Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was a great film enthusiast. He was often seen
on the set during filming and he had astonishingly advanced ideas on the
role of film music. As Adriano writes, in his informative notes for this
He regarded the ideal film score as a distinct component in
a unified medium, despising clumsy attempts at cartoon synchronisation with
movement on the screen, and looking forward to films that might not so much
be supplied with music as inspired by it."
Mayerling (1936) starred Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux both unconvincing
in the roles of Archduke Rudolf and Marie Vetsera who committed joint suicide
rather than deny their impossible love. [This true story, that rocked the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, has never been satisfactorily filmed, the later
Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve was equally limp.] Honegger's music was
one of its better elements. From the score, the composer fashioned a
four-movement suite, full of romantic/Viennese colour. The opening movement
is regal but tragic and it includes a quotation from Strauss's waltz, Wine
Women and Song. The shadows fall over 'Jardin' which is otherwise a beautiful
evocation of rippling waters and fountains and birdsong in a scented, colourful
garden. The final movement is very intense and full of pathos in a desperate
post-romantic harmonic style. Two shots ring out over the orchestra, emphasising
Marcel Pagnol's film Regain (Aftermath) (1938), starred the great Fernandel.
It was set in Provence and it was about the deserted village of Aubignane
and its infertile land, eventually brought to prosperity again through the
united forces of a poacher and a cabaret girl. Panturle has taken her away
from Gédémus, a good hearted but simple-minded knife grinder,
who had bought her after she had been raped by some charcoal burners. His
love for Arsule is the driving force behind his patient and honest labour.
From the score, Honegger produced two short suites. Both are recorded here.
Suite I opens with a brisk, no-nonsense march. This Le Panturle movement
also includes quite brutal and dissonant material. The 'Hiver' (Winter) and
'Printemps' (Spring) movements are spellbinding evocations, with winter's
chill grip feeling harsh and relentless with only a chink of warmth emanating
from a romantic motif, while the slow release of Spring gives the feeling
of new life sprouting all around. The beautiful dialogue for clarinet and
saxophone is the highlight of this ebullient movement. But the high point
of this suite is Gédémus, le rémouler (Gédémus,
the knife-grinder). This is a miniature tour-de-force as the music sparks
like a Catherine Wheel to realistically evoke the Fernandel character
(personified by a comical limping bassoon figure) at work. The suite closes
with music ('Regain') that is as broad and majestic as the countryside yet
also determined and as down-to-earth as its people. Suite II opens with a
simple but very appealing rustic and child-like melody - Chanson d'Aubignane
with its saxophone solo and goes on to 'Nocturne', surely one of Honegger's
loveliest evocations with strings and woods singing over a pulsating ostinato.
A scented picture this - one might imagine a glorious sunset with enraptured
birdsong, the music lilting almost a lullaby. The rapturous mood is shattered
by the material of the following cue 'Nuits dans la grange - Eté'
that suggests a storm with shrieking gales, bolts of lightning and thunderclaps
but peace is restored with the music returning to the mood of the Nocturne.
Once more, the saxophone makes an indelible appearance. 'Le soc' brings the
suite to a rather pompous conclusion. It has a short trio that vividly evokes
a merry-go-round at at the village fair. The Regain score is one of Honegger's
masterpieces for the cinema.
Le Démon de l'Himalaya (The Demon of the Himalayas) (1934/35) took
its inspiration from a successful expedition to the Himalayas in 1930. The
members of the expedition were pressed into service to act in this film.
It tells the story of Norman an ethnologist, who has in his possession the
mask of the mountain demon Kali Mata, a spirit that prevents ordinary mortals
from climbing the Himalayan peaks against the will of the gods of Tibet.
Norman's fiancée, who remains at home, smashes the mask enabling the
expedition to overcome its obstacles. Honegger was inspired to write a powerfully
evocative score for this film in the spirit of his music for Mermoz (reviewed
on Film Music on the Web this month). From his score, a two movement suite
was developed. Quoting Adriano: " The score, a real and important discovery,
is conceived for large orchestra, without horns, but including two saxophones,
Ondes Martenot, piano, harp, percussion and a wordless mixed chorus. The
music is "realistic" and experimental for its period, at least as film music,
and is built on extended ostinato accompaniments, precursor of today's minimalist
techniques, and chromatically dissonant motif-cells. [The 'Tempête
de neige' movement is a startlingly realistic depiction of blizzard conditions;
one perceives a dense curtain of relentlessly falling snow occasionally swirled
by icy gusts.] While 'Tempête de neige' has no leitmotiv, 'Ascension
et chute', to which a later cue, the final episode 'Vision', has been added,
is built on a passacaglia-like theme, interrupted by recollections of the
demonic sounds of the brass heard in Tempête, leading to a climax through
a short vertiginous [and blood-curdling sounding] cadenza for the Ondes Martinot.
Again the passacaglia is heard, as a counterpoint to the hymn of the chorus
ending on the Mixolydian mode on D."
Adriano mixes thrills with beauty in totally persuasive performances of rare
film music which should be studied by young student film composers as an
object lesson in what can be achieved without recourse to synths.