Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) has so many obvious visual qualities that it can sometimes be easy to overlook its highly original and thematically motivated use of music.  Anderson’s films are littered with all sorts of aural qualities though often tended to be more overt in his trilogy of Mick Travis films, the other two instalments being O’Lucky Man (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).  If…., however, marks a turning point in this musical style, perhaps a grounding where all of his aesthetic ideas and qualities found their freedom that perhaps were yet to materialise in earlier work such as This Sporting Life (1963) and Red, White and Zero (made only a year before If….).

The film’s surreal, haphazard narrative follows a young rebel, Mick (Malcolm McDowell), in a private school of the Eton/Harrow mold as he comes face to face with the miniature regime embodied, not in the school’s teachers, but in the older prefects granted powers over all of the younger students.  Much has been written about the avant-garde structure of the film, mixing day-dream with reality and gradually breaking down logical cause-to-effect scenarios to the point of uncertainty, but little has been addressed toward the film’s music and how exactly it reflects some of the film’s key themes.

Marc Wilkinson’s Score.

The first key musical motif to point out is found in the score of Marc Wilkinson, perhaps one of the most underrated composers in British cinema.  Wilkinson’s practice started in theatre, providing music and sound design for a number of highly regarded Shakespeare adaptations by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1960s.  This instantly suggests that his musical style is set to be more subtle than perhaps that of a composer grounded simply in film music; in other words, theatre is far less reliant on nondiegetic music than its classical cinematic counterpart.

This sparseness shows in his musical score for the film where he layers his music several times through quiet micropolyphony with almost Ligeti-like precision.  In his most repeated sequence, there seems to be a gradual wave of sounds representing some form of realisation. This occurs most famously when a younger boy, who eventually joins the rebels later on, first sees the older Wallace (Richard Warrick) performing gymnastics on the bars.  Several readings of this have often hinted at homosexual undertones (heightened by the supposed jealousy of one the prefects who uses the younger boy as an assistant for “scumming”) but this music suggests something far more complex than the realisation of physical feeling.

As this music reoccurs, chiefly when the film’s credits start simply over the title card of “If….”, it seems to suggest a latent rebellion; the potential for a new order away from the strict, mason-like systems of the school.  The music shows these pique moments for all of the rebellious characters, barring the film’s only young girl whose existence in the reality of the film is highly debated anyway.  Wilkinson’s instrumentation and tonality is also a deliberate lead-in to some of the film’s diegetic music.  This is ploy he would later use in his endlessly interesting music for Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) but here, it ties quite neatly into grounding the world of Mick in a haze of public school reality and fantastically violent dreams of rebellion.

Missa Lubu – Sanctus (1958).

If….‘s most famous musical excursion comes from a piece of African religious music which makes several appearances throughout the film.  Sanctus is part of a musical mass but is performed rather refreshingly with African instrumentation and musicality by Missa luba.  The music is at once at odds with the more fusty styling of religious music heard throughout the film (of which the next section will go into detail on) though along similar lines of religious expression and celebration.  The piece is first heard diegetically by Mick as he plays the opening repeatedly on his record player.  This in itself is an interesting use of the music as he skips the more dynamically frantic later sections while listening to it in the school, yet almost relies on its energy later on when using it to invoke a sense of freedom (with Anderson using it in a metadiegetic sense) during what appears to be a more solid awakening of sexual desires in a roadside cafe.

The scene in question is the first to properly introduce the characters to the ambigious girl.  The scene, like a number in the film, is in black & white though the reasons for the film’s continuous changes colour-wise have already been endlessly related elsewhere as being for budgetary and technical reasons (i.e. better lighting).  The scene is not, therefore, in the past and as Mick flirts and briefly has some form of dreamscape sex with the girl, the music is played conveniently on the cafe’s jukebox.  This song, from Mick’s discovery of it in his study, seems to haunt the character as if it is somehow controlling the events and his actions that lead towards them.

In some ways, the scene could be misrepresented as a vague form of orientalism, with the African music soundtracking a scene where the characters first act more primal and then later as if they big cats, roaring and play-fighting.  This reading has been presented before but is flawed, if only due to the film’s over uses of the music.  Instead, the mass now seems to be an aural embodiment of the freedom and release that Mick and his fellow rebels crave outside of their school system.  After the film’s final moments and when Wilkinson’s score has faded, this music comes back in again to be the final dénouement of the film.

Conservative Lord, John Brabourne, who originally read the script, was appalled and suggested that the film should be suppressed, perhaps worried at its potential power to influence events similar to those that it depicts.  The inclusion of the music as the final parting shot from Anderson does suggest at the very least that the generation it shows should question the authority it naturally succumbs to but also that the freedom the music has come to be a leitmotif for isn’t simply one of violence but one of emotional freedom too.


If…. opens with a religious hymn, its loose halfway point is marked by a hymn and its final moments before the infamous explosion of violence is set with a hymn.  The hymn is therefore a vital part of the film, not just because it is part of the education system it depicts, but also because the hymn can be changed, made to produce satire and augmented to mean so much more than simply a celebration of Conservative Christianity.

The film opens with an augmented version of the hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up“, cannily replacing “Jesus” in the lyrics to “College”.  This hints at a number of things, chiefly that the school itself is teaching its pupils that its opportunities are that of a religious rite; a society of privilege that only few can gain access to (again hinting at the links between this type of education system and the different forms of masonry).  The hymn is brief before Anderson decides to cut to the simple diegetic sound of rushing school boys, stressed and perplexed on their first day at boarding college.

In another section, the hymn “To Be A Pilgrim” is sung by the school in their on-campus cathedral (the school where Anderson himself actually went to). This is an interesting choice of hymn to show though perhaps it also has a simple link to Anderson’s personal memories of being there.  The first verse of the hymn has the following lyrics:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

This seems an apt sentiment for a system reliant on obedience towards a small few (i.e. the prefects).  It is telling then that directly after this, the senior prefect speaks the words from one of the gospels, confirming the recontextualisation of the hymn’s lyrics (albeit lyrics already readapted by Percy Dreamer in the early 20th century from John Bunyan’s original words).  If we also supplant the early assertion of the school as a religious entity (with Wilkinson’s arrangement of “Stand Up, Stand Up” being quite earnestly about allegiance to the college), then the lyrics to “To Be A Pilgrim” can also be seen in a new light, with the supposed “pilgrim” actually being a potentially studious and obedient student.

While researching the film’s music, only two pieces are actually acknowledged in the general information sources that so often make up the basis for research into such matters.  The first is the previously mentioned Sanctus and the second is Widor’s Toccata.  The latter is strange in its emphasis as part of the score, not only because it is very clearly diegetic (it is the leaving music for many traditional Christian services so of course makes an accurate, narrative appearance) but also because its appearance is so brief.

Instead then, we end our analysis on a slight mystery; the identity of the final hymn in the film.  The hymn in question is sung at the final ceremony of the narrative before the attack by Mick and his comrades on the participants though some suggest it to be the melodies of Ellacombe mixed with other lyrics about the college.  Its melodies also make up the final musical moments of the narrative before the credits role so is very clearly important, both as an effective dramatic heightener but also, most probably, because of its thematic content.  The hymn is sung by a congregation of parents, soldiers, knights, lords and even a member of the royal family (an amusing trick Anderson would later pull again in Britannia Hospital) and ends with Peter Jefferies’ endlessly upper class headmaster speaking in Latin with one of the said knights.

Grasping at some of the lyrics of this hymn, it is clearly again about college.  Because of this, and its use as simple nondiegetic music moments later, it is likely to be a composition of Wilkinson’s (or at least an arrangement by him).  The music shows the congregation for all of their ridiculousness, their traditions of privilege and their violent anger at anyone who doesn’t share their ideas of class place (see moments later, a gentle old woman who was early singing now wielding a machine gun and shouting “Bastards!”).  It’s a stark and dramatic end as the organ melodies of this music fade leaving the sound of Mick’s sub-machine gun firing in desperation at an enemy he’s clearly unsure ever existed in the physical world outside of the dreams and realities of college house.  Just as the prefects are desperate to eliminate ideas through physical punishment, Mick’s attempts in this scene show his gradual realisation of the absurdity of shooting at an enemy he can’t possibly remove with simply bullets alone and this hymn connects these two worlds together in a wonderfully dramatic and typically British audio-visual style.

Adam Scovell


3 thoughts on “The Music of If…. (1968, Lindsay Anderson).

  1. For me, the finest piece of music in the IF…score is that which accompanies the motorbike scene. In fact it’s one of my favourite bits of film music of all time, and nobody else ever gives it a mention – except Malcolm McDowell in the DVD commentary !

  2. Thanks a lot for this wonderful article. I have been looking for the names of these hymns for a while now.
    It’s a pity there has been no original soundtrack been released.

    If… is definitely one of my all-time favourite movies and I really like the thought to watch it as some kind of prelude to A Clockwork Orange. It somehow gives an explanaition to where all that violence comes from Kubrick depicts later without explaining its societal origins in explicitely.

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