Insights: Hedd Wyn (1992)

On the 31st July 2017, it will have been 100 years since Welsh poet Hedd Wyn was killed on the western front, shortly before the 1917 Eisteddfod where he was awarded the poetry chair. To recognise this occasion, S4C have scheduled an evening of programmes, which will include the Oscar-nominated film Hedd Wyn (1992) and accompanying soundtrack by John Hardy.

The film won Best UK Single Drama at the Royal Television Society awards, was shown at the London Film Festival, and won several BAFTA Cymru awards including Best Music.

To mark the centenary of Hedd Wyn’s death, John has written an insight into his process of scoring the film:

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The 35-minute score was composed in around three weeks, followed by a few days copying out all the orchestral parts and preparing the studio, which was in the heart of Cardiff. 

I was young and optimistic – I loved the film so much that I just got on with it and believed everything would be fine, though various near disasters could have scuppered the whole project.

Having the opportunity to read the script by the late Alan Llwyd a year beforehand, and to send recordings for the cast of the songs used on location, all helped to prepare the mind and prime the creative juices for when the cut was finished and the brief and musical resources defined.

After I was shown the first complete edit in March 1992, the Director (Paul Turner) responded to my opinion that the scale and style of the film required a full orchestra, not a chamber ensemble ofjust a few players, which was all there was in the budget. 

I will always be grateful to Paul for deciding to take out a personal bank loan to pay for one orchestral session and one small ensemble session – though this was only just enough to cover all the music cues, and several of the pieces on the final soundtrack were literally recordings of first time sight reading by the players. Nerve wracking. 

The editor, the late Chris Lawrence, cut in some orchestral music for the advance to the front. He found it on the shelf in his cutting room, and didn't know what it was. I was able to tell him it was Urlicht from Mahler's Second Symphony. Though I was reluctant to have Mahler in the middle of the film, not least because it could make my music seem very bad by comparison, Chris and Paul had fallen in love with it and cut to it. So I rearranged the Mahler for the size of forces we had, and brought in Penelope Walker, an international Mezzo Soprano living in Wales at that time. She arrived at the appointed moment during the session, walked up to the microphone, and we played it through while she sang her part – perfectly – in one take. We thanked her, she left, and we continued with the remaining orchestral cues.

Someone had the enterprise to get Hedd Wyn entered into the 1994 Oscars, and though the early 90s was not a particularly hip time to talk about the First World War – or the Welsh language – Hedd Wyn got nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language. Sadly it did not win the Oscar – Pedro Almodovar's first film did. But it was a good experience, and helpful exposure for Welsh culture and history.

I thank Paul Turner for giving me the opportunity to respond creatively to his passionately heartfelt film, which is his love song to Wales and Welsh culture, as well as to ordinary communities everywhere. 

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Hedd Wyn the movie is on S4C tonight (30th July 2017) at 8pm, and can be viewed afterwards on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

John composed and conducted the orchestral score, and there is now a Hedd Wyn Suite for concert performance – scores and parts available from Faber Music.

Samuel Barnes