Barrington Pheloung, the Australian composer who died aged 65 on 31 July in 2019, enjoyed a successful career writing a string of fine scores for the big and small screen. He will, however, be forever remembered for one piece above all: the haunting theme music to TV’s Inspector Morse. Cleverly based on the rhythm of the letters of MORSE spelt out in Morse Code, Pheloung’s music superbly captures the dark, tormented world of the Oxford-based police detective.
Based on the books by Colin Dexter, the TV series ran from 1987 to 2000. Aside from Pheloung’s peerless theme tune, it is choc-a-bloc with classical music. In many instances it is simply played in the background, while in others it provides the basis of the plot itself. Here are five of classical music’s most notable starring moments…
The Dead of Jericho (1987)
The very first episode of Inspector Morse begins, appropriately enough, with classical music. The conductor of an amateur choir taps his baton to start a rehearsal of Parry’s My soul, there is a country, but one seat is empty. It should be filled by Morse, but he is out investigating shenanigans at a local car body repair garage. The music he plays in his vintage Jag, meanwhile, is Vivaldi’s Gloria. He eventually makes it to choir practice, but only in time to sing the anthem’s final ‘Thy Cure’.
Service of All the Dead (1987)
One of the most deeply disturbing of the entire Morse series, Service of All the Dead is introduced by the sound of the organ of St Oswald’s church playing JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543. As the body count mounts up during the course of the episode and Morse finds his investigation getting nowhere, he eventually declares that ‘We need divine inspiration’. This means attending a service at St Oswald’s, where the choir sings Bruckner’s anthem Locus Iste.
Masonic Mysteries (1990)
An already fraught amateur production of Mozart’s Magic Flute takes a turn for the worse when Beryl, a soprano in the chorus, is stabbed to death off-stage during the dress rehearsal. Morse, who is singing baritone in the same chorus, soon finds himself implicated in the murder. Unsurprisingly, Mozart’s opera dominates the soundtrack of this episode, which opens with the Overture and features various arias thereafter.
Cherubim and Seraphim (1992)
Allegri provides the star musical turn in this episode, as a remixed moment from his Miserere provides the background to a plot that tackles the rave scene and the fatal side effects of contaminated hallucinogenic drugs. Choral buffs hoping to hear the work’s famous top C will be disappointed, however – here it is transposed down a fourth, so the soprano only reaches a G.
Twilight of the Gods (1993)
The name of this episode gives more than a little clue as to which composer it will feature. We begin, in fact, with a masterclass in Wagner being given by the Welsh soprano Dame Gwladys Probert at Oxford’s Holywell Music Room. ‘I’m sorry, lovey, but you sound like you’re giving the weather forecast,’ is her scathing put-down of her student’s rendition of the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. A sniper’s bullet later ensures that Dame Gwladys, alas, will not make it to the end of the episode. And, no, it wasn’t the student…