About this Recording
8.557486 - HONEGGER: Miserables (Les) (1934)
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Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)
Les Misérables Complete Film Score, 1934

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 Napoléon in 1926, music that he regarded as his apprentice work, to his last work 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 Arthur Hoérée, 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 his film scores like Mermoz and Regain were arranged by the composer for concert use.

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.

Before its recent appearance in the guise of a musical, Victor Hugo’s popular novel had been frequently adapted for the screen. The 1960 version, with Jean Gabin as Jean Valjean, and a more recent version with Lino Ventura in the same rôle, are more memorable for the impressive acting of their stars than for their cinematic attributes. It is, however, Raymond Bernard’s black and white version of 1934 which, with its greater lyricism, its rendering of the conflicts and passions and its highly artistic thematic language, creates a more powerful atmosphere. Besides this, Harry Baur’s impersonation of Jean Valjean remains absolutely unforgettable. These qualities are so heightened by Honegger’s score that we are driven to conclude that this was far more than a mere financial project on the composer’s part: in writing the music for this three-part epic (about 90 minutes each part), Honegger created a masterwork. Bernard later edited his film into a oneevening feature, so that some important musical cues suffered severe cuts, while others disappeared altogether, but fortunately the complete version has lately been made available again. This major score was composed in 1934, a fruitful year in Honegger’s film music career, which saw the production of Rapt, L’ldee, Cessez le feu and Crime et châtiment, and, surprisingly enough, no other works from the “classical” genre.

It was Charles Koechlin who considered Les Misérables “undoubtedly one of the best film scores hitherto created”, while in Miklós Rózsa’s autobiography A Double Life, we read that Rózsa was so deeply impressed that he urged Honegger to make a suite out of the music. “It was as good as anything he had written, and was worthy to stand on its own... It was dramatic and lyrical, and so much in his individual style that you would have known who the composer was even without seeing his name in the titles”. Eventually, Honegger followed Rózsa’s advice and arranged five movements from Les Misérables into a suite.

It was while studying and preparing his first recording of Honegger’s film music (containing, among others, the suite from Les Misérables) that the present writer took up again the complete manuscript of Les Misérables with which he had been acquainted since 1983. Although the idea of proposing this work for a complete recording seemed unrealistic to him, the producer accepted its inclusion in the series of Marco Polo Film Music Classics. There is actually no other complete classic French film score on record yet, apart from an exclusive Honegger recording of Suites from his film scores and one just wonders why nobody has bothered to do this before.

Honegger’s autograph is subdivided into 23 cues, and is scored for a symphony orchestra including saxophone, piano, harp and percussion, and interestingly, omitting double basses throughout. Considering the length of the original picture, approximately one hour of incidental music is very little in comparison and especially in the second part, some extremely long sections could have been enriched by Honegger’s music. The present performing version of seventeen cues omits three dance pieces (not by Honegger), a short “source” prelude for organ, a few introductory bars of no real interest, a theme quotation which has also been crossed out in the manuscript, and finally Gavroche’s short death scene (requiring a singing voice accompanied by a few instruments). This recording can be considered as complete since it also restores music which was not used in the film (such as the Cosette et Marius episode), shortened, or prematurely faded out for editing reasons.

Another aspect of this version is the linking together of various short pieces in order to create movements of greater impact or symphonic unity. Fantine, for example, with its livelier middle section, is a combination of three different short cues from the same episode. L’assaut and Solitude also required similar editorial work. Of course, script chronology, thematic or harmonic relation between the edited sections, or the possibility of creating musical contrasts with respect to the original intentions were the preconditions. In other cases, some recurrent repetitions have been ignored, or used in a slightly varied orchestration (as, for example in the opening section of Mort d’Eponine and Le Luxembourg). Retouches in the instrumentation were inevitable in the whole “folk” section of La foire à Montfermeil (actually a “source” piece heard always in the background), where its piano part has been arranged for accordion and its rather clumsy percussion section completely rewritten. In L’assaut, the insertion of an explosion effect for percussion instruments and an extra part for military drums was found appropriate, in order to restore the dramatic atmosphere on the screen, combined with the original “live” sound. Other instrumental retouches concern the doublings of wind parts, since, following the rather primitive acoustic possibilities of the equipment of the time, they were used as soli practically throughout, though still wellbalanced against a considerably smaller string ensemble than the one used in this recording. It was found more appropriate to adhere to the tempi used by the unforgettable Maurice Jaubert (the conductor of the original sound track of Les Misérables), rather than to the often slower metronome indications in the autograph.

The only missing piece in Honegger’s manuscript was a movement, entitled by the present writer Le convoi nocturne, one amongst the very few cues where complete orchestral forces are involved, besides the Générique, Dans les égouts and L’émeute. This had to be reconstructed and re-orchestrated directly from the sound track. The remaining pieces are conceived rather on a “chamber” basis and furnish altogether a perfect example of Honegger’s transparent contrapuntal artistry and sense of orchestration.

Although not a great lover of leitmotifs, Honegger uses three, unvaried, major themes in his score. The first is a descending, resigned march motif related to the convicts, recurring mainly in the Générique and Le convoi nocturne. Immediately afterwards, in these two movements, there is an ascending motif we can identify with Jean Valjean’s love and generosity. It recurs quite often in the score and is finally quoted in a transfigured guise in the last scene of the film (Mort de Jean Valjean). Honegger uses also the “convict” motif, however, in the revolutionary piece L’émeute, which makes us understand that, like Victor Hugo in his novel, he felt pity for all kinds of “miserable” and oppressed people. This exciting movement, which Honegger included in an arranged form to his suite, was originally conceived as a main title of the third part of the film. A rather buoyant “love” motif appears for the first time in Cosette et Marius the projected main title to the second part, before it was decided that the Générique should be used in all three parts.

One of the most powerful movements is without doubt Dans les égouts, where Honegger uses musical cells and dispenses with a real theme, except in the climax, where Jean Valjean’s “love” motif rises dramatically from the trombones amongst the orchestral tutti. Honegger also displays a curious experimental aspect in La foire à Montfermeil, where the reprise of the “source” folk music piece has superimposed “psychological” glissandi from trombones, tremoli, glissandi and col legno effects from the strings supported by the percussion. They illustrate little Cosette’s frightful nocturnal experience in the woods, before meeting Jean Valjean for the first time. Une tempête sous un crâne is another movement of value and particularly dramatic in its impact: it emphasizes a longer “conscience struggle” monologue by Jean Valjean.

As was done in the first recording of the Suite from Les Misérables, the charming Musique chez Gillenormand was played again by a reduced ensemble of eight strings, six wind instruments, harp and piano, in order to recreate the chamber effect as it would have been in the film, although actually there it is badly edited, abridged and almost inaudible.

With this complete recording of a master film score from the Thirties, one can only hope that interest in this genre will be more seriously extended to other classic European film composers as well. There have been splendid re-recorded editions of great Hollywood film scores, and, incidentally, still not enough of the good ones, but I suppose that there are quite a few composers from Hollywood, who would have turned pale at hearing what was done in Europe at the same time in a field where they considered themselves the masters. Those European masters, incidentally, also provided their own excellent orchestrations.


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