Allan Gray (composer)

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Allan Gray
Józef Żmigrod

(1902-02-23)February 23, 1902 [1]
Tarnów, Austria-Hungary (now Poland)
DiedSeptember 10, 1973(1973-09-10) (aged 71) [1]
Era20th century

Józef Żmigrod (February 23, 1902 September 10, 1973), better known by his stage name, Allan Gray, was a Polish composer, best known for his film scores.


Early life and education

Gray was born Józef Żmigrod in Tarnów, Austria-Hungary, (present-day Poland) into a musical family: his father was a concert violinist. [2] He studied philosophy in Heidelberg and later Berlin, where he composed a children's opera, Wavelength ABC. [3] There (during the 1920s) he became a student of Arnold Schönberg, funding himself by composing jazz-influenced music for the cabaret. He later wrote music for Max Reinhardt's theatre productions. As Schoenberg disapproved of such music, Żmigrod took up the stage name Allan Gray, naming himself after Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. [4]


Gray began writing film scores in the Weimar Republic. His films there included Emil and the Detectives and The Countess of Monte Cristo. [3] But he was forced to leave the country in 1934 after the rise of Nazi Germany, moving to England. He married Luise Radermacher in Hendon in 1935 (thereafter known as Lissy Gray, and described as "a Belgian countess"), [5] and the following year they settled in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, where they lived in Bois Lane. [6] Like many of his fellow émigré composers he was arrested (on June 26 1940) as an “enemy alien” and taken to Liverpool, and from there interned on the Isle of Man. [6] In October 1940, Ralph Vaughan Williams petitioned for Gray to be released as a musician of eminent distinction. [7]

But by 1943 he had established himself in the British film industry, composing for London Films and other major studios before joining Powell and Pressburger to score many of their films including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the Prelude of which was recorded on 78 and later reissued on EMI CD. [8]

In 1951 he composed the score for the British–American adventure film The African Queen, directed by John Huston and produced by Sam Spiegel and John Woolf. He also composed music for the theatre, including the 1946 Stratford-on-Avon production of Love's Labour's Lost , [9] and Much Ado About Nothing starring Robert Donat at the Aldwych Theatre, also in 1946. [10] For television he contributed the music for NBC's Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents, which was filmed at the British National Studios in Elstree from 1953. [6]

Later life and death

Gray became a naturalized UK citizen on 29 January, 1947. [11] He was friendly with another émigré musician, the conductor Walter Goehr, who conducted some of his film scores, and for a while taught his son, the composer Alexander Goehr. [6] He died in Amersham on September 10, 1973.

Film scores

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  1. 1 2 Bergfelder, Tim (2003). "Biography: Gray, Allan (1902-1973)". Encyclopedia of British Film. British Film Institute. Archived from the original on June 1, 2004. Retrieved June 1, 2004. Trained in Berlin under Arnold Schönberg, Allan Gray (born Josef Zmigrod in Tarnow, Poland) was an established composer for stage, cabaret, and screen before his emigration in 1933. His film scores in Britain were playfully eclectic in style, alternating between haunting romanticism, catchy melodies, and occasional stark modernist touches. Gray's arguably most experimental work can be found in his collaborations with Powell and Pressburger, particularly in "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945), where he inventively used Scottish folklore, and in "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946), where ticking clocks and repetitive piano scales evoke the monotony of celestial afterlife.
  2. Palmer, Russell. British Music (1947), p 107-8
  3. 1 2 Obituary, The Times, 15 September, 1973, p 14
  4. "Allan Gray: A Brief Biography". The Powell & Pressburger Pages. Archived from the original on May 15, 2003. Retrieved May 15, 2003. Allan Gray was, as was the case with so many Archers, a German emigre. Born Josef Zmigrod in Poland in 1902 Gray was a fully fledged participant in the culture of Weimar Berlin. Studying under the modernist Arnold Schoenberg, he paid for his tuition by composing jazz-inflected music for the cabaret. Schoenberg disapproved and Zmigrod took up the name of Oscar Wilde's famous hedonist (Dorian) Gray for his cabaret work. Gray realised his ability was for pastiche and incidental music and abandoned original composition of 'serious' music. He began to compose for films, at Ufa where he met Emeric Pressburger. Their paths were to cross again, working on the same film The Challenge in the mid-thirties. After the start of the war however, like Alfred Junge and Erwin Hillier as well, he was used for the Powell and Pressburger-produced The Silver Fleet. The first real use of Gray's talents however, came with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, with its playful use of different periods and moods and Gray's capacity for making music referential and reminiscent of three eras, the eighteen-nineties, the nineteen-teens and the nineteen-forties. On their next film A Canterbury Tale, the film was to begin with the ringing bells of Canterbury Cathedral and Allan Gray selected the notes of the peal which they would ring (although in fact the bells which appear on camera are fibreglass miniatures), and he mixed this peal into the music at the beginning and end of the film. Gray's ability to create a 'playful referential score' was again needed to evoke the lingering spirit of the medieval pilgrims. Gray's chief task on the film after that was to write the orchestration for an Irish song, "I know Know Where I'm Going", which gave its name to the film. Gray's most memorable piece of music, which was also the most apparent to the audience, was written for A Matter of Life and Death. The composition was 'the hauntingly simple, slightly atonal piano theme which accompanies the staircase to heaven.' After A Matter of Life and Death the Archers began using Brian Easdale on their films. Initially this was only for Black Narcissus and Gray was recalled for The Red Shoes. However this called for original ballet music and Gray found he was no longer playing to his strengths. Michael Powell wrote: "His main gift was a dramatic one. He had the capacity to enter into the idea of a scene or a situation, but it was still film music in the traditional way, applied on, as it were, mixed into the sound-track and the dialogue of the actors, like glazing on a rich ham..". Robert Helpmann, the choreographer of the ballet declared at the time that the music he was writing was "utterly commonplace" and said he would withdraw from the film if it became any more "to the public taste". So it was that Gray parted with the Archers with Easdale again replacing him. Gray's music had become synonymous with the Archers at their most playful, but as their concerns with 'Art' became more pronounced, with Powell frequently referring to 'Art' as their aspiration post war, Gray's abilities no longer suited the company.
  5. 'Amersham nostalgia: Laelia Goehr – a passionate photographer in the 1940s', Bucks Free Press
  6. 1 2 3 4 Biography, Amersham Museum
  7. "Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Alan Bush | the Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams".
  8. Columbia DX 1320, reissued on EMI CDGO 2059
  9. RSC Performances archive
  10. University of Birmingham, Cadbury Research Library
  11. The London Gazette, 18 March 1947