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Christopher Nupen on Filming Music and Musicians | reviews, news & interviews

Christopher Nupen on Filming Music and Musicians

Christopher Nupen on Filming Music and Musicians

How a chance encounter at the Vienna State Opera changed his life

"What is it about Schubert’s music that has such power 180 years on?  It has nothing to do with who he slept with or what he had for breakfast – it’s the work," insists filmmaker Christopher Nupen, whose series of films about composers is currently showing on BBC Four. "If you’re dragged towards the quotidian and the sensational, you’ll be pulled away from that elusive essence in the work that nobody has ever succeeded in explaining, but which remains one of the highest expressions of the human mind.”
Nupen is also emphatic that the films, which feature Bizet, Sibelius, Respighi, Paganini, Tchaikovsky and Schubert are not documentaries. “Documentaries are basically concerned with facts and figures but these films are about the music and the composers’ artistic intentions."

Born into a privileged South African family – his one-eyed Norwegian father was an unlikely sporting hero, having captained the national cricket team in a victory against England in 1930 – Nupen had been a famous boy soprano and dreamt of becoming an opera singer. Unfortunately, he ruined his voice by singing too much when it was breaking. “The purity of it was gone,” says Nupen. “I was blown out of the water by sexual precocity.”

lotte-lehmannHe came to London in the 1950s with the intention of becoming a merchant banker but an extraordinary chance encounter was to propel him into a completely different direction. In November 1955, the Vienna State Opera reopened for the first time since the war. Nupen was fortunate enough to acquire a ticket for the third night, Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, but unwittingly wandered into the wrong box. Finding it empty he decided to sit in the front seat, which cost considerably more than the one he was entitled to, and was congratulating himself on his good fortune when the door opened to reveal a dramatic-looking woman in an ankle-length silver fur coat. “You are Lotte Lehmann,” gasped Nupen, immediately recognising the famous German soprano (pictured right). “Yes,” she replied, with what Nupen came to know as characteristic directness. “And when you get over your surprise, young man, may I please go to my seat?”

Although Lehmann had retired four years earlier, she had long been Vienna’s favourite singer and, suddenly aware of her presence, the audience stood to roar their approval while a flustered Nupen, resplendent in his father’s white tie and tails, tried to get out of her way. She clearly didn’t hold it against him as the next day she invited him to lunch and later, when she came to London for two weeks to give masterclasses at the Wigmore Hall, they had an affair.

“It was the most vibrant relationship I ever had. I was young and impressionable so yes, of course I was impressed by her importance, but that was a tiny, tiny part of it. I loved her. We had a curious chemistry and her openness and easy-going nature were like manna from heaven to me.”

Although the affair was relatively short-lived, Nupen and Lehmann remained friends until Lehmann’s death in 1976 and it was Lehmann who suggested that Nupen should apply for a job with the BBC – she had proclaimed it “completely un-possible!” when Nupen explained that he worked for a bank.

Nupen joined BBC Radio as a sound effects boy. At the time he was sharing a flat with the guitarist John Williams, who spent each summer studying with Andrés Segovia at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. In 1962 when Nupen, who was also studying the guitar, decided that he would also apply for a place in Segovia’s class, a colleague suggested that, if this summer school was so wonderful, why didn’t Nupen make a radio documentary about it?

Depite the reservations of some of his colleagues, Lawrence Gilliam, the Head of Features, gave the project his blessing and Nupen disappeared to Italy to make his programme. He was accustomed to using sound equipment so found it easy to record the material but had no idea how to transform it into a radio programme.

“For weeks on end I’d wake up at four in the morning, praying for a fire to destroy the tapes so that I could say, ‘What a shame, those tapes had the makings of a wonderful programme if only we could have found the right person to make it.'"

Salvation came in the shape of a residential training course in Evesham. There was very little to do in the evenings so while his colleagues headed off down the pub, Nupen took advantage of the facilities to hand and taught himself how to put a radio programme together.  When Gilliam asked all the BBC features producers to listen to the result, High Festival in Siena, prior to its broadcast, Nupen was too nervous to ask what anyone thought of it, although a young General Trainee called Melvyn Bragg told him, “I think you’ve got a hit on your hands.”

Sure enough, the day after it was broadcast, Huw Wheldon, the BBC’s Director General, called to say that Nupen should be working in television. Despite some initial reluctance, Nupen moved across to the BBC TV’s music department where he proposed a film about Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy, both of whom were friends of his and about to give their first concert together with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Fairfield Halls.

“I explained to Wheldon that these two musicians were different to those from the proceding generation and I wanted to tell their story,” recalls Nupen, who was given a brief to produce a six-minute introduction to a 50-minute concert but ended up with a 60-minute film, Double Concerto.

“It was probably the worst film we ever made because we shot it in three days and only had three weeks to edit it, and yet it’s possibly the most influential music programme in the history of television because it put images on screen that until then had been the private preserve of the great performers and their intimate friends. For the first time musicians were filmed rehearsing, laughing, eating dinner together, telling jokes - in 18 months it won them an audience that took Rubinstein, Horowitz and Menuhin 40 years to build.”

I still think it’s as rough as hell but I think it survived because of its sheer exuberance

It was the first time Nupen had directed a film and he admits he made it up as he went along. “I used what I’d describe as a shorthand style, not realising that’s not how it’s normally done. I had a shot of Daniel closing the score, another of him putting his jacket on and another of me driving him away in my open-topped Morris Minor. My cameraman, David Findlay said, ‘Ah, I see what you’re after, you’re trying to get a kind of Tim Hewitt style.’ I didn’t have a clue who Tim Hewitt was – in fact he was a pioneering news guy at Granada - I was just doing the best I could. I still think it’s as rough as hell but I think it survived because of its sheer exuberance. Without realising it, I’d come up with something that shaped the rest of my career.”

Despite – or maybe because of - its flaws, Double Concerto was considered a resounding success and won the Prague and Monte Carlo Awards, but when Nupen was invited to make another film he became so frustrated by various bureaucratic and administrative hurdles he decided to leave the BBC. Together with Findlay and Peter Heelas, the film editor for Double Concerto, he founded Allegro Films, possibly Britain’s first independent television production company.

“There was no infrastructure to support us; it was only possible because I had so many friends who were musicians and a South African millionaire agreed to lend me money to make films on the condition that I taught his son the business.”

Of course it would have been impossible for Nupen to develop his method of filmmaking had it not been for certain advances in technology. Until the 1960s, cameras spluttered like machine guns and had to be put into heavy steel blimps to silence them; consequently, early films about music tend to be far too static for their mercurial subjects. However, this all changed with appearance of the new silent, lightweight 16mm film camera in the 1960s, “just in time for Jacqueline du Pré,” says Nupen (pictured in shadow below, with du Pré).

RJDP_6_copy“The first film I made with Jacqueline, Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto, starts with her singing a French song on a train, playing pizzicato cello. The soundman was up in a bunk, the lighting man was on the floor, the cameraman was sitting opposite her and I was hiding in the corner. That film could not have been made with one of the earlier cameras.

“The next thing that happened, technologically, was the invention of tape. That was a dangerous one because the early tape formats were useless and perished terribly. But digital video tape meant you could shoot for longer without having to change film magazines, which was noisy.

“Objectively speaking, the best thing to film on is still 35mm film. People talk about high definition but we’ve had high definition for 50 years - it’s called film. But film is expensive, fragile and it doesn’t last. The magazines on a 35mm film last four minutes, 10 minutes on a 16mm camera, but 10 minutes isn’t very long if you’re filming a symphony, so the relative silence of the video cameras and the length of tape made a hell of a difference, as did non-linear editing.

“The downside is that the technology has become so capable that people think that making films is easy, but filmmaking is storytelling: there is an objective grammar and what you do may be very dazzling but it tends to have no sense if you have not done your apprenticeship.”

To date, Nupen has made 82 productions, all of which have been shown on major networks in the UK and Germany. The Trout, with Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré and Zubin Mehta, is probably the most frequently broadcast classical music film ever made and when his film about Bizet, Carmen: The Dream and The Destiny, was shown on ITV in 1973, not only was the News at Ten shifted to accommodate it; it even made it onto the front cover of the TV Times. Such an audacious piece of programming would be unthinkable now.

“We’re told that there isn’t an audience for classical music programmes any more, but that simply isn’t true. Of course music is esoteric but if you present people with something that grabs their interest, in the words of Kenneth Clark, ‘Once art touches the soul in that way, it calls that soul back for the rest of its days.’”

Christopher Nupen's Composer Films can be seen on BBC Four every Friday at 7.30pm until 5 March and on BBC iPlayer

Honouring Jacqueline du Pré: Christopher Nupen shares his memories and films on Sunday 21 March at 2pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre

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Sadly, I missed the first programme on Sibelius: The Early Years. I do, however, have the second programme, recorded on my hard drive. Is it possible that these two will be available on DVD ere long?

Both parts are available on, an online subscription based service (I do not work for, I am simply a subscriber).

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