Elisabeth Lutyens – composer

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(Agnes) Elisabeth Lutyens (9 July 1906 – 14 April 1983) was an English composer of classical music but is best known for her contribution for scores to horror films throughout the 1960’s.

Born in London, one of five children of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and his wife Emily, Elisabeth studied composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, before accompanying her mother to India in 1923. On her return she studied with John Foulds and subsequently continued her musical education from 1926 to 1930 at the Royal College of Music in London as a pupil of Harold Darke. 

Lutyens is credited with bringing the Schoenbergian serial technique to the world of film scores, not always employing or limiting herself to 12-note series; some works use a self-created 14-note progression. Schoenberg’s exploration of tonal and atonal music was a huge influence on Hammer’s early sound, the gloomy expressionism first evident in Benjamin Frankel’s 1960 score for The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) though it was Luytens who is credited with fully exploiting these avenues. Her rejection of the traditional lush, romantic scores often used in film, lead to her being viewed as ‘difficult’ and sometimes even ‘un-British’.


Perhaps it goes without saying that Lutyen’s ability to break into territory inhabited almost solely by men is little less than remarkable, paving the way for future female composers such as Nora Orlandi and Wendy Carlos (born Walter, of course). Lutyens was no shrinking violet though – striding through upper class London society amongst such company as Constant Lambert, Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas (for a time, her lodger) but posturing as a radical left-winger, even joining the Communist Party, all the while living in something approaching squalor – a real paradox. This, combined with her often outrageous anti-Semitic outbursts and homophobic ranting (I may have forgotten to mention her alcoholism) did not make her an ideal dinner guest.


Lutyens once said, “film and radio music must be written not only quickly but with the presumption that it will be only heard once. Its impact must be immediate. One does not grow gradually to love or understand a film score like a string quartet”. She was the first female British composer to score a feature film, her first foray into the genre being Penny and the Pownall Case (1948) but her work on horror films, undertaken for financial reasons, are where she made her mark. Her work in the genre began in 1960 with Cyril Frankel’s Never Take Sweets From a Stranger for Hammer, an alarming film even now. Her distinctly anti-romantic treatment is wistful but still angular, leading you down, disturbingly apt strange paths.

This was followed in 1963 by a score for Freddie Francis and Jimmy Sangster’s Paranoiac, a marvellous work of grating textures – it sounds like a gnashing beast having a conversation with itself under the film. Lutyen’s score is mixed with diegetic music during some of the murder scenes, seagulls and running water mashing with her grim tones.

The following year saw her working on The Earth Dies Screaming but perhaps her most famous work was to appear in 1965 in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, the well-regarded anthology for Amicus. The rather scattershot approach of instruments combating each other in random blasts is typical or her minimalist though very purposeful manner of phrasing. It’s almost rioutously unjoyous, about the most depressing, upsetting and jarring thing you could marry to images on a screen – of course, it works perfectly. It should be noted that the Roy Castle jazz section of ‘Voodoo’ is the work of the musician Tubby Hayes, not Lutyens.

Continuing her work for Amicus came her own particular favourite score, for 1965’s The Skull. Employing harsh, irregular percussion, it is one of the elements which differentiates Amicus from Hammer, despite the obvious similarities of theme and often cast. As if being one of the lone females composing for film, it says much about her deep-felt belief in the power of the structure of her works that she was confident enough to submit this for what essentially was a major work for the studio. Whereas Italian composers at a similar period were also willing to be challenging in their composition, this tended to veer far nearer to jazz than obtusely challenging avant garde classical music.

As time progressed her work became no less-challenging – The Psychopath and The Terrornauts were tonally slightly more fun but still deliberately exactly the opposite to any other British composer for film at the time. She concluded her forays into the world of horror in typically unexpected directions – 1967’s somewhat obscure Theatre of Death, the evocative of the era educational short, Never Go With Strangers and finally the as raunchy and absurd as it sounds Dutch effort, My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga and Julie.

Her mark on the world of composition for horror film cannot be overstated – her complex, though often sparse pieces are hugely atmospheric and challenging yet give every film they appear alongside that extra something that would be sorely missed in their absence.

Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania


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