Walking In The Air

How music and animation combine in the much-loved Christmas classic The Snowman.

By Simon Brackenborough

Since its release in 1982, The Snowman has become a much-loved Christmas classic. If you’re a Brit under the age of 40, there’s a good chance this film was an annual television tradition in your childhood, as it was in mine. Its story, of a Snowman who takes a boy on a magical flight to meet Santa Claus, is charming and poignant. And unusually, it is told without dialogue – through animation and music alone.

The score for The Snowman was composed by Howard Blake, and in a long career it has become his most famous work. Its musical icon is the centrepiece song for boy soprano, Walking In The Air. 

The film is based on a children’s book by Raymond Briggs. The soft and warmly atmospheric animation style which lends it such charm is modelled on his illustrations. But interestingly, the original was not a Christmas story at all. Instead of a trip to meet Santa Claus, it featured only a short flight to Brighton pier. Briggs’ idea was to gently introduce children to mortality, as the Snowman is shown to have melted away at the very end.

It might seem strange then to adapt this story for Christmas – the season of Jesus’ birth. But in doing so, this story acquires new shades of meaning, drawing on a different kind of childhood loss.

The Snowman taps into a common theme among Christmas tales, both sacred and secular – that in the dark skies of a winter night, magic can happen. The star of Bethlehem, the angel Gabriel, Santa Claus in his sleigh: these are all miracles invoked in our festive traditions, and they enchant young children.

And there too, above our deep and dreamless sleep, we hope it might start to snow. It is this most longed-for Christmas promise – one so rarely fulfilled in the south of England, anyway – that forms the introduction to The Snowman. We see sweeping vistas of white countryside, and the Walking In The Air theme is foreshadowed on piano and strings – wistful, melancholy and mysterious.

For most of its first half, the film has a gently playful tone. At his rural house, the boy and his magical Snowman engage in a series of nocturnal hijinks, and the score tracks their actions with nimbleness and witty touches. We see the Snowman swap his nose for various pieces of fruit, and hear a strain of the song Oranges And Lemons. As he sneezes, the orchestra lets out a cacophonous splurge of sound.

These episodes lull you into what seems to be a whimsical tale of childish misbehaviour, played out with familiar modern objects – a set of dentures, a TV, a motorbike. But all along, it has another magical card up its sleeve.

As it happens, The Snowman was released in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Both are tales of boys with an otherworldly friend who gives them the ability to fly. And both set the moment of flight to memorable music. John Williams’ score for E.T. marks take-off with a theme of triumphant exhilaration, soaring higher and higher.

Blake’s flight, however, is very different. As the Snowman takes the boy’s hand and leads him running through the garden, a striking series of upward flourishes in the orchestra alert us that something amazing is about to happen. But when they start to fly, the music falls away to a high tremolo note in the strings. There is an eerie calm as Walking In The Air begins, underpinned by dark notes in the bass, and icy violins above.

This flying sequence suspends the rhythm of the story in stillness. The music comes to the fore now, with the fresh sound of a human voice and a glacial grandeur. Beautifully crafted animation shows unfolding views of winter scenery in continuous snowfall.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the origin of this enchanting song is a story of very adult disillusionment. Blake has described how, some time before The Snowman’s commission, he had become ill through overwork and exhaustion. On doctor’s advice he took up meditation, and decided to have a break in Cornwall. It was there on a beach one day that this melody ‘of perfect innocence’ came to him.

Meditation teaches us to be in the moment, rather than toiling towards distant goals. Similarly, Walking In The Air is about the purity of experience in the present tense. Only here are the boy’s thoughts given voice, suggesting a newly enhanced state of being. Meanwhile the lyrics – also written by Blake – are a stream of consciousness, affirming the act of flying and the sights they can see.

Far across the world
The villages go by like dreams
The rivers and the hills, the forests and the streams.

But it is Blake’s haunting, deceptively simple music that really elevates this scene. Walking In The Air has no chorus – the verse is its melodic hook. The tune is brief, with a secretive, teasing quality. It alternates between a short repeated rhythm and long held notes – there is strangely little else for us to get a handle on.

The dreaminess of the flight is also emphasised through irregular timings. Each verse is nine bars long, an odd number which lacks an intuitive four-square feel. Blake varies the lead-in to later verses too, and together these touches disorient your sense of when musical changes will arrive.

At the same time, the shapes of the music poetically reflect their flight over a series of hills: the voice swoops above piano arpeggios that undulate up and down. The grandeur of the orchestration gradually builds, matching the scenery as it becomes more mountainous.

The success of The Snowman has helped Walking In The Air to become a popular Christmas song in its own right. A separate recording was later released as a single, and its sheet music arrangements have become a valued part of many childhoods. But within the film, the song has an extra narrative significance, and forms an important bridge in its arc.

When they reach Santa Claus’s home, the boy discovers a Snowman party is in full swing. This place is full of merriment, and seems to represent the true Christmas spirit of good company. Santa presents the boy with the gift of a scarf, but only after a extended dance sequence, set to music of springing jollity. Crucially, the festive atmosphere is in striking contrast to the quiet house he has left behind.

During the flight back, the Walking In The Air theme is transformed into a major key, played instrumentally with lush orchestration. It is the happiest music of the score, and only here is there the kind of cosy sweetness we expect from the conclusion of a Christmas film. Our boy seems to have gained a new contentment through this friendship, and their shared experience.

But of course, it is not the end. The following morning, the boy runs downstairs and is dejected to discover that the Snowman has melted. Only a formless pile of snow remains. He reaches into his dressing gown pocket and finds the scarf, to prove it was not just a dream. It is there, but the magic is gone.

As the credits roll and we hear the piano tones of Walking In The Air once more, this music is now a sad reminder of all he has lost. So too is the scarf, whose meaning is now clear. Our Christmas gifts are only as valuable as the relationships they represent.

The Snowman succeeds as Briggs intended, by introducing children to themes of passing. But it speaks to adults too, by evoking a lost world of childhood wonder. It resonates with the way that memories of Christmas help us to mark out time in our lives. For my generation, the film itself is part of those memories too.

By ending in disappointment, The Snowman also touches on a sadder truth – that for many, Christmas will not be a happy experience. For various personal reasons, we might wish to be taken away to a place with more laughter, more music, and more joy. This is even hinted at in the ambiguous family circumstances of the boy’s home. He does not seem to have siblings for company, and his father remains a strangely aloof figure, who does not play with him in the fresh snow.

The Snowman is a hybrid work, and its enchanting storytelling is so much more than the sum of its parts. It remains so popular in part because its quiet truthfulness stands out, among the bombardments of gaudy Christmas marketing that clamour for our attention. Its animation and music are crafted with a love and dedication that truly fits the spirit of the season. And we understand that its final message of passing is also one of hope – we must make the most of our relationships while we can.

As we continue to tell children Christmas stories, it is a pleasure for adults to see young eyes inspired by their magic. But when the Snowman leads the boy into the air, he puts an arm around him, and for a short while it seems he can do what no parent can. He can show you that the magic is real. He can raise you to a place above the troubles of the world, a place where you will be forever loved and protected.

‘I’m finding I can fly so high above with you’, the boy sings, as the Snowman guides him across a sleeping wonderland. It is a beautiful dream, while it lasts. But it too must melt away, like the rarest Christmas snow.

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