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The genesis of an unusual score

Between 1927 and 1928, René Clair directed two films each lasting 52 minutes: Un chapeau de Paille d’Italie and Les Deux Timides. Both were adapted from plays written by Eugène Labiche. Twenty-five years later, in the autumn of 1953, a Drama Festival was held in Normandy where Georges Delerue improvised at the piano during a screening of those same two short films. The improvisations of the future film-musician were seen as recognition of some of his anonymous predecessors in darkened film theatres…

‘’I'd been improvising under the screen on two nights, and then they wanted to record what I was playing… but there were technical problems with the synchronisation and they couldn't re-create what I had been trying to do. It really was an interesting experience… but difficult."

With hindsight, Delerue's contributions to these two films seem invaluable in preparation for a career in music for full-length feature. Georges developed a feeling for precision, and learned to be concise; his music would do more than confine itself to simply illustrating an image with sound.

In the course of the Eighties, certain film composers attracted attention when they wrote new scores for several silent-screen classics that had been restored. Among the remarkable works that resulted, there were notably: the collaboration between Pierre Jansen and Antoine Duhamel in 1985 for Intolerance, the monumental film by D.W. Griffith; and the efforts of British musician Carl Davis in the performance of Abel Gance's Napoléon (1980), which earned him international recognition.

In 1987, the French Cinémathèque and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) undertook to exhume the historical drama Casanova, a silent film made partly in Venice and directed by Aleksandr Volkov in 1927. In 1958 the Cinémathèque had obtained rights to the film from Russia's Sacha Kameka and the company Albatros; as for the object itself, originally in black and white, it was a single reel that had been coloured by hand according to the techniques of the period. This was insufficient for restoration work, and so a search began for the negatives and other footage; these, sometimes partly damaged, were finally unearthed in Prague and London.

Restoration work began—it was more like making lace—and Renée Liechtig, a film editor and specialist in restoring silent films, was entrusted with the task, surrounded by a whole team of Cinémathèque technicians. At the same time, it was necessary to sort through a large amount of disorganized material, and this would reveal the existence of several different versions of the film made over the same period in attempts to resolve censorship issues.

A while later, Professor Robert M. Maniquis, a UCLA academic who is also a research associate at the Sorbonne, was able to see a provisory cut of the film at a screening in Paris. He liked it very much and wanted to set up a projection at Berklee College of Music in Boston… but one thing in particular was lacking in the film lasting two hours and fifteen minutes: the music. With support from his university's research group CINEMA 89, Maniquis decided to contact Georges Delerue and ask if he would approve the use of some of his music for the soundtrack of Casanova. Georges was well aware of the difficulties (both technical and legal) that would arise if they pursued the idea of using existing works, but his enthusiasm for the film immediately gave him another idea: to compose a new original score.

I thought this film was wonderful; it was tender, ironic, and it sparkled with intelligence. I knew there was no alternative: I had to write new music from end to end.

It is common knowledge that before the days of the talkies, the largest film theatres would hire small orchestras to play. When the silent days were over, music became an integral part of the film and such small ensembles simply disappeared.

With Casanova, Georges Delerue wanted to re-create the silent movie, and he approached the task as if it were a live spectacular: music and image would coexist to the point where, ideally, any similarity between the two would be synonymous with fusion. It would be a complex experiment, but for Delerue it was so thrilling that its scope went beyond a simple attempt to re-create the film world of yesteryear. The composer took infinite care that his music would reflect the sensibilities of a contemporary audience, and at the same time meet the requirements involved in simulating another age. Seen from this perspective, music is a catalyst for the emotions of the public.

Film fans have long been aware that in Georges Delerue's music, flexibility and diversity are the two strengths that most often permitted incursions into lyricism and the exotic, two of his major characteristics. Despite his wide-reaching inspiration, however, in the case of Casanova the composer found himself facing an unusual problem: time. He had only a month to write the score. It explains why he was obliged to call for help with the orchestration, in the form of his assistant and friend, Richard Stone.

‘’I thought, 'a silent film made in 1927, it must be around an hour and a quarter at most,' but when I discovered it lasted two hours fifteen, I began to regret agreeing to do it … On top of that, when I saw the film for the first time I realized it wasn't going to be a matter of writing a mass of sound, the usual thing in such cases, and what Carmine Coppola did for Napoléon in 1981 for example. That will work with epic films or dramas, but if you do that with a film as light and amusing as 'Casanova', you're going to crush it: you'll kill everything. So you have to stick to the image, emphasize it with a very synchronic treatment, a little bit like a pianist used to do in the old days. Except that for a pianist it's easy to improvise, but when you have a whole orchestra, you have to write it all down first."

With his score finished, a technical difficulty sprang up: the projection.

"At the first rehearsal with the orchestra, all 15 musicians, while I conducted I was keeping an eye on a big chronometer as well as the film being screened in front of me. By the end of the first part—it lasted 70 minutes—the music was out of sync with the picture by 25 seconds! It was a catastrophe given the precision in the music I'd written! There had been such a huge demand on the electric supply in town that the projector wasn't turning at the right speed.

How did they solve the problem? Richard Stone had worked on cartoons as well as writing music for some of them; he suggested to Delerue that it might be a good idea to reset the chronometer at the end of each sequence, and to have some background music that could be faded in, so that Georges could prep the orchestra again to realign the music with the image. It was successful. Georges Delerue conducted his score ‘’live’’ on several occasions in France and America, and also in Venice and Germany. The performances were always a race against the clock, or rather synchronicity. The composer said it was one of the toughest challenges he'd ever encountered; but thanks to the enthusiasm of the audience it was also one of the most exhilarating.



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