. Blake hummed and howled the well-known melody. It sounded like a tape being swallowed up by an unfriendly machine.

The new voices-only arrangement was intended to headline the Christmas programming on Radio 3 and Radio 4, due to be performed by the BBC Singers, with narration by Stephen Fry.

It is not the principle of having a different arrangement – Blake has licensed thousands of versions of The Snowman – but this particular offering has been deemed below par. “I care a great deal about The Snowman,” said the composer. “If we have an arrangement that mocks it and makes it sound silly it will take a great deal of pleasure away from the world. I agree to pretty much every arrangement, but this one I don’t think is a good idea.”

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While the BBC version has now been cancelled, Irn-Bru’s spoof animation is back on screens after the original – in which, after consuming a can of the golden liquid, boy and snowman fly over famous Scottish landmarks, observed by Nessie – was named Scotland’s most memorable Christmas advert.

No word from Blake on this particular appropriation of his masterpiece, where a Jones sing-a-like announces “We’re walking in the air/ I’m sipping on an Irn-Bru.”

When it comes to reimagining music, there are few composers who have been transcribed, arranged and sampled more than Beethoven.

A new exhibition at the British Library acknowledges the great composer’s impact on politics and culture, from Gustav Klimt’s 1901 Beethoven Frieze to Leonard Bernstein’s 1989 Berlin Wall performance of the Ninth Symphony. The latter work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS), whose archives are housed in the British Library. (It is this work that contains the famous Ode to Joy theme, now commonly associated with the European Union.)

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The exhibition contains a prized selection of manuscripts, including the draft of the Ninth Symphony sent to the RPS in 1824 and a home-made sketch book that Beethoven used to jot down ideas for the string quartet in B-flat. (The copyist must have had an extremely challenging day when that was turned in for setting.)

But it is the supporting objects that are perhaps the most engaging. Alongside the scrawled shopping lists that are on display for the first time (red wine is a regular fixture), the collection contains a tuning fork that was given to violinist George Bridgetower (1779-1860), one of a few black musicians to achieve prominence in the 19th century, who gave the first performance of a new violin sonata by Beethoven – with the composer at the piano.

The exhibition, titled ‘Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon’, was due to open last year as part of the 250th anniversary celebrations and has escaped being cancelled altogether due to scheduling issues. Still, if Charles M Schulz can mark Beethoven’s birthday multiple times – as he did in his Peanuts cartoons, where Schroeder is often depicted playing Beethoven’s music on his toy piano – then we can too.

Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon is at the British Library, London, until April 24

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