About this Recording
8.572260 - HALFFTER, E.: Carmen [film score] (Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Fitz-Gerald)
English 

Ernesto Halffter (1905–1989)
Music for the silent film Carmen (1926)

 

Ernesto Halffter (1905–1989), born in Madrid to a family of German origin, began composing at the age of thirteen with his first notated work for piano, Crepúsculos. His piano teacher, Francisco Ember, gave a performance of this work, attracting the interest of Adolfo Salazar (1890–1958), one of Spain’s foremost music critics. Salazar sent the score of Halffter’s string trio, Homenajes (1922), to Manuel de Falla, who began teaching the young composer and introduced him to the Parisian publishing company of Max Eschig. Thus Ernesto Halffter’s meteoric career began early and was celebrated by the award of first prize in the Spanish National Prize for Composition of 1925 for his orchestral piece, Sinfonietta.

The eminent Spanish musicologist, Tomás Marco, has described Halffter as ‘representative of the Generation of ‘27’. This cultural grouping took its inspiration from the tercentenary in 1927 of the death of the poet, Luis de Góngora (1561–1627). The movement, in its musical context, emphasised the virtues of impressionism and neo-classicist tendencies and followed the guiding nationalist expressiveness of Falla, as well as a use of traditional tonality and an avoidance of the avant-garde Schoenbergian experimentation. Other contemporary composers of similar approach included Bacarisse, Bautista, Ernesto Halffter’s brother Rodolfo, Mompou, Pittaluga, Rodrigo, and Salazar himself.

Thus, only a year after the triumph of Sinfonietta, Halffter was given the opportunity to write the film score for Carmen, the first of a dozen such commissions for the cinema ranging between 1926 and 1971. That the composer was only twenty-one at the time adds to the interest of this work.

It is true to say that Halffter thereafter was a prolific composer, for he continued to write a quantity of music for the Madrid stage as well as many orchestral, chamber and instrumental pieces, and a considerable output of vocal work. He also made a number of arrangements for orchestra of compositions by Salazar, Falla, Mompou and Granados. However, his most significant international reputation was achieved by his painstaking and somewhat controversial completion over many years of Manuel de Falla’s choral masterpiece Atlántida.

Halffter’s score for Carmen, hitherto neglected and forgotten, is an epic achievement. The composer, in an interview with Raoul Ploquin in 1926, comments that he ‘used old regional themes and Andalusian rhythms, whose local colour is obvious even to the uninitiated’. Though he regarded this composition as ‘no more than an accompaniment’ to the film itself, the quality of the music is such that the work can be enjoyed as a magnificent ‘suite’ in its own right, presenting Spanish scenes in impressionistic colours of great originality and intensity.

Within the score, Halffter inserts occasional brief allusions to various masterpieces of his era. Thus the astute listener may discern affectionate fleeting references to Debussy, Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, and Ravel, all such references being absorbed within the breadth of Halffter’s own inspired inventiveness.

The opening [1], Animé, begins explosively with an adroit use of percussion, though this mood gives way to a characteristically Spanish melody with subtle castanets. The next movement [2], Modéré (Sombre), features a plaintive oboe refrain, moving on to touchingly rhapsodic themes, both nostalgic and expressive, and concluding a more subdued episode with sinister overtones.

Old Castille [3] brings in rhythms accentuated by castanets, leading on to evocations of Castille and snatches of folk songs. The scene then changes [4] to the smugglers’ camp in the mountains of Andalusia, Triste et mystérieuse. Following a woodwind introduction over muted strings, an atmosphere of intimidation is created as Carmen is persuaded through blows and arm twisting from her smuggler husband to take up employment at the tobacco factory. Steadily the tension increases, occasional angular dissonances punctuating the smooth fabric of the music.

The action shifts [5] to outside the Royal Tobacco Factory of Seville. A march in six eight time is heard, before giving way to a quintessentially Andalusian melody and a powerful rhythmic pulse. The overall clarity grows in complexity featuring a kind of parody of the original march with a distinctly unmilitary ending.

The scene of Don José in his cell [6] opens as dark thoughts crowd in on the prisoner, with poignant echoes and nostalgic longing.

The smugglers’ camp in the mountains [7] is characterized by a brief wandering theme marked Mystérieux. This contrasts [8], where Carmen’s flirtation with Don José, evoked by a romantic theme is swiftly followed by a playful minuet. Having been invited into the barracks, Carmen dances for the officers [9].

With Don José and Carmen alone on the city wall, [10], a number of moods are expressed, the quasi-military contrasted against the lyrical romanticism of the love motif.

As Don José searches for Carmen in the streets and bars at night [11] a little dance is played, the bassoon establishing the rhythm, with intimations of strummed guitars resonating from the ensemble.

An optimistic flute theme begins ‘The route from the coast towards Tarifa[12]. But soon other moods emerge, more cacophonous, with intermingled sounds clashing together. A third extended element is heard with triumphant trumpet, the music evolving into a stately dance of ironic dignity and lively rhythms.

The dawn is evoked plaintively [13], the music becoming more expansive as a flute melody sings with bird-like lyricism.

In [14], Triste et mystérieuse, a richly extended melange of themes and textures is explored. A thoughtful, slightly melancholic melody begins. A second motif increases the tension, while a third aspect grows passionately romantic. The episode develops in pace and density. Finally, murmuring strings suggest the hushed sanctity of the chapel.

Halffter’s version of the Paso doble [15] is a virtuosic example of orchestration packed with delightful melodic and rhythmic effects. But in [16], Mystérieux, calme, the music presents the other side of the bullfight, the suffering and the pain. A poignant flute expresses the grief of the stricken bullfighter’s fate.

The final and most powerful stages of the drama conclude [17], the impassioned tone being charged with contradictory feelings of love and jealousy. Theme builds upon theme in succession, with resonances from previous episodes. Towards the climax the music swells in volume though from time to time more tender moments are perceived.

A steady crescendo raises the temperature, lifting the action towards its inevitable calamitous outcome. This climactic intensity then subsides into sadness and regret, a tragic flute theme finally encapsulating the pity of it, though ending in a positive resolution.

Graham Wade

 

Synopsis

Synopsis of the film action, with reference to the individual movements of the score as recorded on this album. Although this recording presents the complete score music, it excludes the numerous reprises and repeated sections which are necessary to accompany the film. It is not known exactly how Halffter used his music to accompany the film at its première at the Théâtre Marivaux, Paris on 5 November 1926.

The descriptions shown in square brackets refer to the film action that occurs between the tracks in our interpretation of the film accompaniment.

The village of Elizondo (Northern Navarre)

[1] Don José Lizzarrabengoa runs to his mother’s house, pursued by the authorities.

[2] Inside his mother’s house he confesses to killing a man during a quarrel at a game of Basque pelota and decides to escape the authorities.

Don José journeys south through Castille to Andalusia

[3] At a tavern he meets an officer, a fellow Navarrais, who recruits him into the army.

[4] The smugglers’ camp in the mountains. We are introduced to García dit ‘Le Borgne’, Carmen’s (one-eyed) ‘rom’ (her ‘gypsy husband’) and to the smugglers’ sinister leader Le Dancaïre. García bullies her with violence into infiltrating the Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville as a worker to gain inside information for the smugglers.

Seville

[5] Don José is seen during the changing of the guard on horseback outside the ‘Real Fabrica de Tabacos’ (Royal Tobacco Factory). Carmen has joined the workforce at the factory where the girls are having their midday break. They pray in the chapel before continuing their work. They go back to work and a fight starts up with Carmen. The Manageress breaks up the fight in horror and calls the guards. Don José is mesmerised by seeing Carmen at close quarters. Carmen is arrested and led away through the streets under guard of Don José. Carmen tries to bribe Don José into letting her escape with a piece of bar lachi stone, which is said to make all girls fall in love with a man! Carmen escapes! Don José is summoned to his superior officer and is sent to prison.

[6] Don José alone in his prison cell.

[7] The smugglers have taken refuge at a ruined tavern in the mountains. Customs guards from Malaga attack the smugglers’ camp, arresting García, who is escorted to the prison at Tarifa. Meanwhile, Don José has been released from prison and demoted to guard duty outside the colonel’s house. Carmen arrives to entertain the officers.

[8] Carmen sneaks out to flirt with Don José. An officer beckons her back into the house as Don José looks on with jealousy.

[9] Carmen dances for the officers’ pleasure.

[10] [Early the the following morning Don José goes to find Lillas Pastia’s tavern to wait for Carmen. She finally arrives and discusses the contraband with Lillas Pastia]. Don José and Carmen go out alone to the city wall in Seville as long shadows spread over the valley. Don José hears a trumpet calling him back to the barracks. They both leave with sadness. He decides to return to her and they kiss. [In prison at Tarifa, García, with a tattoo of Carmen on his chest, is seen at prayer. Don José on guard: Carmen distracts him as the smugglers pass by]

[11] For several evenings Don José searches all the streets and bars for Carmen. [He meets her at “Chez Calderon”, an old bullfighters’ tavern with its own miniature bull ring! At Lillas Pastia’s tavern at midnight on Friday, Don José is waiting for Carmen again. At one o’clock in the morning she finally turns up with Don José’s superior officer. They fight and Don José kills the officer. Don José flees, badly wounded and is followed by Carmen who tends to his injuries. Carmen is seen deep in thought as she decides whether her future loyalty should be to García or to Don José. Following an old gypsy custom, “elle interrogeait le plomb fondu” (she questions the melted lead) for guidance].

Tarifa

[12] Carmen travels by coach to Tarifa to rescue García. At the harbour, she makes arrangements for García’s escape. Don José has decided to desert the army and to join the band of smugglers, where he is seen adapting to their way of life. García finds a file in a roll of bread Carmen has sent him and makes his escape from prison to a waiting boat. [When García arrives with Carmen on horseback at the smugglers’ camp, Don José becomes aware, for the first time, of García’s relationship with her. They exchange mistrustful and jealous looks as they settle for the night].

[13] In the early morning, soldiers ride into the valley looking for smugglers. They ambush the smugglers [only a few of whom escape. García shoots the wounded Remedado in the head. Don José, García and Le Dancaïre hide in the hills. Watched over by Le Dancaïre, Don José and García play cards. They quarrel over accusations of cheating and fight. Don José kills García. Le Dancaïre looks after the wounded Don José. Carmen arrives and embraces Don José who declares that he has killed García “dans un combat loyal” (“in loyal combat”). They take refuge in a safe house in the village of Gaucin. For several weeks she nurses him back to health.

The Village of Gaucin

[14] While out in the village Carmen sees a poster offering a reward of 200 ducats for the capture of Don José, “the murderer, rebel and deserter”, dead or alive. [By chance she meets Lucas the bullfighter as he rides by on horseback. Back in the house she reads the cards while Don José becomes increasingly frustrated and mistrustful. Unable to tolerate Don José’s jealous moods, Carmen decides to go out. In the market she meets Lucas again. She reads his palm. He flirts with her and invites her to the following Sunday’s bullfight at Ronda. When she returns to the house Don José becomes more violent and more obsessive, demanding where she has been and to whom she has been speaking. On Sunday Carmen leaves for the bullring and when she has left, a fellow smuggler comes to see Don José and recounts Carmen’s meeting with Lucas at the market. Lucas is seen praying in the chapel to the Madonna for her blessing during the forthcoming bullfight].

Ronda

[15] The bullfight. Lucas and his horse are gored by the bull.

[16] The wounded Lucas is carried into the chapel where he is given the last rites. [Carmen waits for him outside the chapel but Don José, accompanied by Le Dancaïre, has arrived to abduct her. Le Dancaïre is shot as the soldiers give chase].

[17] Pursued by the guards who eventually lose track of them, Don José and Carmen ride into a deserted forest. They dismount. He pleads with her to live with him but she refuses:

“Vivre avec toi? Jamais”.

Don José: “Réfléchis Carmen. Je suis au bout de ma patience et de mon courage. Prends ton parti ou je prendrai le mien…C’est pour toi que je suis devenu un voleur et un meurtrier…Laisse-moi te sauver et me sauver avec toi”. (Think about it Carmen. My patience is exhausted as is my courage. Decide what it is that you want or I will decide for you. I have become a thief and a murderer for you…Let me save you and save myself alongside you).

Carmen looks away: “T’aimer encore, José, c’est impossible” (To keep on loving you, José, is impossible) Don José makes one final plea: “Pour la dernière fois veuxtu me suivre?” (For the last time will you follow me?)

But Carmen throws his ring to the ground and Don José attacks her, stabbing her to death. Her expression is one of complete release.

Don José returns to the guard house in Gaucin where he turns himself in. He kisses his horse before being led away. The cell door closes shut on the final chord.

Peter Bromley and Mark Fitz-Gerald

 

Carmen (Jacques Feyder, 1926)

There are over 80 film versions of Carmen from 1906 to the present day, based either on Prosper Mérimée’s novella (1845) or on Georges Bizet’s opéra comique (1875), or a combination of both. The sheer quantity of Carmen films makes this one of the most adapted stories in the history of the cinema. Half of these were released in the silent period. The films range across genres: the musical, the art film, the popular blockbuster, Black cinema and animation. And the adaptations stretch across the globe. Most are from the USA, France and Spain; but there are more than one in Germany, Italy, the UK and Sweden, and they can be found in places as far apart as Argentina, Slovenia, Senegal, and South Africa, suggesting that the Carmen narrative resonates across cultures as an archetype or myth. The films have also featured some of the major stars of the day such as Theda Bara, Geraldine Farrar, Pola Negri, and Dolores del Rio in the silent period, and Viviane Romance and Rita Hayworth in the sound period, as well as creating the first Black female film star, Dorothy Dandridge in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones in 1954.

By happy coincidence, the first film, made in 1906, was French, like the novella and the opera. It was made not by a Frenchman, but a Frenchwoman, the first woman indeed to make films in France, Alice Guy-Blaché, for Gaumont. The film was plagiarized the same year by the rival firm Pathé, who promptly made another version in 1907. These were rapidly followed by versions made in the UK, the USA and Italy. Many of these early films were extremely short, comprising one or more arias, typically the Toreador Song, so as to display a particular singer, rather than attempting to tell the whole story. The first full-length treatment of the narrative, in 1910, was French, in Pathé’s Film d’Art series, whose purpose was to legitimize film as bourgeois rather than popular music-hall entertainment. Given opera’s high-culture associations, it is hardly surprising that many more Carmen adaptations followed. By the First World War there had been no less than 22 since Alice Guy-Blaché’s 1906 film.

The first major Carmen films were American. Two of these were released more or less simultaneously in 1915, sparking off vigorous debate about their respective merits, as well as leading to a spate of parodies and comic versions. Cecil B. DeMille’s film starred the opera singer Geraldine Farrar, already famous for her Carmen in performances of Bizet, while Raoul Walsh’s Carmen starred the vamp Theda Bara. Of the two films, DeMille’s seems to have had the greater popular and critical success, due to the high-cultural status of Farrar. Her status legitimized the dangerous sexual overtones of the Carmen story in a way that the sultry Theda Bara could not. Shortly after this, in the spring of 1916, Essanay Studios released Charlie Chaplin’s parody of these two films, Burlesque on Carmen, with Edna Purviance as Carmen and Chaplin himself as Darn Hosiery (Don José). Future Carmen comedies in the silent period include The Loves of Carmen (1927), and The Campus Carmen (1928) with Carole Lombard and the Max Sennett girls. The Americans were not the only ones to parody the story, however. There had been a French version in 1911, for example, where Don José is married to a ‘portly’ wife, and is covered in eggs, which he had hidden under his cap.

The First World War clutch of Carmen films ended with Ernst Lubitsch’s German Carmen of 1918, starring the vamp Pola Negri as Carmen. The penchant for silent opera persisted in the 1920s; Carmen featured in the Cameo Opera series (1927) and in George Wynn’s Tense Moments from Opera (1922). Non-operatic retellings of the narrative also continued to appear. Carmen relocated from the warmth of Andalusia to snowy wastelands in the Dutch-made Carmen of the North (1920), the first adaptation to have a contemporary setting.

Jacques Feyder (1885–1948), a Belgian working in France, had been making films since 1915. His version of Carmen was the thirty-third, and, as we can see, part of a well-established film tradition of Carmen adaptations. But his version springs quite a few surprises.

Feyder had had critical and popular success in the early 1920s with two films based on novels by members of the illustrious Académie Française. L’Atlantide (1921), based on a novel by Pierre Benoit, with location shooting in Algeria, was one of the most costly films of the time. Feyder followed this in 1922 with the adaptation of a novel by Anatole France, Crainquebille. Carmen, in 1926, was yet another literary adaptation, but—and this was the first novelty—with more emphasis on Mérimée’s novella than Bizet’s opera, as Ernesto Halffter points out in his interview with Raoul Ploquin.

The film was conceived as a star vehicle for the Spanish actress Raquel Meller (1888–1962) by the dynamic Films Albatros, a group of Russian expatriates whose films enjoyed particular success in the 1920s, due in part to great actors such as Ivan Mozzhukhin and set-designers such as Lazare Meerson (who was the designer for Feyder’s film). Meller was originally a popular singer; her song ‘La Violeterra’, dating from 1907, had been an international success. She was the first Spanish popular singer to succeed in both Europe and the Americas, particularly in the USA, where her live concerts broke box office records. She had turned to film acting in Spain in 1919, but worked mostly in France, becoming a star in the films of Henry Roussell: Les Opprimés (1922), Violettes impériales (1922–23), and La Terre promise (1925). A short festival with extracts from her films was devoted to her at the Vieux Colombier theatre in Paris in February 1925. Feyder is reported to have said ironically a few years later that he had been asked ‘not to do a film of Carmen with Raquel Meller, but to do something with Raquel Meller on Carmen’. Typically for the Albatros film company, the film was a lavish production, with careful marketing, which included a making-of book by Meller to coincide with the film’s release.

Meller may have had the benefit of bringing popular song as a backdrop to her performance, but in other respects she proved to be a problem for the director, as her conception of Carmen was a very personal one. She wrote in the making-of book that ‘Carmen could have been interpreted in many different ways. Is she fundamentally bad? Or is she on the contrary trapped by her situation and her race, which makes her act as she does, without really being bad. I think very few people do not have a heart’. Feyder explained in a book published during the 1940s how this attitude led to problems when filming, as Meller insisted on seeing Carmen as a victim of her circumstances:

She did not like reading very much. So she got her secretary to read her the story aloud in snatches, all the while unconsciously creating her own story more to her taste and corresponding to her ideals.

Very pious and full of rigid principles, she only wanted to play pure, noble and chaste heroines on screen.

It is not surprising then that there were a few conflicts between the two of us over the interpretation of Mérimée’s Carmen.

Because I felt that Carmen was slipping.

The capricious and passionate gypsy was slipping into an insignificant pure young girl, whose platonic love for a toreador was provoking, by a twist of fate, her fiancé Don José’s crime.

One morning, in the famous stone bullring of Ronda, pearl of Andalusia, we argued over a kiss she thought inappropriate just when we were about to shoot.

Maybe because I felt for the 600 walk-ons waiting under a leaden sun, or maybe it was the sun’s effect on me, unusually for me I raised my voice. She raised her arms to the sky, her bracelets tinkling, and cried out: ‘I don’t give a fig about this Mr Mérimée; anyway, where does he live, this Mérimée? I’ll phone him!’.

The film was nevertheless a great success, despite Meller’s idiosyncratic interpretation and her apparent lack of awareness that Mérimée had died 55 years before in 1870. Her interpretation of one of the greatest femmes fatales of nineteenth-century literature and opera might have put some off—one reviewer complained that she ‘does not seem to have understood her character’—but undoubtedly the fact that she was a well-known Spanish star contributed to what attracted reviewers most: the film’s authentic feel. After unanimous praise from French reviewers, it was hailed as ‘the greatest French production of the year’ on the front page of the British journal The Bioscope, which quoted the Sunday Herald’s ‘press opinion’ amongst several others: ‘It gives us Spain—real Spain, sunshine and bullfights—in a way that neither the novel nor the opera can do’. The theme of the reviews, whether French, British or American, was the film’s simplicity and authenticity. An American review makes the point about the film’s authenticity forcefully: ‘Here is the stuff of the story interpreted for the screen as dramatic material distinct from the stereotype model, refreshingly free of opera tinsel. It is a strong, sober story, its roots deep in human beings and in the circumstancing life that surrounds them’.

As had been the case for the earlier L’Atlantide, Carmen made more use of authentic locations than the studio, in this case various locations in Spain (Ronda and Seville where Mérimée sets his original novella), and in France (the Côte d’Azur, Bayonne, and Fontainebleau). Indeed, Feyder’s fondness for local colour led him to expand the opening lines in chapter 3 of the novella, which deal with Don José’s native village. In the film, this opening section becomes an extended episode with impressive shots of countryside and buildings. A youthful José runs frantically across the fields back to his mother’s house, where he kneels by her side and explains tearfully in flashback how he has accidentally killed a player who had accused him of cheating at pelote basque. We see him leave his village with a long and nostalgic backward glance, arrive in a Castilian village comically hidden in a hay-cart, and be recruited by soldiers to the army. Similarly, the incarceration and escape of García, Carmen’s husband, mentioned in only a few words in the novella, are an occasion to focus on impressive architectural mass in the form of steep prison walls, contrasted with an expanse of ruffled sea, as his fellow smugglers take him away in a boat.

Authenticity was not achieved by locations alone. Costumes are ornate, heavy and multi-layered. The (studio-based) taverns have dirt floors and are full of ‘authentic’ detail in the bric-a-brac which fills them (pitchers, guitars, and so on); a brigand lights his cigarette using a burning twig from the fire which he grabs with some tongs; when Carmen removes her ring in the final scene, her fingers and nails are clearly dirty. Most ‘authentic’ of all, though, are undoubtedly the exteriors, particularly the final bullfight, which Feyder filmed in the famous arena of Ronda in Spain. This was the ‘high spot’ for Variety’s reviewer, who comments that ‘it looks like the most authentic affair of its kind ever shot and holds a kick for everyone’. As a French reviewer put it, during such scenes ‘the impression is given that quite by chance a cameraman happened to be there, out of sight, and that he is recording scenes from the life of normal people’. The Bioscope stressed both sides of this kind of realism: the film is ‘a very grim and bloodthirsty record’, but its ‘chief interest is in the magnificent natural settings’.

And yet, the film’s studio sequences are often complex as well as technically brilliant. One of the most extraordinary is that of Carmen’s escape from Don José in the winding Rue du Serpent. It is a very complex set, lovingly designed by Meerson, who had visited Spain and had come back with extensive drawings of architectural features he had seen there. These show particular attention to ornate sculptural details, such as the wrought ironwork of balconies and window-grilles, or arches, which are the most defined features in his hasty sketches of buildings; attention to this kind of authentic detail is a feature of the sequence. But the sequence is extraordinary for a second reason: the technically brilliant camerawork for the time. There are 45 shots lasting almost three minutes, most of which are travelling shots, with the camera hopping from a backwards travelling shot in front of the group to a forward travelling shot as it follows the group. Its technical brilliance was pointed out by Meller in her memoirs of the film, who saw it as ‘head and shoulders above the most audacious recreations made in France until then’.

The combination of authentic location shooting and technically brilliant sets made this one of the most fascinating Carmen films of the silent period. Halffter’s original music adds to this complexity; his interview with Ploquin underlines the difference between a certain intensity and rawness quite at odds with what he considered to be Bizet’s sentimentality. Audiences would have recognized Manuel de Falla, and even more the Ravel of Daphnis and Chloé (1912), already hugely popular in this period, in the rich textures of the finale. But the music is far from derivative; indeed, passages of the finale [17] prefigure the plangent sweeps of Bernard Herrmann’s strings in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), for example. And the finale is astonishing in other respects as well, given that in its closing passages it oscillates between minor key, as one might expect for Carmen’s death, and major key, which is less expected, almost as though her death is not only a catastrophe but a release, for her, and for Don José.

Of course, the film was not always accompanied by Halffter’s music; as was often the case with films in the silent period, accompanists would improvise, using wellknown anthology pieces, and might well have preferred Bizet to others, given the opera’s high profile. But for those who were fortunate enough to have heard the score at the film’s première in the Salle Marivaux on the 5 November 1926, the music might well have come as a surprise. As one of France’s main reviewers, Raoul Ploquin, pointed out after attending the première, Halffter’s music was more sombre than Bizet’s, tragic even, echoing the more fatalistic streak of the novella so as to ‘recreate the fiercely romantic and brutally passionate atmosphere which Bizet’s music had completely toned down’. He might well have been referring to Carmen’s dance for don José’s commanding officer [9], with its heavy rhythms closer to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring than to the sinuous Habanera of Bizet. This, when added to the documentary style of much of the film, suggests an authenticity far removed from Bizet’s ‘opera tinsel’, as the American reviewer quoted above put it. It explains why one of the major film magazines of the time, La Cinématographie française, listed a number of sequences worthy of note, only to conclude that ‘you would have to list them all; the film is perfection itself’.

The film since 1926

Carmen premièred in Paris in November 1926 (at 3000 metres). It was restored by the Cinémathèque française in 1985 (3408 metres), work that was mainly the reconstitution of intertitles. The Cinémathèque completed a further tranche of restoration in 2001, working from two copies of the film in their collection, one a nitrate negative, and the other a nitrate print, this time mainly working on coloration, producing a film of 3824 metres. The restored film, with Ernesto Halffter’s original music adapted by François Porcile (familiar in French cinema as François Truffaut’s music consultant on a number of films), was premièred at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna in July 2001, and screened on the French TV channel Arte in June 2002. Further screenings, with live orchestral accompaniment conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald, took place at the Komische Oper Berlin in February 2007 and at the hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt on 28 November 2008.

Phil Powrie
Professor of Cinema at the University of Surrey, and co-author of Carmen on Screen: An Annotated Filmography and Bibliography (Boydell and Brewer, 2006), and Carmen on Film: A Cultural History (Indiana University Press, 2007).

 

The score for Carmen: ten minutes with Ernesto Halffter Escriche

Ernesto Halffter Escriche is Manuel de Falla’s favourite disciple, and is set one day to become Spain’s national composer. He has already contributed more than just hope and promise to the musical heritage of his country. There is an astonishingly precocious talent at work in the admirable ‘Preludios romanticos’ [1924].

– I’m told that you are preparing an original score inspired by the film Carmen?

– That’s right. Alexander Kamenka, the director of Albatros Films, asked me to compose a score to accompany the projection of a film by Jacques Feyder. You know as well as I do that there are enormous differences between Mérimée’s novella, Carmen, and the opéra comique of the same name. The novella was not much more than a pretext for the opera, and nothing, or next to nothing of Mérimée’s atmosphere was retained in Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto. Bizet wrote a wonderful score for the libretto, a masterpiece in the repertoire, whose popularity has never damaged its quality. More than anyone, I am full of admiration for that Carmen.

But it is also true that if Bizet’s music brilliantly illustrates the rather bland drama imagined by the librettists, it does not take its inspiration from Mérimée’s work, whose bitter drama, whose fierce realism, are not really expressed musically in the brilliant and sentimental themes of the great French composer.

– So Jacques Feyder’s film is a visual transposition of Mérimée’s drama, an astonishing transposition, powerful, poignantly realist, sensual and full of local colour…

– Yes, that’s precisely why you couldn’t possibly adapt Bizet’s music for this film, as it would have run counter to Feyder’s intentions.

– And how did you conceive your accompaniment, this new Carmen modelled on the rhythms of the film Carmen?

– I used old regional themes, Andalusian themes, whose local colour is obvious even to the uninitiated. I followed the film’s rhythm and atmosphere step by step, ensuring that the intensity of the musical drama did not swamp the on-screen drama, because you must never forget that the music must be no more than an accompaniment. I found that Feyder is a sensitive and intelligent artist. We collaborated very closely, and I hope that the score will be worthy of the work which inspired it.

Raoul Ploquin, Comoedia, 26 September 1926 English translation from the French by Phil Powrie

 

Conductor’s note

The published full score of Halffter’s Carmen seems to be the work of several copyists, in the very distinctive 1920s house style of the composer’s publisher Max Eschig (Paris). Many works are familiar to us in this beautiful writing, including those of Halffter’s teacher and mentor Manuel de Falla.

The score remained untouched and unplayed since its première at the Théâtre Marivaux, Paris in 1926 until it was unearthed about ten years ago by François Porcile (music consultant to François Truffaut on a number of his films).

It contains only a handful of general indications as to how the music should synchronise with the film. Porcile made a brave attempt at putting the score in order, and also added a good number of reprises in order to try to match it with the film. However, for live performances, such as those I conducted at the Komische Oper Berlin in February 2007 and in Frankfurt in November 2008, much more work was needed. Occasionally the composer has given us too much music, but mostly not enough. The most extreme case is the bullfight scene which lasts at least ten minutes and includes a Paso doble which lasts barely a minute and a half!

The musical text presents a whole host of other problems, no doubt caused by the enormous and highly complex score having to be produced at great speed and pressure to be in time for the première. Ambiguities and inconsistencies are almost endless as each copyist seems to have had to hurriedly interpret the original sources in various ways. Individual lines often have blank bars and in one section only a skeleton score of main lines is to be found. There are even some parts copied onto the wrong line. Dynamics as well as accidentals are frequently missing or muddled. The harp line is a special case as the composer follows his teacher’s practice of putting a general pedalling indication for each section without adding the relevant accidentals to the text. However with close scrutiny of the various parallel passages the composer’s highly sophisticated intentions now seem to be very clear.

Carmen is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, celesta, harp, piano and strings. However, what compromises the young 21 year old composer had to endure as he conducted the work’s première can only be guessed at. The 50 players Halffter was given, with probably no more than 20 for the string section which is permanently divided in ten and often more parts, would not have been enough to cover all the lines of the music! We are delighted, therefore, to present this highly inspired music, realizing its author’s full musical intentions for the first time.

Mark Fitz-Gerald


Close the window