the sounds of Jean Cocteau

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - James M. Keller

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.

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