La valse du cinéma

Gramophone Mon 20th February 2017

Les Six, together with Saint-Saëns and Ravel, laid the musical foundations for French cinema, which remains unique to this day, writes Gary Dalkin

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

Is film music art? Film, and the music written for it, is not homogeneous and, just as in the mainstream classical world, we can consider it in a variety of ways. We can look at film music in terms of genre or, in the same way as we sometimes relate classical music to its country of origin, we can approach film music through nationhood, and in doing so perhaps come to appreciate more fully an undervalued form. As composers the world over seek to catch Hollywood’s ear, there are precious few countries now who can boast a readily identifiable school of film-music composition.

France certainly can, and it lays claim to the first film score by a major composer. Camille Saint-Saëns’s work was imbued with the spirit of story-telling. His 13 operas function as preludes to cinema; Danse macabre and Le carnaval des animaux are innately pictorial. Perhaps it was inevitable that when the Societé Film d’Art produced La mort du duc de Guise (1908) Saint-Saëns would write the score. In so doing the composer provided the first foundation of a French film-music tradition.

All countries have their popular instruments; all a composer has to do to let the audience know we are in Paris is to bring on an accordion. A typical though immensely artful example is George Delerue’s waltz-like melody for ‘La Victorine’ from Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (1973). Not quite so synonymous with French film, but still a defining aspect of its music, is the early electronic instrument, the ondes martenot. Its sound has proved popular with composers from Charles Koechlin and Pierre Boulez to Arthur Honegger and Maurice Jarre (who famously employed it to depict the desert in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia). More than any other instrument, the ondes martenot forms a bridge between the French concert and film worlds.

Ravel’s Boléro (1928) has featured in many films before and since the Dudley Moore comedy 10 (1979), but if we are to look for a more predominating influence we must turn to the composer’s La valse (1920). British composer George Benjamin said, ‘Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilisation in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz’. Equally, La valse set a musical foundation for a national cinema either chronicling a tragic century or nostalgically reflecting on the one before, telling unhappy stories in which the plots so regularly charted birth, decay and destruction. French cinema would become a dream-waltz of fated romance. The year of La valse also witnessed the arrival of ‘Les Six’ – composers Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre, all associated with the surrealist artist Jean Cocteau. Five of Les Six (all excepting Durey) wrote music for Cocteau’s 1923 ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel. Of these, all bar Poulenc, together with another composer, Maurice Jaubert, complete the foundations of French film music.

If film is the great art form of the 20th century, it is apt that French film music owes so much to a man born three days into that century. Jaubert studied in Paris, met Auric and Honegger, and through the 1930s provided the music for three of France’s greatest directors, René Clair (Quatorze Juillet, 1933, and Le dernier milliardaire, 1934), Jean Vigo (Zéro de conduite, 1933, and L’Atalante, 1934) and Marcel Carné (Le quai des brumes, 1938, and Le jour se lève, 1939). Jaubert’s waltz theme for L’Atalante captured tender melancholy a world away from Hollywood, while his introspective final score for Carné’s bleak foreshadowing of the coming war, Le jour se lève, beats with an essentially dark heart of mourning and grief. It was said that the film’s pessimism lost France the war.

Jaubert only wrote the music for around two dozen films – he lost his life in the invasion of France – yet beyond establishing a sound for French cinema through his own music, during 1930-35 he exerted further influence as music director for Pathé-Natan studios. There he conducted scores by Honegger (Les misérables) and Milhaud (Tartarin de Tarascon, both 1934). Such was Jaubert’s legacy that decades later director François Truffaut paid homage, using Jaubert’s concert works in four successive films.

Honegger had already made an indelible mark with his score for Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), the pinnacle of French ‘silent’ cinema. His lyric ‘La romance de violine’ proves more eloquent than revisionist scores for the film by Carl Davis or Carmine Coppola. Honegger would score around 40 films, playing himself in Un revenant (1946) before retiring from the screen following the Columbia Pictures release Storm Over Tibet (1952).

Yet, of Les Six, it was Georges Auric who made the greatest contribution to French cinema and became the first French composer to make a lasting film career outside of his native land. Auric’s delicate, haunted collaborations with Jean Cocteau, L’éternel retour (1943), La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Orphée (1950), led to such classics as Le salaire de la peur (1953), Rififi and Lola Montès (both 1955). Auric also defined the sound of Ealing comedies including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), as well as scoring occasional Hollywood fare such as Roman Holiday (1953). Such was Auric’s craft that his French films sound French and his English films sound impeccably English.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, composers such as Michel Legrand (Les parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964, and The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968) and Francis Lai (Un homme et une femme, 1966, and Love Story, 1970) brought a contemporary, sometimes jazz- or pop-based style to both French and international cinemas. Yet others held faith with traditional values of exquisitely introspective melody and refined string-centred orchestrations.

Philippe Sarde, best known in the English‑speaking world for his lyrical folk‑orchestral writing for Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979), continues to grace many films with his tasteful scoring. In Fort Saganne (1984), a solo cello speaks for the plight of a desert-isolated garrison. His lovely score for Le parfum de la dame en noir (2005) combines nostalgic chamber strings with desert colours and a spaciousness redolent of Koechlin. Ondes martenot and glass harmonica give the score a distinctive sound.

Jean-Claude Petit found roots in both French folk – accordion is strongly featured – and a sensuality echoing Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne (1923-30) for the two-part pastoral period drama Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources (1986). He enhanced Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) with finely crafted neo‑classical melody, but has remained largely within France.

Alexandre Desplat has scored 120 films, recently finding international success with The Ghost Writer, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and The King’s Speech (all 2010), while still returning home for projects such as Coco avant Chanel (2009). Desplat’s music, always graceful, occasionally using electronics but essentially traditional, often features intricate tuned percussion, together with that key note of French cinema, the waltz. In fact, waltzes appear in such profusion in Desplat’s work that they have become his distinctive signature, the main theme from New Moon (2009) almost playing as an answer and homage to La valse.

Yet if there is one composer who can embody the entire French film music tradition in all its exhilaration and passionate heartbreak, it must be Georges Delerue. His career spanned 350 films from 1952 to 1992, including French and Hollywood classics from Godard’s Le mépris (1963) to Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), but most significantly extending through a three decade-long collaboration with François Truffaut. In Jules et Jim (1962), Delerue defined the archetypal French ménage à trois with scoring ranging from the rambunctious main title through nostalgiclove themes to the bittersweet glory of the finale – French cinema distilled into 105 minutes of wonder.

Delerue’s ultimate triumph remains his theme for Truffaut’s La nuit américaine, arguably the finest film about the joys and pains of film-making. In his melody, which looks back to Baroque music and is at once haunting and celebratory, Delerue captures in the voice of a single trumpet the essence of cinema – the poetry, the drama and the artistry. To celebrate his relationship with the director, Delerue even wrote a special piece of music. Its title, of course – La valse de François T.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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