About this Recording
8.223134 - HONEGGER, A.: Miserables (Les) / Napoleon / Mermoz

Arthur Honegger (1892–1955)
Miserables (Les) • Napoleon • Mermoz


Arthur Honegger, one of the greatest of twentieth century composers, made an unrivalled contribution to film music during the course of some thirty years, from his scores for Abel Gance’s La Roue in 1922 and Napoleon in 1926, music that he regarded as his apprentice work, to his last works of this kind in 1951, a total production of some forty film scores. Half of these were written and orchestrated by the composer himself, and the rest in collaboration with his friend Arthur Hoérée, who died in 1986 before he could hear the present recording, with André Jolivet, Maurice Jaubert, Darius Milhaud, Roland-Manuel and Maurice Thiriet, this largely through pressure of time. Nevertheless Honegger’s music for films is a considerable achievement for a composer of such importance. Some of this film music was arranged by the composer for concert use, although the famous Pacific 231 was not originally intended for the cinema.

Honegger, himself a film enthusiast often to be seen on the set during shooting, reveals astonishingly advanced ideas on the function of music in the cinema, his pre-eminence in the field recognised already in 1936 by Kurt London who described him as the true leader of modern film music in France. He regarded the ideal film score as a distinct component in a unified medium, despising clumsy attempts at cartoon synchronization with movement on the screen and looking forward to films that might not so much be supplied with music as inspired by it.

In Honegger’s opinion, cinematic montage differs from musical composition in that, while the latter depends on continuity and logical development, the film relies on contrasts. Music and sound must, therefore, adapt themselves to strengthening and complementing the visual element, while the whole must be an artistic unity, in which the generally visual imagination of the public may be assisted to a greater understanding of the musical message.

La Roue

The only surviving piece from the score to Abel Gance’s melodrama of 1922, La Roue, is Honegger’s four-minute overture, scored for a medium-sized orchestra. The rest of the music must be the subject of speculation and it is said that Honegger put together a score consisting of pieces of his own and music from the classical repertoire, perhaps including music he was writing at the time for the Pathe-Journal.

Apart from the lyrical section of the overture, later used in the first piece in the Suite derived from the score for Napoleon, there is a further point of interest in the following six bars of a rhythmic theme and twelve more bars of incompletely orchestrated sketches. A new theme is written out in full for clarinet and flute, and subsequently the first violins, in counterpoint with a bass motif, and figures among other thematic material, orchestration and notes for further development. This coincides with the surging “whistling” triplet motif at bar 118 of Pacific 231, composed in 1923, suggesting that the inspiration for the work had arisen on a locomotive, while Honegger was working on La Roue, a conclusion supported by other elements in the sketches. With the approval of Arthur Hoérée, a bar has been added to link the two sections of the overture, avoiding what otherwise is an abrupt transition to the Pacific 231 motor pulsation motif.

The autograph contains titles placed over all thematic episodes, relating to the action on the screen. These are Hersan – Locomotive – Sisif – Norma – Locomotive – Le disque – Signal – Rail (in the unfinished sketches) – Roues – Les textes. It is not known whether Honegger conducted the first performance of La Roue himself, although we know that on that occasion the Cinepupitre was introduced into France, a device for synchronisation of music and film similar to Carl Robert Blum’s Rhytmonome.

The subject of La Roue is the railway, and this provided Honegger with scope for the musical application of his own passion for locomotives and model trains and no doubt gave the impulse for his masterpiece Pacific 231.


Napoléon, vu par Abel Gance, a milestone of film history and of the silent film, was the first and only completed part of a six-part epic on the French national hero. The film appeared in 1927, but by then talking pictures had been introduced and there was no time to recover the expenses incurred in the production of an unfashionable silent film, nor could it make a significant impression on cinema audiences. Ten years later Gance attempted to re-issue his masterpiece in a post-synchronized version, but this did not prevent it falling into oblivion.

Having spent some 17 million francs on the first episode and overdrawn the reserves placed at his disposal, Gance had earned a reputation for unreliability. His achievement went largely unrecognised at the time and this Promethean undertaking was regarded as the work of a megalomaniac. It is only in our own time that a proper assessment of his work has been reached.

In shooting the film, Gance’s camera had abandoned its traditional function and become a virtual participant in the drama. In some scenes, for example, it had been mounted on a horseback, while in others it was suspended from swinging cranes. A panoramic three-screen system, called Polyvision, had been created to give audiences a cinemascope-like view of the grand scenes. To achieve particularly dramatic effects, these were sometimes subdivided into split panoramas to emphasise both the details and the whole at the same time. At the first performance of this strongly patriotic Gesamtkunstwerk at the Paris Opera Comique on 7th April, 1927, Gance had the final triptych tinted into the tricolour and a particularly relevant speech by the Emperor spoken by an actor from among the audience, in synchronization. A full symphony orchestra was employed on this occasion, for a showing that lasted four hours.

The period of Napoleon’s life covered by the film extends from his boyhood emergence as a leader during a school snowball battle to his appointment to command the army in preparation for the invasion of Italy. Events shown include exploits in his native Ajaccio, at the siege of Toulon, and in Paris during the revolution. There is a detailed comic-poetic description of Napoleon’s courtship and his marriage to Josephine Beauharnais, which precedes the Grand Finale, a three-screen triptych showing the “beggars’ army” on its way to Italy.

Gance’s perpetual editing and re-editing of the film, a process that was to continue proved infuriating to Honegger, who left the pit in anger, leaving the conducting in the competent hands of J.E. Szyfer. The film was revived in 1979 in a version put together by Kevin Brownlow, who had spent some 23 years on the task. This later re-issue of the film, lasting five hours and thirteen minutes, seems more nearly to represent Gance’s original ambition. It was presented in Colorado in 1979 with music played on an electric piano and in London at the Empire in 1980 with a new orchestral score based on classical repertoire by Carl Davis. It was shown in January 1981 in the United States in a slightly abridged version by Francis Ford Coppola with a derivative score by Carmine Coppola, later released on records. In the author’s opinion the Carl Davis score (also available on records) is the most effective and practical and most in accord with Gance’s intentions.

It has been impossible to find the original cue sheet for the 1927 première of Napoléon. It seems, however, that the music for the film may be classified as, in the first place, original music for the film by Honegger, other music by Honegger derived from other sources, music from the classical repertoire, contemporary music and popular or traditional music. To a reviewer of the time in Paris in 1927 the score seemed a “cacophony”, but it is only fair to consider the conditions under which it had been written and put together, and its purpose in the cinema of the day, when it served to cover the sound of the projectors and to ameliorate the oppressive atmosphere of the auditorium. If we add to this the various technical difficulties of synchronization and the secondary importance of film music, we may understand the probable reservations of an audience accustomed to the concert hall.

All manuscripts, except the completed version of Les Mendiants de la Gloria, are the composer’s autographs. Les Mendiants is taken from a combination of Honegger’s roughly orchestrated manuscript and the faulty completion by a copyist or arranger, and the printed parts in the Salabert edition. In the opinion of the author, the composer told someone else to complete this movement, which, in any case, is a contrapuntal superimposition of La Marseillaise on Mehul’s Chant du Depart, with orchestration that is not typical of Honegger.

The first piece in the Suite, Calme, lyrical and characteristic, may have its origin in stock music written earlier for the Pathe-Journal. It quotes a passage from the earlier overture for La Roue. La romance de Violine is a drawing-room miniature, while the Chaconne de l’lmperatrice is accompanied by discords typical of Honegger. The Danse des enfants has the buoyancy of a folk-song, suggesting its possible origin in music for the puppet-ballet Verite-Mensonge. Interlude et Final use the French revolutionary songs Ca iraand La Carmagnole and may have been intended for use during an interval. The march of Napoleon’s army to Italy provides a grand finale.

The order of movements on the present recording was decided after discussion between the owners of the music, the publishers and the editor. No “Suite” sequence exists, although the present author had originally suggested a more symphonic sequence, opening with Napoleon and going on to the Danse des enfants, La romance de Violine, Calme, Chaconne de l’lmperatrice, Interlude et Final, Les Ombres and Les Mendiants de la Gloire.

As far as possible the original intentions of the composer have been respected in the present version, although both the autograph and printed versions contain discrepancies, errors and omissions. Honegger’s autograph indications have been followed, although we do not know whether these represent what was played at the first Paris showing of the film.

Les Misérables

It was with the encouragement of Miklós Rósza that Honegger arranged a suite from his music for Raymond Bernard’s epic film of the Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables. The original film, completed in 1934, was in three 90-minute episodes, later abridged by the director to one, a change that necessitated cut in Honegger’s score.

The sombre Générique, for the main title, has been lengthened by the addition of the following cue, a pastoral accompaniment to Jean Valejan sur la route, its final six bars replaced by a single final bar. L’Emeute has also been extended, using an earlier cue, Fuite de Jean Valejan, resulting in a rather hurried coda. Mort de Valejan has been shortened to avoid the ten-bar lyrical expansion which accompanied the death of the old man, memorably played in the film by Harry Baur. The ten bars omitted have been replaced by two simple bars of pizzicato cellos-with harp. Dans les Égouts, cut from the abridged film, is retained in its original form, as well as the Musique chez Gillenormand.

Honegger’s autograph contains 23 cues and is scored for symphony orchestra, including saxophone, piano, harp and percussion, and, interestingly, omitting double basses throughout. The Suite only exists in a copyist’s version, which may have been prepared on the instructions of the composer. In the present recording wind parts have been doubled where necessary and the number of cellos increased. Musique chez Gillenormand, on the other hand, uses an ensemble of string octet, with solo wind, to recreate the chamber character of the music.

The composer himself called this a “first” suite, making it clear that the possibility remains of making a further suite from the remaining music for the film.


Louis Guny’s film Mermoz, completed in 1942, was conceived as a vindication of the famous French aviator Jean Mermoz. Honegger’s score for the film was one of his most brilliant and dissonant.

In assembling the two suites from the film, Honegger arranged cues from two principal episodes, making of each a single connected movement. Neither of the heroic main themes is developed, but each is made to create an atmosphere of tension throughout the suite in which it appears. The struggle between human heroism and the elements is represented in the composer’s characteristic idiom, an impressionistic opening leading to a storm from La vol sur l’Atlantique and the cloud-covered landscape of La traversée des Andes. The daring dissonances of Prelude pour la Tempete are not heard a second time, music that had its origins earlier in 1923.

As a film score, Mermoz must still be regarded as experimental, presenting problems for both conductor and sound engineer. Instrumentation includes piccolo, saxophone, piano and percussion, in addition to the standard orchestra, in which the wind parts have been doubled.

The present recording is dedicated to the memory of my friend Arthur Hoérée, who died in 1986. I am greatly indebted to him for his detailed knowledge and his encouragement. My thanks are also due to Madame Pascale Honegger, the composer’s daughter, and to Kevin Brownlow, restorer of the original Napoléon, for their patience and assistance.

Edited by Louis Hipkiss and Keith Anderson

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