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Francis Chagrin described himself as ‘Rumanian by birth, British by nationality and cosmopolitan by inclination.’ He was born Alexander Paucker in Bucharest on the 15 November 1905 to wealthy Jewish parents who expected their son to take his rightful place in the family business. Reluctantly he complied, if only initially, by reading for an engineering degree in Zurich, while secretly putting himself through the city’s music conservatoire. After graduating in 1928 and having ‘done the right thing’ by his parents, he expected his family to allow him to pursue his musical ambitions. When this failed to materialise, he left home and made for Paris where he acquired his new name.
Even though his family were willing to support him financially by now, he refused, preferring to make his own way by playing in night clubs and cafes-chantants and writing popular songs. When he had saved enough, he enrolled in 1933 at the Ecole Normale for two years, where his teachers included Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. He began writing modest film scores, but sensing that war was not far away, made a trip to Britain to see how the business worked here. He immediately fell in love with the country and settled permanently in 1936.
In London he continued studies with his exact contemporary and fellow exile, Matyas Seiber. With the outbreak of war, he was appointed musical adviser and composer-in-chief to the BBC French Service and in particular the programme, Les Francais parlent aux Francais, for which he was decorated ‘Officier d’Academie’ by the French government in 1948. He spoke elegant and fluent French, and was often taken for a Frenchman. In addition, he spoke perfect English (albeit with a French accent), was fluent in Rumanian and German, knew much Italian and Spanish, and for a trip to the USSR in October 1966 studied Russian.
His concert music ranges over most genres. In the orchestral field, there are two completed symphonies, a piano concerto, a Prelude and Fugue, and a Rumanian Fantasy, written for Larry Adler and commercially recorded by him. He contributed to Gerard Hoffnung concerts with items like The Ballad of County Down. In addition there is much chamber music, and songs in English and French. As well as conducting his own film scores he frequently conducted orchestral concerts here and abroad, and in 1951 formed his own chamber ensemble which gave regular concerts and broadcasts of varied and unusual repertoire.
The sheer volume of commercial work is staggering, including 200 films, television (including a Dr Who in 1964) and many commercials, for soap, hair shampoo, tooth brushes, chocolate bars etc. In 1963 he was elected Film Composer of the Year in the Harriet Cohen International Awards.
His friends remember him as incredibly industrious, but selfless, resourceful, urbane and with a great generosity of heart. His fellow composer, Benjamin Frankel, who wrote several obituaries of him, struck the right tone when he wrote that Chagrin was ‘always able to see the lighter aspect of serious effort.’
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