As every student of film music knows, the often
neglected, often maligned art of film scoring found its genesis in the works
of modern classical composers. While pioneers like Erich-Wolfgang Korngold
and Max Steiner laid out the rules by which instrumental scores have been
composed since the 1930s, when most filmmakers began to add music to their
films, much of what was heard in earlier productions was borrowed from the
classics or began with traditional classical composers such as Camille
Saint-Saens, whose music for the silent L'assassinat du duc de Guise,
in 1908, gave an early voice to this pseudo historical recreation of the
war that opposed Catholics and Protestants (or Huguenots, as they were called
at the time) in XVIth century France.
Over the years, other prominent classical composers also delved, some quite
extensively, in film music, among them Aaron Copland, who brought a distinctive
Americana flavor to such films as Of Mice and Men (1939), Our
Town (1940), and The Red Pony (1949); Serge Prokoviev, whose
contributions to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan
The Terrible (1944-46) still rank among the most impressive scores ever
composed for the movies; Dimitri Shostakovich, who illustrated himself with
New Babylon (1929), The Battle Of Siberia (1940), The
Fall Of Berlin (1945), The Condemned Of Altona (1963),
and Hamlet (1964); and Leonard Bernstein, whose music for On The
Waterfront (1954), profoundly marked this celebrated film directed by
Elia Kazan. Add to this list two French composers, Jacques Ibert, who created
the scores for The Italian Straw Hat (1927), Don Quichotte
(1934), Macbeth (1948), and Marianne de ma jeunesse
(1954), among others; and Arthur Honegger, one of the most influential serious
composers of the 20th century, who elevated the art of film scoring with
his music for Abel Gance's epic Napoleon (1926), Pacific 231
(1931), Les Miserables (1934), Mayerling (1937), and Jeanne
au bucher (Joan At The Stake)(1954).
The link between classical music and film music through Honegger is even
made more suggestive when one recalls that it was he who advised Miklos Rozsa,
then a much admired but impoverished classical composer, to turn his skills
to writing for the movies in the early 1940s, prompting the latter to work
on The Jungle Book and The Thief Of Bagdad, a move that
paved the way for one of the most successful careers in film scoring.
In the first days of its existence, Marco Polo, a label dedicated to the
rerecordings of significant film scores, paid a belated homage to some of
the works by Ibert and Honegger in a series of CDs that have long become
much sought after by collectors and fans of film music, all featuring the
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by the single-named Swiss conductor,
One of the first great composers to express unbridled enthusiasm for the
movies, Honegger often could be seen on the sets during shooting, impregnating
himself with the atmosphere of the films he scored, and eventually creating
cues that revealed, in the words of Adriano writing in one of the CD's liner
notes, "astonishingly advanced ideas on the function of music in the cinema."
Well aware of the limitations imposed on a composer by the medium itself,
Honegger rejected the notion of film music being synchronized with movement
on the screen, opting instead to create music that complemented the action,
commented on it, and eventually served as an extra form of its visual expression.
He reached the pinnacle of his art in the two most realized scores he wrote
- Abel Gance's Napoleon and the 1934 Les Miserables.
A massive, six-hour recreation of the Napoleonic saga, Napoleon made cinematic
history in more ways than one: always a trendsetter, Abel Gance used for
the first time the camera as an integral part of the action, moving it around
instead of keeping it static as had been the case until then, thus giving
the film a fluidity that set it apart from anything that had been done before;
also aware of the visual limitations imposed by the small screen in use at
the time, Gance devised the first big screen projection, in some instances
simultaneously filming the same scene from three different angles, in a device
that would have to wait another forty years to be perfected with the Cinerama
As innovative as Gance's technical prowesses might have been, Napoleon also
benefitted grandly from the score Honegger devised for it, one of the first
instances of a large scale work being applied to a film of this magnitude.
But because Gance constantly worked on the film, editing and reediting it,
the final score - a combination of themes borrowed from the composer's other
works, original cues, and compilation of folk tunes - ultimately sounded
disjointed and, in the words of a critic at the time of the film's premiere,
"cacophonous." Today, many of the composer's original cues have been lost,
and his score only exists in fragmentary form.
In a sad turn of events, the film was released almost at the time the movies
began to talk; as a result, it was summarily dismissed as old fashioned and
dated, and fell in unjust oblivion, despite Gance's vain efforts to try and
post-synchronize it and present it again to new generations of filmgoers.
In 1980, it was shown in London in a new version edited by Kevin Brownlow,
who had spent more than two decades reconstructing it, with a new score by
Carl Davis; the following year, it was brought to the U.S. for a roadshow
presentation that was ill-advisedly rescored by Carmine Coppola.
If the Davis score can be said to more closely match Abel Gance's initial
concepts about his massive undertaking, the eight selections from the original
score by Honegger, vibrantly brought to symphonic life in the Adriano recording,
belie the idea that his work was flawed to begin with, and thoroughly evoke
the breadth and scope of the film itself, in a way that may be different
from Carl Davis' but no less compelling. To put it simply, it is magnificent,
and only makes one regret that so little of it actually was saved.
Though the score evidenced moments of sheer melodic beauty and quietness
("Calme," "La romance de Violine"), what mostly impresses here is the sweep
and grandeur of the remaining cues (some based on the revolutionary folk
tune "Dansons la carmagnole," others using Rouget de Lisle's "Marseillaise"
and Mehul's "Chant du depart") which match in epic scope the visual elements
in Gance's film ("Napoleon," "Les ombres," "Les mendiants de la gloire,"
"Interlude et final"). In every way, this is solid film music that evokes
much more than just a passing vision of an extraordinary film.
[Honegger's original cues can also be heard in another recording, released
by Erato, with additional selections for the film composed by Marius Constant,
who also conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, in a different,
albeit no less fascinating attempt at giving a more complete musical expression
to Gance's masterpiece.]
Les Miserables was composed in 1934 for the fourth screen retelling of the
classic Victor Hugo novel, another massive five-hour undertaking, originally
shown in three parts running consecutively in different theaters, but eventually
reedited by its director, Raymond Bernard, into two parts, each with a running
time of 100 minutes.
Particularly memorable for its close visual description of the novel, its
superb cast, and its fluid direction, Les Miserables starred Harry Baur as
Jean Valjean and Charles Vanel as Javert, and preceded by one year Hollywood's
most famous version with Frederic March and Charles Laughton in the leading
roles. For it, Honegger wrote another majestic score, an impressive achievement
in its own right, which unfortunately suffered when the film was reedited.
Lovingly reconstructed from existing cues and sketches, and assembled to
give it greater symphonic continuity, this is an essential recording that
should belong in every collection.
In creating it, Honegger displayed a rare talent for musical images that
are attractive and catchy, solidly built around melodic material that challenges
the listener and compels repeated hearing. Though the cues are short for
the most part, they make a lasting impression, with the longer "Tempete sous
un crane," "La foire a Montfermeil," "Le jardin de la rue Plumet" and "Dans
les egouts" (the only cue without a melodic motif) surprising for their vitality
and emotional impact.
The other recordings mentioned here present various suites from scores the
composer wrote for a wide range of films made in the late 1930s and early
1940s, in which his colorful compositions translate in musical terms the
dramatic narrative of each film. Of these, the three most important are
Mayerling, a historical drama made in 1936; Regain, from 1937; and Crime
et chatiment, from 1934, in which the composer prominently featured the early
electronic Ondes Martenot.
Interestingly, the Ondes Martenot were also used by Jacques Ibert for this
1935 score for Golgotha, a re-telling of the life and passion of Christ,
directed by Julien Duvivier, in which Robert Le Vigan portrayed the Messiah.
Ibert, a composer better known in concert halls for works such as
"Divertissement" and "Escales," also enjoyed a prolific career as a film
composer, with some 30 scores to his credit, between 1933 and 1956. While
many of those might not have been full-length contributions, they bore Ibert's
distinctive style and taste for brilliant orchestral colors, that contrasted
with Honegger's darker moods (though both men worked together on two operas,
and Honegger was known to have collaborated with others on some film works,
they never teamed for a film score).
Starring the great Russian basso Fedor Chaliapin, it seemed only natural
that Don Quichotte, directed by G.W. Pabst in 1933, should include some songs.
The four tunes created by Ibert, with words by Pierre de Ronsard and Alexandre
Arnoux, show a Spanish influence, much in keeping with the subject of the
film and Ibert's own musical leanings.
While the Golgotha suite showcases the composer in a more dramatic vein,
the real delight in this release is the series of cues Ibert created for
Orson Welles' Macbeth, itself another sadly neglected masterpiece worthy
of a thorough reexamination. Solidly defined and powerful in its dramatic
exposition, the score provided a solid anchor to this screen adaptation of
Shakespeare's tragedy, in which the eerie "The Ghost Of Banquo" and the martial
"Triumph Of Macduff's Armies" particularly stand out.
As with the Honegger titles, the CD casts a long glance at a composer not
known for his movie scores, but whose contributions should be remembered
and acknowledged among the most descriptive and vivid ever created for the
Overall performance by the CSR Symphony Orchestra is superb, with the great
DDD sonics adding immeasurably to one's pleasure.
Didier C. Deutsch