The Snowman: A guide to the music of this festive classic - and who actually sang 'Walking in the Air'
Odds are that you know this music, but what were the circumstances behind its composition? And who actually sings 'Walking in the Air' on the original film soundtrack? Here is our guide to the music of a festive classic
Who wrote the music to The Snowman and when?
The composer Howard Blake wrote the music in 1982 for the British animated film based on the late Raymond Briggs's 1978 picture book of the same name about a little boy who befriends a snowman.
What makes this music different from any other film soundtrack?
Unlike most film soundtracks, which are not continuous and generally tend to accompany spoken dialogue, the music of The Snowman is through-composed and, along with the pictures, does most of the heavy-lifting in carrying the story, which is wordless. It's more of a symphonic poem than a soundtrack.
How did Blake get involved in the process?
Blake originally dreamt up the tune for 'Walking in the Air', while living in a beach hut in Cornwall for two months during a difficult period in his life. He was walking along a long beach when the tune came into his head. So he wrote it down thinking it would be the start of a symphony. Instead, the tune sat around for eleven years until, by chance, Blake was shown a demo tape for The Snowman, and realised that his song would fit fantastically with the visuals. But he said that he would only compose the music on condition that there was no dialogue.
So are there no words at all in the entire film?
The only part that includes words is the film's central song, 'Walking in the Air', sung by a chorister.
Now let's clear this up once and for all: who sings that song in the original film version?
Contrary to what many people believe, it is not Aled Jones. Jones did cover that song later, in 1985, in a single that peaked at number 5 in the UK singles' charts. But the performer on the original 1982 soundtrack is the chorister Peter Auty.
Did Blake work closely with Briggs when he was writing the score?
It might be surprising to hear that Blake wrote the whole score without once meeting Briggs. Apparently the two artists had very different attitudes to The Snowman. While Blake was obviously proud of it, Briggs called it 'The 'S' word', insisting that Christmas was over-sentimental and that his book on which the film was based was actually about mortality.
Nonetheless, Blake did eventually meet and befriend him, and was one of the artists paying tribute to Briggs when he died in August this year.
Has the music been adapted for other dramatic forms?
Yes, Blake's concert version of The Snowman for narrator and orchestra is now performed all over the world, as is the full-length ballet version. Over the years, Blake has agreed to several arrangements of the music. However, last year he opposed plans for a new BBC radio version of 'The Snowman' that was to have been sung rather than played on instruments. Speaking to BBC Radio 4's PM programme, he said, 'I care a great deal about The Snowman. What scares me is that if we have an arrangement that mocks it and sounds silly, it will take a great deal of pleasure away from the world. I don't approve of this arrangement.'
How would you describe the music?
Evocative and nostalgic without being derivative. Blake uses the orchestra as a gigantic artist's palette, with many colourfully inventive, often humorous, touches. But the score's standout feature is its lyricism. When I interviewed him for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra a few years ago Blake declared that 'the essential ingredient of all great music is melody' and described himself as an 'extreme enemy' of contemporary composers such as Pierre Boulez, who kick back against that notion. 'The last laugh is with me at the moment,' Blake said, 'There are far more people who know 'Walking in the Air' than know a piece by Boulez'.
Any other pieces by Blake we should know about?
Yes, far from being a one-trick-pony, Blake has written many, similarly melodious pieces, among them the Piano Concerto, which was commissioned for Princess Diana's 30th birthday and The Station, his witty 1991 chamber opera for five singers and two tea ladies that deserves more performances than it gets.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.