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THE CLASSICAL WORKS 

HE LEFT HIS MARK ON A WHOLE GENERATION OF COMPOSERS.
HIS UNIQUE, UNFORGETTABLE WORKS HAVE TRAVELLED 
TO THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE WORLD…

A CAREER RETROSPECTIVE IN A FEW NOTES...

 

Throughout his life, Georges Delerue fought to accomplish two goals: on the one hand, recognition as a composer of "pure" music in the world of films and, on the other, his acceptance by the universe of classical music. Without any doubt, however, it was as a film-music composer that Georges Delerue first became famous.

After a few years of concentrated studies at the Conservatoire in Roubaix where he was born, and then at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, in the 1950s Georges Delerue would begin investigating "a new musical architecture in sound" adapted to the Seventh Art. While preserving his musical identity through many different films, Georges Delerue would become one of the rare French composers to develop a major, parallel "classical" output.

In this latter activity he joined an extremely closed circle of film-music composers: not only Miklos Rozsa, Malcolm Arnold, Dimitri Tiomkin or Antoine Duhamel, but also Bernard Hermann and Ennio Morricone, who also developed this aspect of their talents. Unlike that of some of his famous peers, the more personal work of Georges Delerue stands out from his contributions to the film-world. A film-musician is above all "a music-creator, full-stop", as Delerue so aptly put it. In fact, early in his career, Georges Delerue saw himself becoming a composer of concert music and also a classical conductor. After studying fugue and counterpoint at the Conservatoire in Paris, he moved on to composition under Henri Büsser.

Büsser, a precise musician who was also an organist and conductor, provided Delerue with a certain compositional method in addition to detail in orchestration and, as Georges Delerue said, the “touch” that is indispensable in young composers. Later, with Darius Milhaud, Delerue found a window which opened onto a certain musical humanism. Milhaud taught his pupils the thematic richness which avoids the dryness of repetition: “Be rich! A Mozart sonata doesn't have two themes, but fifty, a hundred!”

Georges Delerue heeded the teachings of Darius Milhaud, yet it was always in the field of melody that he would find the source of his incredible inspiration. As Delerue said, “Music means song, and lyricism, in the same way as the orchestra accompanies a singer. Melody must be infinite; it is the continuity of thought.”

In parallel with his classes under Darius Milhaud, he studied musical analysis with Olivier Messiaen. Delerue showed deep respect for the Master and his work, but quickly disagreed with his teacher; the incompatibility between his own approach and that of Messiaen was even such that Georges would leave his classes in despair, with his own musical ideas abandoning him completely. After opening his heart to Milhaud (cf. photo below), he left his class.

Whereas Delerue's very first work was an a cappella mass for mixed choir – sung at St. Elisabeth's Church in Roubaix in 1944 – his long career as a classical composer only began in 1946, on his arrival at the Conservatoire in Paris. Georges composed a Piano Sonata, followed in 1947 by Aria et Final for cello and piano, Quatuor pour Cordes et piano in 1948, Prélude et Interlude for string quartet, Premier Quatuor à Cordes, the symphonic poem Panique in 1949, etc. Later the musician composed several competition-pieces for the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris: Fluide for harp in 1975, for example, or Dyptique for solo flute in 1981.

Regarding Georges Delerue's future career as a conductor, his talent was quickly spotted by Roger Désormières who, at a concert given at the Conservatoire in Paris, handed over his baton so that Delerue could conduct one of his symphonic pieces. It was an exceptional gesture of trust, and it did much to comfort Delerue as a pupil. In the Fifties he frequently conducted the orchestra of RTF (French radio) for the programme Club d’essai, and throughout his life it was always Delerue who conducted the orchestra at the recording-sessions for his film-music. While there's no doubt that Georges Delerue's "pure" compositional work took second place to his film-activities, he often received commissions to write original works and responded to opportunities to have his pieces performed in other fields.

"Whatever they say, we've kept the same tradition that existed in the days of Haydn, Beethoven or Mozart, when composers depended on commissions. When I was at the Conservatoire, I wrote the pieces I wanted to write; it was my choice. Later on, I was asked to write a competition-piece for the trumpet, and so I wrote the 'Concertino' for trumpet and string orchestra. But the 'Symphonie Concertante pour Piano et Orchestre' wasn't a commission; I decided to write it. Later, the 'Fanfares pour tous les Temps' was commissioned by the 'Octuor de Cuivres de Paris', etc..." 

Let's not forget that Georges Delerue's classical music tastes ranged from Beethoven, Bartok and Ravel to Dutilleux, Honegger or Wagner; he also used to say how much he admired Bach, Mahler, Roussel, Penderecki… and Brahms of course, whose use of strings influenced his own writing. The classical composing-career envisaged by Delerue as a music-student took a new turn thanks to the counsel provided by the extremely clairvoyant Darius Milhaud, who oriented him towards music for the performing arts.

“Darius Milhaud launched me into a milieu which wasn't purely musical. It would have been more difficult for me to have that opening if I'd stayed tucked away composing symphonies. I love writing “pure” music, but my whole life turns on film-music; I have the impression I'm useful… like being the local musician.”

 

While George Delerue's classical works reveal themselves – without exception – to be rich, enthralling pieces, and despite the fact that almost all of them have been performed in concert, the fact remains that they are still little-known in comparison with his film-work. As the instigator of a sound-structure that was ideally-suited to the renaissance in French films "La Nouvelle Vague", Georges Delerue would in parallel (and as often as possible), give himself up to his passion for "free" creation. He always took care to ensure his more 'personal' works were within reach for everyone, specialists and novices alike. And whatever the type of music he composed, his preferences remained on the side of the emotional rather than the intellectual.

"Pure" music provided Georges Delerue with the possibility to give free rein to his imagination; it also brought him satisfaction as a creator, even if a good many of his pieces were commissions received from various institutions. The works written between 1970 and 1980, for example, were essentially commissions from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, particularly the pieces destined for the competitions of the school's brass and woodwind classes.

As soon as the composer arrived in The United States he received a commission from the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and the result was Georges Delerue's Concerto pour Quatre Guitares et Orchestre, a piece he dedicated to the Quartet. It was rapidly given its first performance.

Early in 1990, Delerue wrote the final note to his Mouvement Concertant pour Orchestre, a singularly violent, rapid piece lasting fourteen minutes; the work was commissioned by Michel Plasson for his 'Orchestre du Capitole' in Toulouse, and it was one of Georges' favourites.

Tonal, atonal or polytonal, Georges Delerue's "classical" opus reveals itself to be learned as well as diverse; it denotes elegant lyricism, a statement of modernity. His works represent the contemporary, luminous path taken by the composer, a path over which his writing would constantly evolve without the musician ever having to justify his position.

 

"I've never belonged to any clique… I write my own music: the music I want to write, regardless of any question of language. I don't think that's where the problem lies: people are beginning to notice that composers have cut themselves off from the public, and not just an older public… Music is a language, a means of conveying emotion, and many composers have lost sight of that. I'm for lyricism, understanding… and above all, I want people to go to concerts without being bored…"

Georges Delerue admired the work of Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti, and the noise music of musicians like Luigi Russolo, John Cage or Edgard Varèse, yet he never adhered to dodecaphonic or 12-tone music, a musical style that was destabilizing for a neo-Romantic like himself; but the latter concept represented an obstacle for Georges' "pure" creations in concert-halls for a whole decade. Nevertheless, while Delerue responded to the obligations and constraints imposed by films, it was through films such as The Case against Ferro Police Python 357 (1975) or Somewhere, Someone [Quelque part, quelqu’un] (1972) that Delerue the musician would express his boldest ideas: in the latter feature-film directed by Yannick Bellon, the filmmaker refused a traditional narrative and Delerue's music is both athematic and extremely daring.

Somewhere, Someone [Quelque part, quelqu’un] 

Film music or "pure" music?

 

When he was working on this film, Georges Delerue escaped a certain tonal tradition in endeavouring to redistribute the musical material according to criteria which eluded all notions of evolution but which, on the contrary, privileged radical mutation. The effect of this non-thematic procedure was to allow the insertion of a musical montage inside the film.

This non-restrictive option allowed the composer to work in way that has nothing to do with the apparent intention envisaged with a thematic architecture. Quite often, atonal music allows the construction of an ensemble which can be said to be closer to the sound's structure than to traditional musical accompaniment.

In a cacophony of sound flutes, violins, voices, chanting harpsichords and xylophones instrumental effects of all kinds graft themselves onto the atonal mode to result in a score presented in the form of a clear abstraction. In consequence, each new dramatic incident brings in traces of a collective dramatization. With its play on contrast, tonal music is relegated to the rank of its minimal function, albeit an illuminated one.

Atonal, but tonal, too !

Experimenting is not a tradition in the work of Georges Delerue. Rather, it has more to do with a combination of the kind which allows for adjustments between the tonal and atonal forms which predominate in this film, whose framework is modern. The dissociation no longer operates between the two genres, but between the component-parts within the film: and therefore the juxtaposition of the thematic and the atonal stems from a rather new notion, one whose aim is to counter the function of situational music.

When "traditional" counterpoint is no longer practised, diverging interests must resign themselves to adopting an alternative position. And so tonal music, whether enhanced with a vocal chorus or not, becomes a suspensive element of the film's entire musical structure.

 

The heart of creation

The long, sweeping camera-movements which explore the façades and streets of Paris and its interiors are sustained by a soundtrack from which all sound effects are expurgated, and in which the music unfolds with total autonomy. The powerful sound-architecture of the film is constructed over almost-omnipresent vocal choruses, and a large symphony orchestra executing a series of dissonant clusters and random effects, with quick flurries from the wind-instruments and vibratos from the Ondes Martenot.

The musician remained quite discreet on the use of electronic instruments in his compositions.

 

"A tremolo from a pair of Ondes Martenot instruments allows you to obtain chords of four sounds. This provides a quite bizarre, shimmering aspect, a rather unstable effect which I prefer to what you can obtain from a synthesizer. The irremediably electronic aspect of that instrument bothers me. There's something dead in the sound and I dislike that… and I also think that you can sometimes obtain an almost electro-acoustic sound from a traditional orchestra."

Again, if certain music-sequences totally eliminate noise, others can integrate them. This global nature of the sound-environment, already proclaimed by Maurice Jaubert and achieved in Jean Vigo's film “L’Atalante” in 1934, was something which Georges Delerue sometimes thought necessary.

"If they're interesting, noises can be left to supply the atmosphere. I have to admit that, in short-films for example, I've occasionally synthesized noise. You can even try making fake noises and integrate them when the music is edited."

This film set in Paris very often gives to rise to the music of the streets, criss-crossed dynamically in agitated fashion to imperceptibly draw the listener closer to the presence of the music alone. And certain precise sounds the Paris Métro, or a hospital-trolley for example seem to spring directly from the orchestral fabric. The final mix is a magnificent interpenetration of both noise and music.

In Ken Russell's Women in Love, especially in the classic wrestling-scene involving the two protagonists, the music also intervenes in counterpoint to transform the propos of the image. The beginning of the scene shows the two naked men circling each other playfully in an opulent living-room. The soundtrack illustrates the sounds of combat slaps, breathing, exclamations before the music gradually makes its entrance: at first sensual, then taut and dissonant, it replaces the real sounds and allows spectators a glimpse of all the ambiguity surrounding the two characters' virile friendship.

Alain Corneau's Police Python 357 returns to the contemporary register which was typical of Delerue's film-work during the Seventies. This full-length feature film was marked by some extremely tormented theme-music: the score marries the sounds of a baroque harpsichord with a mysterious vocal ensemble and a series of harrowing orchestral dissonances. Nor should we forget certain scenes from That Most Important Thing: Love "L'important c'est d'aimer", the 1975 film by Polish director Andrzej Zulawski whose two principal actors performed with brio Romy Schneider, overwhelming, and Jacques Dutronc, poignant. Georges Delerue tackled those same aspects by writing music which combined tragic adagios with an orchestral fury featuring dissonant, aggressive clusters, and his music filled the screen with the full breadth of the storyline, a mix of passionate love and violent, carnal perversity.

 

Even so, beginning at the end of the Seventies, the composer would return to a nostalgic, Romantic line, and to the supremacy of the theme, which is indispensable in film-music. Atonal music had been a part of his career, a part represented by three essential films in his filmography, three major scores which were as many strokes of brilliance from a musician who, at the time, was preoccupied by the artistic choices open to him.

 

In conclusion, Georges Delerue declared:

 

"It's not because I wrote such a very difficult theme [the music for 'Police Python 357'] that I have to continue investigating… A film has several facets, with more cheerful or tenderer things in it, and the musician has to serve the cinematographer's language, not a pre-ordained aesthetic."

The early Twenties saw a genuine revolution in music with the advent of the dodecaphonic pieces created by Arnold Schoenberg. That led to serial music, whose leaders apart from Schoenberg were his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and later Pierre Boulez, a contemporary of Georges Delerue.

This atonal music greatly disturbed the composer, even though he was a musician open to all forms of expression: he disagreed with the new music, finding it "sterile", to use his own description.

But a creator always has doubts, and his self-questioning was so violent that it became impossible for Georges Delerue to write classical works for ten years. After a decade of reflexion, he accepted his rejection of this new language and began composing again, following his own musical aesthetic.

 

A FEW WORDS OF GEORGES DELERUE ABOUT HIS CLASSICAL CREATION.

 

“I am always happy when conducting my film music all over the world, above all with today’s orchestras, which are so very different from each other. And it is even more exciting when I am invited to direct my classical works. Composing music is one thing, conducting them is also an enormous pleasure. I began my study of classical music at the Conservatory at Roubaix and continued at the National Conservatory in Paris. It was Darius Milhaud who first discovered in me a talent for theater and the dramatic arts. That was what first set me on the path to an international career. I don’t like to be labeled. Film music is an expressive aesthetic form like any other, with its own high values.

 

In France, more than elsewhere, one has a tendency to label film music with some disdain, no doubt because cinema is an obviously commercial form of art. In Britain and in the United States, a film composer is considered simply a musical composer.
 If I really had to put a label on myself, which I don’t like doing because it is risky and can be misinterpreted, I would call myself a neo-romantic. It is obvious that when I compose a musical theme for a film I naturally put at least something of my own being into it.

And when I need to feel a complete liberty in creation, I compose a quartet or a concerto or some chamber music. I have always needed that other string to my bow or what I call my other hat. It is obvious that musical structure is very important, but musical expression is no less so."

I like what Debussy once said :

“ Music is the expression of the inexpressible.”

One can’t say it better than that. When I compose classical music, I’m always afraid of boring the listener.
If I notice that I am boring myself while composing, I can’t help but imagine that the listeners will be bored too. And so I tear up what I’ve written and start again.
I always try to put as much human warmth as possible into my compositions and I also like things to be said quickly. It serves no purpose to compose unending developmental passages.

 

My goal is always for my music to go straight to the heart, so that you do not have to read the musical score to grasp what I want to express. Music is for reaching out to other human beings as rapidly as possible.”

 

 

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