the sounds of Jean Cocteau
ONthe whole, Paris was not a happy place to be during World War I. It was shelled by howitzers like the feared Big Bertha and was bombed by airplanes and zeppelins. The populace suffered from shortages of food and coal, mothers dressed in mourning, and thousands of returning soldiers lacked limbs. And yet, even in so traumatic a time, Paris remained a hotbed of the arts. On May 18, 1917, with a year and a half of war still lying ahead, an audience of connoisseurs and the curious settled into their seats at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the premiere of a new ballet titled Parade . They opened their programs to read a background essay by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had just returned from the front and survived an operation to remove shrapnel from his forehead. “Parade ,” he wrote, “brings together Satie’s first piece of orchestral writing, Picasso’s first stage designs, Massine’s first choreography, and the first attempt, for a poet, to express himself on several different levels.”
The scenario was by Satie’s twenty-seven-year-old friend Jean Cocteau, who been serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver and, at the urging of the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, had penned directives for what he called a “ballet réaliste,” which it decidedly was not. Apollinaire would shortly apply to it the newly invented term “surréaliste.” It was a madcap event involving a Chinese conjurer, an acrobat doing gymnastics, stage managers discoursing like carnival barkers, and Cubist costumes that evoked skyscrapers. Satie characterized his score as “a background for certain noises which Cocteau thought indispensable to define the atmosphere of his characters.” The prodigiously talented composer Georges Auric described the music by observing, “All the sorrow of the traveling circus is here — the nostalgia of the barrel organ which will never play Bach fugues.”
Although Auric was just eighteen when Parade was unveiled, he was already enmeshed in the anti-establishment creative crowd. He had begun composing when he was ten, and his family had moved from the south of France so he could study at the Paris Conservatoire. He did so for a year, in 1913-1914, before transferring to the city’s Schola Cantorum to study Gregorian chant and become a composition pupil of arch-conservative Vincent d’Indy, who was miffed by the “erosion of standards” in the musical world just then and would soon single out Auric for special rebuke. No matter: Auric was on to other things with his avant-garde friends. When he was fourteen, he had published an article on Satie in a respected French music journal, and he soon became one of the first pianists to champion his works in concert. Auric was one of a group of emerging composers who would cluster around Satie, destined to go down in history under the sobriquet Les Six. It also included Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey, with Cocteau serving as their literary loudspeaker. When Cocteau published his 1918 book of aphorisms, Le coq et l’arléquin: Notes autour de la musique , it bore a dedication to Auric. Put into English for the book’s 1920 translated edition (as Cock and Harlequin: Notes Concerning Music), it read in part: “I offer [these notes] to you because a musician of your age proclaims the richness and grace of a generation which no longer grimaces, or wears a mask, or hides, or shirks, and is not afraid to admire or to stand up for what it admires.”
In 1919, Auric issued a set of eight songs to Cocteau texts, and he would contribute to two further ballets with Cocteau scenarios, Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel in 1920 and Phèdre in 1949. But it is as a film composer that Auric made his most indelible mark. Through the course of about 40 years he produced scores for more than 120 films for such acclaimed directors as René Clair ( À nous la liberté ), Jean Delannoy ( La symphonie pastorale ), John Huston ( Moulin Rouge , from which Auric’s theme-waltz scored immense international success), William Wyler ( Roman Holiday ), and Otto Preminger ( Bonjour Tristesse ). Cocteau and Auric first intersected in the realm of cinema in 1930, with Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet), and they would recamp to collaborate on
five more: La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), Les parents terribles (sometimes known in English as Intimate Relations, 1948), L’aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle With Two Heads, 1948), Orphée (Orpheus, 1950), and Le testament d’Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus, 1960). In addition, Auric provided music for three films for which Cocteau provided scripts but did not direct: L’éternel retour (The Eternal Return, 1943), Ruy Blas (1948), and Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas the Impostor, 1965).
It was on Christmas Day of 1945 that Cocteau asked Auric to write a score for Beauty and the Beast , warning him that it would have to be a fast project since synchronization of sound and image was scheduled to be finished four months hence, in April. Still, there was hope; they had already worked together on a film (if 15 years before), and in this case Cocteau was willing to allow a degree of noncoincidence between music and image. Here, the visual and musical elements might unroll in not quite precise parallel, both telling the same tale but not in complete unison. (They might “neutralize each other,” Cocteau explained.) At first, music seems scarce in this film, but once the scenes really get rolling Auric’s presence grows more constant. In the end, he composed 24 cues, most of them using a full symphony orchestra with triple winds (conducted by Roger Désormière
in the studio), but nine of them required just a chamber orchestra without brasses. In addition to the instrumental component, Auric sometimes involved a chorus singing wordlessly, its ethereal effect evoking two earlier scores by other composers, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Holst’s The Planets . Indeed, Ravel often seems a musical ancestor to this score, echoed in its sensuous character as well as its frequent use of parallel intervals. It is probably no coincidence that the most famous previous musical setting portraying this tale was the “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast” from Ravel’s Mother Goose (1908-1910). In general, Auric’s music for the Beast is blurred around the edges — a sensation achieved through very precise notation — while that which accompanies Beauty tends toward brighter clarity. A few themes recur to provide a sense of continuity in the score, and although these have sometimes been called leitmotifs, it seems questionable to identify them as such since they are not specifically attached to individual characters, objects, or ideas. In the opening sequence, and again in the penultimate one, Auric adopts a neoclassical pose as a way to underscore the setting in a land of “Once Upon a Time,” and some sections convey a folkish flavor. For the most part, however, he proves a confirmed if not abrasive modernist. Although his score begins and ends in a blaze of shining E major, it strays into chromatic expanses in between and often stretches into what an analyst would describe as atonal vocabulary.
In 1976, the American composer Frank DiGiacomo wrote an operatic setting of Beauty and the Beast, which was recorded by the Syracuse Symphony. However, it did not seize a place in the general operatic repertoire. Cocteau’s film was the inspiration for the 1991 Disney animated release Beauty and the Beast . Its title song, by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, was sung by Angela Lansbury in the movie and went on to score a hit in a recording by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. Of greater musical significance, however, is the operatic treatment of the film composed in 1994 by Philip Glass. He had begun writing music for cinema in the 1970s, when he produced the music for Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi , and in ensuing years he and his ensemble had experimented with giving live performances of some of his scores to accompany screenings. He had been entranced by La Belle et la Bête for years, and in 1994 he composed a new score that could be retrofitted to Cocteau’s film, turning it into an opera in which the staging is the film itself.
After securing permission from the estates of both Cocteau and Auric, Glass had the soundtrack (the actors’ speech as well as Auric’s music) stripped away from the film. He composed his new score as an entirely original piece, making no reference to Auric’s, and set the vocal line in French, following the text exactly as it was spoken by the actors. The opera was recorded by singers, and technical adjustments were effected to synchronize their singing as closely as possible to the lip movements of the actors. The resultant work could be screened as a film opera with a prerecorded soundtrack, or it could be performed live by singers plus instrumental ensemble as the film was projected.
Glass’ opera displays his accustomed style, including rhythmic pulsations, repetitions of notes and scales, and very limited, overwhelmingly consonant, harmonies. Indeed, his most successful music has been what he wrote to accompany films, and this represented a further step in the same direction. The most unusual aspect of his piece is that the sung text is contrived to be delivered at the same speed as the spoken text had been; normally, sung text occupies more time, which is why an opera libretto generally needs to be far shorter than a corresponding stage play from which it is derived. Since Glass’ music does not embody a traditional sort of harmonic-dramatic trajectory, it is somewhat freed from that constraint. “As it has turned out,” Glass wrote, “the live performances have been most successful. The synthesis of opera and film has been very well received by audiences and, I expect, will lead to further experiments of this kind by myself and, perhaps, other composers as well. There have also been some stagings of La Belle et la Bête by opera companies without the film — an unexpected but happy result.” Viewers can see the “canned” version, thanks to the film release on the Criterion Collection, which presents a 1995 restoration of the film that included cleaning up both the visuals and the soundtrack. One can therefore watch the film with the actors delivering the script and with its original Auric music; or, by clicking into another area of the DVD or Blu-Ray, one can experience Glass’ operatic setting, performed with Cocteau’s visuals as the staging. The accompanying booklet is enriching, but it really needed to have credited the singers and other musicians who perform in the Glass version. If you watch that to the end, you will discover that the female lead (La Belle) is sung by mezzo-soprano Janice Felty, and one of her sisters (Félicie) by soprano Ana María Martínez — two singers who happen to reside at least part of the year in Santa Fe County.
Jean Cocteau’s film “La Belle et la Bête” is available in a restored print on the Criterion Collection, which includes both the original version with Georges Auric’s score and Philip Glass’ operatic setting. Auric’s score, with no visuals, is also available on a CD on the Marco Polo/Naxos label, in which Adriano conducts the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and the Axios chorus.