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How the LSO became THE film music orchestra

Is your favourite film music the bursting opening of Star Wars? The stirring brass of Superman? The eerie swirl of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? Whichever you love, it’s likely the London Symphony Orchestra recorded it.

Published:

By James Drury

6 minutes

Renowned as one of the world’s most famous film ensembles, the LSO’s history with movie scores stretches back to the 1930s. Although many of the Orchestra’s musicians performed in earlier soundtracks on an individual basis, the first symphonic music specifically composed for a film in the UK was Sir Arthur Bliss’s 1935 score for Things To Come, by Alexander Korda, recorded by the LSO in what was a landmark move for the nascent film industry.

From then on, the Orchestra was in hot demand. ‘During the 1940s, they worked on more soundtracks than commercial recordings,’ says LSO Discographer, Philip Stuart.

After this explosion of activity, the late 50s and 60s saw the trend for symphonic soundtracks wane. Movie producers gravitated towards the sounds of jazz or pop music (think Herbie Hancock’s famous score for 1966’s Blow Up, Roy Budd’s unforgettable music for Get Carter in 1971, or Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ for 1967 hit The Graduate). The LSO focussed on the live performances it’s so famous for.

Then, in 1968, André Previn arrived as Principal Conductor. With four Oscars to his name, he had broad connections across Hollywood. So when he contacted John Williams (whose First Symphony he had conducted), the composer told him he was working on a score for a new film and invited the LSO to perform on it. The film was Star Wars ...

The LSO at Abbey Road with John Williams and George Lucas, all looking up to the camera. In the background, there is a projector with the Star Wars logo on.

The LSO at Abbey Road with John Williams and George Lucas, recording the music for the Revenge of the Sith.

That 1977 hit cemented the LSO’s reputation. It has since become synonymous with blockbuster films; working on most of the Star Wars films, Superman: The Movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Braveheart, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Notting Hill, and many, many more.

Sue Mallet, Director of Planning for the LSO, remembers working with Williams. ‘I don’t think any musician would say that there’s anybody else that can write like John. Everyone can hum the main theme from most of his films.

‘Many years ago, we went to China for the first time. When we’d finished the last symphony, the audience was shouting for Star Wars as an encore. That’s pretty extraordinary.’

Williams and the LSO had revived the popularity of orchestral music in movies. The ensemble has since worked with such renowned film score composers as Philippe Sarde, Trevor Jones, James Horner, Alexandre Desplat and Patrick Doyle.

Black and white photo of John Williams and LSO Violin Ginette Decuyper.

John Williams and LSO Violin Ginette Decuyper discussing the music.

If you’re thinking recording film music sounds extremely cool, so do the musicians. ‘Working with John Williams has been one of the highlights of my time with the LSO,’ says First Violin Maxine Kwok. ‘The very first recordings I ever did were at Abbey Road when we were recording Star Wars The Phantom Menace. I grew up hearing his music and a huge part of why I wanted to be in the LSO was to be a part of John Williams’ Star Wars sound. So, for that to happen was a dream come true. Recording his music, such as Harry Potter, has been a joy. I’m a huge fan.’

The immediacy of today’s film industry and the flexibility required in recording schedules doesn’t always suit the schedule of a live orchestra that’s as in-demand as the LSO. Nonetheless, in a ‘typical’ year, the orchestra might work on three significant films, a handful of smaller-budget ones, video games and theme park rides.

Patrick Doyle and the LSO at Abbey Road, recording music for Eragon in 2006.

Patrick Doyle and the LSO at Abbey Road, recording music for Eragon in 2006.

But if it’s not as easy for filmmakers to work within the scheduling confines of the LSO’s diary, why are they still in demand?

It’s partly to do with the brand – the idea of working with ‘the Star Wars orchestra’. But the composers that come back to the LSO time after time also say there’s something about a concert-giving ensemble that means the musicians just know what each other is thinking. You can sense that when you listen to them; when they’re sightreading, they know how their colleagues are going to react before they’ve even heard them.

Such is the orchestra’s prowess at sightreading and their connectedness, that some musicians have a reputation for taking pride in not looking at the music until they turn up to the recording. This is a rare attribute that makes the LSO stand out among other ensembles – it’s a special talent to not only be able to read the notes and perform as a unit, but instantly convey the emotion behind the music as well.

Mel Gibson and James Horner are next to the conductor chair at Abbey Road.

Mel Gibson and James Horner are next to the conductor chair at Abbey Road, for the recording of Braveheart.

A great example of this is when Richard E Grant made his directorial debut with Wah Wah (starring Nicholas Hoult, Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Julie Walters). He came to Abbey Road Studios to see the recording session take place and was so astonished at the players’ sightreading talent, he remarked, ‘Surely they’ve seen the scripts’, thinking of how actors need to memorise scripts. ‘He was told ‘No need, you just put the notes in front of them, and they play them,’ Stuart says. ‘Richard E Grant was amazed by this and said you could never do that with actors.’

But the LSO hasn’t just appeared on soundtracks but also on screen. They’ve featured in 22 films, including the Warsaw Concerto in Dangerous Moonlight (1941), Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) and most recently Maestro (2023).

And now there’s the opportunity to see them perform these famous works live, as we go to the movies with the world’s most renowned film orchestra.

Watch Film Composers on the LSO

Forthcoming Film Music Concerts

LSO on Film: The French Connection
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LSO on Film: The French Connection

Dirk Brossé

Sunday 22 June 2025 • 7pm

A selection of film music by French composers, originally recorded by the LSO, including scores by Alexandre Desplat, Philippe Sarde, Philippe Chany and Guillaume Roussel.

Tangram x LSO: Bound/Unbound
Three members of Tangram stand with eyes shut, heads resting on each other's shoulders
LSO St Luke's

Tangram x LSO: Bound/Unbound

By Alex Ho and Sun Keting

Friday 9 & Saturday 10 August 2024

New music, new movement, her stories. Join trailblazing Associate Artists, Tangram, for the premiere of a new music theatre piece by Alex Ho and Sun Keting interweaving the stories of two of China’s 19th century heroines: Afong Moy and Qiu Jin.