The short piano piece The Lake in the Mountains
was extracted by Vaughan Williams from the film score for 49th Parallel
, his first venture into the genre. Directed by Michael Powell, with a cast including Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey and Eric Portman, it was first shown at the Odeon Leicester Square on 8 October 1941 and was a conspicuous success. The plot follows the attempt of six Nazis, who have been stranded in Canada after escaping from their damaged submarine, to reach the USA, at that time a neutral country. They are portrayed in unsympathetic terms and Powell wrote in his autobiography A Life in the Movies
that the propaganda purpose of the film was to alarm the Americans and bring them into the war quickly.
For one scene, ‘The Lake in the Mountains’, Vaughan Williams decided to score the music for solo piano. It introduces and underpins dialogue between Howard, who portrays an idealist studying native Indian customs, and Portman, the leader of the Germans. Pastoral in character to evoke the Canadian landscape, the music also reflects the dramatic situation when the harmony suddenly veers menacingly at the moment when the Nazis arrive. Vaughan Williams revised it as a piece in its own right for Phyllis Sellick, who with her husband Cyril Smith gave the premieres of both his Double Concerto and Introduction and Fugue in 1946. It was published the following year with a dedication to her.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 2002