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Dreyer and music

October 1, 2015

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is one silent film that doesn’t suffer by being shown without music.” David Bordwell Filmguide to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Indiana 1973) (p.79)

As a student of film I was quite happy watching a silent movie in a state of rapt concentration. Scholarly pursuits weren’t, after all, entertainment and anyway the university couldn’t afford an accompanist. Screenings therefore took place in an atmosphere more common to a library than a movie theatre, but then that was appropriate; we were there to study not to enjoy ourselves.

These days it’s rare to see a silent movie without some kind of music, and in that we’ve recovered something of the experience of the cinemagoer in the silent era. Sometimes it was a simple piano or organ (the Mighty Wurlitzer was designed in 1914 specifically for cinema exhibition), in larger institutions an ensemble of piano and violin, right up to the Roxy in New York City which, with over 6,000 seats, boasted an 80-piece orchestra. Scores fell into two broad camps, depending upon the size of the film theatre and the inclination of the promoter: a collage of popular tunes, classical music pastiche and quotation, assembled by the musical director; or a specially composed score. In the case of the former, production companies provided cue sheets which provided immediate associative musical fragments that could be made to fit with particular scenes.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc had two premieres, one in Copenhagen and one in Paris, and was accorded two quite different scores. In the case of the former at the Palads Theatre in Copenhagen in 1928, the musical director of the theatre, Jakob Gade, provided the former type, one assembled from existent cues. We’re told that the orchestra played throughout the film and rounded the evening off with a rendition of the Marseillaise to honour the French guests in attendance. The Paris premiere on 25th October 1928, by contrast, received a commissioned score by Victor Alix and Léo Pouget, the score for which still exists.

Yet despite this musical heritage, there still exists a myth today that Dreyer didn’t want any music at all. I say myth advisedly, because the history of this received idea turns out to be rather convoluted. Indeed, I would go further and argue that Dreyer very much wanted music to accompany it; he wasn’t able to find it.

First, though, a little further background on the peculiar history of the print of the film, which has contributed to a particular insistence on authenticity around any screening. Film stock in the silent era was composed in part of cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable; only in the 1930s was ‘safety film’ developed. As a result it was relatively common for prints to be destroyed by fire, which was the fate of not only the original negative of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (in a lab fire at UFA studios in Berlin in December 1928) but also Dreyer’s reconstruction a year later. In 1981, a perfect print was discovered in the unlikeliest (or most apposite?) of places – a Norwegian asylum. In itself this particular and peculiar narrative was probably enough to cement the film’s status as an object of art suitable more for contemplation than pleasure, and the appropriateness of silent veneration to such pursuit is obvious. Throw in Dreyer’s status as an auteur (to use the term applied by critics of Cahiers du Cinéma to those directors whose work displayed a unity of theme and style making them worthy of a literary epithet) and the conditions under which Bordwell made his observation quoted at the beginning of this piece are clearly established.

The idea that Dreyer didn’t want music with his film had by then already been bolstered by comments made in the years between the loss and subsequent discovery of the authentic print. In 1951 Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, a co-founder of the aforementioned Cahiers du Cinéma, found a 16mm print of the movie and wrote to Dreyer asking for permission to create a new print, this time adding music by J.S.Bach.

Lo Duca asks about Bach

Dreyer wrote back saying that he very much liked the idea, though that detail has tended to be overlooked in subsequent histories, which have focused instead on Dreyer’s objections to the music used.

Dreyer responds to Lo Duca

But if you look at Dreyer’s original reply (see above) he describes the idea of adding Bach’s music to be ‘excellent’. Finally, in 1956, Dreyer got to see Lo Duca’s bastardised version when Gaumont sent him a complimentary copy. His letter of gratitude expressed strong reservations, particularly about Lo Duca’s misguided decision to replace the intertitles with subtitles: ‘The editor has tried to make the film more accessible to the general public – by appealing to the public’s bad taste. Since you appreciate art films, it would indeed be a worthy act on your part to make a copy of the silent version with the intertitles on a simple, black background, as I did in the original. An old film ‘classic’ is a museum piece that should be restored to its original form. In my opinion to modernize such a film is an absurdity.’

In that same correspondence Dreyer also complained about the music, saying it was anachronistic, though he made no such objection when Lo Duca first suggested baroque music to accompany a film set in the medieval period, his only stipulation being that no sounds be added. ‘Trust me,’ he wrote, ‘the silence of the silent version would make a much greater impact on the audience than the violent fortissimo of the music chosen here.’[1]

It’s possible that this sense of music as corrupting received further support from a misreading of comments made back in 1928 by Falconetti, the actress who played Jeanne. They came in an interview with a Danish journalist.

You didn’t use music?

No. Carl Th. Dreyer wouldn’t have it. He was of the opinion, and I agreed, that it would give a false impression of the atmosphere.

This interview was published in My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer, by Jean Drum, Dale D. Drum. It does not, though, have anything to do with musical accompaniment of the film when shown; rather, it refers to the practice of playing music on set to help establish a mood for actors. Bear in mind that, with no sound being recorded, you could make as much noise as you wanted. (There was, until recently, an interesting clip of Sergio Leone using the Morricone score for Once Upon a Time in America on set in the final scene in exactly this way. Sadly it’s not longer available).

Whether there were any further soundtracks added to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc between the Lo Duca version and the discovery of the print in 1981 is unclear, though it’s likely that film institutes around the world would have occasionally asked their resident accompanist to provide something. In a major survey of Dreyer’s work curated by MoMA in New York in 1965, the movie was certainly staged without music, as were all of his early silent films, but, again, silence undoubtedly amplified the atmosphere of studious veneration that such retrospectives invite. It’s to this event that we can trace the origins of Dreyer’s specific view that he preferred his movie to be watched in silence. It comes from a comment made by Eileen Bowser, the former curator of film at the MoMA, and it has since, mainly through the internet, come to take on the status of an instruction. It transpired, in her words, that when she spoke to Dreyer back in 1965 that he had not been quite so adamant in his view. She wrote to me as follows: ‘I think that it was one of the others … who asked about music for Jeanne d’Arc. And my impression is that he did not exactly mean that he wanted it shown silent but rather, he did not like any of the musical solutions so far that had been used and had not found the music he thought was right for it.’

All of this argues for musicians to come to the altar of silent film and offer their own interpretations rather than leaving the film to be viewed in chaste silence. It wasn’t until the 1980s, by which time the new, ‘authentic’ print had come to light, that the process really got underway, joining a veritable industry of composition and performance of scores specifically crafted for silent movies. Wikipedia, never the most reliable source but almost always the best place to start, lists 18 for Dreyer’s movie, including ones by Nick Cave, Richard Einhorn, Cat Power, Adrian Utley and Will Gregory, and our own ‘Voices Appeared’.

There will never be a definitive version, of course, not least because Dreyer is no longer with us to cast judgement. But in the variety of scores that the movie has received in recent years we have, at least, recovered something of the diversity of silent-film exhibition that one would have experienced when the film was first in circulation.

[1] Quoted by Casper Tybjerg in an essay accompanying the Eureka Entertainment edition of the movie ‘Two passions – one film?’

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