Carl DAVIS (b. 1936)
Napoléon (2015) [146:35]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Carl Davis
Includes hard-back 46 page book
rec. Angel Studios, London, September, October and December 2015
CARL DAVIS COLLECTION CDC028 [74.04 + 72:31]
Directed by Abel Gance, restored by Kevin Brownlow
Soundtrack by Carl Davis
With 36 page booklet
Black and white, tinted and toned/silent with English subtitles/original aspect ratios 1.33:1 + 4:1 (triptych) / BD50 x3:1080p, 24 fps, 7.1 DTS HD (48kHz/24bit) and PCM 2.0 stereo (48kHz/24bit)
(also available as DVD release BFIV 2109)
BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE Blu-ray BFIB1279 [3 discs: 332:00]
My MusicWeb International brief has been to concentrate on Carl Davis’s score for Abel Gance’s epic 1927 film Napoléon. Having said that I must, first of all, pay tribute to the dedicated work of Kevin Brownlow for his painstaking restoration work over the years. Now Napoléon can be enjoyed in a new high definition laboratory restoration that has removed blemishes — scratches and dirt — utilising 2K high definition processes.
I would also briefly mention the extraordinary advances in cinematography that this film introduced back in 1927, including special effects like sophisticated montages, camera mobility and a wide-screen technique using three joined images to provide a panoramic view that anticipated Cinerama by decades. This awesome facility allows one to see the formation of Napoleon’s troops across a very wide vista immediately before his advance into Italy.
Of course Gance’s film was silent. As Davis sagely remarks, music is necessary to draw an audience into the drama, emotion and atmosphere of a film without sound.
I have chosen to review this DVD set and CD/Book — very appropriately a Carl Davis production, you will notice — to heighten understanding of Carl Davis’s musical achievement and the effectiveness of his huge score for this sprawling 1927 epic. Out of necessity, much of the music we hear comprises borrowings and ‘fastenings together’ of excerpts from composers who were contemporaries of Napoleon particularly Beethoven’s music. This is strongly propelled and forcefully rhythmic, virile, heroic and determined. Most music-lovers will remember that Beethoven tore up the dedication of his Symphony No. 3 when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. Fortunately history in this instance was on the side of Carl Davis because Gance’s film ends in 1797 with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy some seven years before the conqueror became Emperor; thus Davis felt quite justified in using Beethoven’s music. That said, we note the use of material from the Symphonies post-Eroica: Nos. 6 Pastoral, 7 and 9 Choral. Other important borrowings include music by Mozart and Haydn but Davis was keen to ensure that these were of music that shared Beethoven's thrusting masculinity.
Davis only had three and a half months to deliver music for this five hour-film. In 1980 when he began this gargantuan task, he first of all sought out the music that Arthur Honegger had written for the film back in 1927; only to be told that Honegger’s music had disappeared with only fragments surviving. Probably this was advantageous because when half-way through scoring the film, Davis discovered that seven Honegger excerpts had been published he was not at all satisfied that this music was compatible with the on-screen images.
Yet not all Carl Davis’s music for Napoléon was drawn from existing scores for Davis himself contributed essential material too - notably the ‘Eagle of Destiny’ theme. Quoting Davis in the notes that come with the 2 CD set, “I knew there would be places where Gance’s film would reach beyond the 18th Century and I would not find a theme romantic enough to portray his use of an eagle as Napoleon’s driving-force throughout the film. This forced me to create my own theme, borrowing Eroica’s rising fifth to kick it off.”
Davis’ ‘Eagle’ theme is outstanding and it went around in my head for days. Davis also composed the love theme for Josephine who is shown as an ideal counterpart to Napoleon - strong-willed and streetwise yet with a certain vulnerability too.
The opulent hard-back book containing the two CDs has a full track-by-track description of all the music used. I propose to select some for special mention to show the immense diversity of the source material. Commencing with the early school-day scenes in which we first note Napoleon’s strength of character and instinctive grasp of strategy during a snow-fight, the music is by Mozart, appropriately a youthful work, serious and forceful, from the first movement of his Symphony No. 25. For the boy Napoleon’s snow-fight victory we hear Beethoven for the first time: his Variations on a Theme from the Eroica Symphony. It is interesting to note that Davis chooses to use less familiar Beethoven as a general rule. As he points out, familiar music draws attention to itself and in doing so risks becoming a distraction. However, conversely, that familiarity when used sparingly and in suitable scenes serves to point-up great drama, accomplishment and emotional involvement. It can be very effective; especially to underline patriotism.
A major section of the film is concerned with Napoleon’s sad experiences on Corsica – an island in the late 18th century divided in loyalty between France and England and, to a lesser extent, Spain and Italy. Napoleon is caught between various conflicting factions and has to flee the island; his voyage back to France is turbulent and the storm music from Beethoven’s Pastoral is used to great effect here. Mainly Corsican folk melodies are employed with material from Paisiello’s opera Nina.
In France the revolutionary government led by Danton, Marat and Robespierre meets in the National Assembly. Again Beethoven is used - this time his Coriolan Overture - as the theme for the Revolution. Later Marat is murdered by Charlotte Corday. For this scene Davis turned to a contemporary satirical song about Corday’s infamy. It is arranged by Davis as a creepy, spectral creation using unusual instrumentation – basset-horn and contrabassoon. Savage fighting in torrential rain during the Battle of Toulon is accompanied by Gluck’s music for his tragic opera Iphigénie en Tauride before fragments of La Marseillaise (heard often through the film) and Rule Britannia. Méhul’s Le Chant du Départ is another recurring theme. A novelty in the context of the Battle is the use of hailstones thundering down on French snare-drums. The sound frightens the English troops away.
Interestingly, Abel Gance appears as actor too in Napoléon. He is seen as Saint-Just, a vain dandy but also a kind of mega-Stalinist with a reputation. He is seen with his colleague, Robespierre, revelling in blood-thirsty mercilessness, consigning trouble-makers, real or imagined, to the guillotine. Davis assigns him Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor (BWV 582; 1706-13). Davis comments, "… I thought this figure needed Bach – he needs something from another world. The Passacaglia is very stern, very strong – it has a strange, unstoppable force … and [it has] a timeless quality”. On the subject of Saint-Just, his scene with Robespierre has a musician entertaining them, as they pick out guillotine victims: playing genuine music of that period for hurdy-gurdy. This extraordinary instrument and performer was sought especially for the film and it can be heard on the CD.
Much music of the period was researched, sought out and utilised. Amongst this material was music by such leading composers of the period as Cherubini, Grétry and Gossec. Lighter fare backs the scenes of orgiastic parties in celebration of the end of the Terror.
Considering the very tight 1980 deadline, Davis needed a strong back-up team. Orchestrators included some very well-known names in the field including Nic Raine and especially the late and still-lamented expert on film music and champion of British music, Christopher Palmer.
Both the book and the DVD bonus features include much material contributed by Carl Davis about his work on Napoléon. The book, especially, goes into much detail about live performances of the score in front of screenings of the film in London and Paris and elsewhere. Details of synchronisation, locations’ idiosyncrasies (difficulties and opportunities); not forgetting the necessity to allow the orchestral players to have a meal and rest at a planned point in the showing, are all covered. After the first screening in 1980, more material, more footage from many sources – some quite unlikely came to light – and continues to do so; the film looks set to grow in length creating the need for yet more music. In the year 2000 the film and music were digitised so that now when new visual material comes to light any necessary new editing is much easier.
The CD book includes many photographs: stills from the film and behind-the-scenes production shots as well as an introductory article by Kevin Brownlow who has been fascinated by the film from the 1950s and continues to work on its reconstruction. Brownlow was a major contributor to the 60-page DVD booklet and his film The Charm of Dynamite, a BBC documentary on Gance’s silent films, is also included in this DVD set.
This welcome release of Brownlow’s achievement reveals Napoléon as a major landmark in the history of film-making and Carl Davis’s score for the restoration stands as a vitally important contribution to its success.