Home > Reviews > L’ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE – Camille Saint-Saëns


Original Review by Ben Erickson

In 1907 financier Paul Laffitte founded a revolutionary production company by the name of Le Film d’Art. Its purpose was to guide the education of the French masses with reenactments of renowned historical and mythological accounts, featuring the talented actors of the Comédie-Française and marking a turning point in the history of cinema. The company attained early success with the 1908 French historical drama L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (originally La Mort du Duc de Guise) which faithfully depicts King Henry III and his brutal murder of the rival, the Duke. Directed by Charles le Bargy and André Calmettes. the film lasts approximately eighteen minutes (longer than the average fifteen minute film during this time), and is notable for both its use of a screenplay by eminent writer Henri Lavedan and for being the earliest documented film for which an original score was written. Calmettes had the idea to score the film with original music, and so it was only logical that the producers turned to one of France’s most celebrated composers of the day, Camille Saint-Saëns.

Imagine what a revolutionary moment this was. Saint-Saëns, now seventy-three years old and at the height of his career, would be the first composer to pioneer an original score for film. He had behind him decades of experience in the tradition of grand opera, a progressive familiarity with early recording technology, and the finest team of artists hitherto witnessed in film. L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise was all but destined for greatness, taking the elevated interplay of music and theatre to the screen and forever bridging the gap between art forms. The composer worked out the music scene-by-scene while watching the film, reworking extracts from his unpublished symphony Urbs Roma, and developing small-scale drama within a larger form. The mise-en-scène of L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise is divided into five distinct tableaux which Saint-Saëns used to determine the overarching musical form of the score. The prevailing F-sharp minor tonality gives the music a dour if stable feeling, with instruments that were selected in the fashion of a French chamber ensemble: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, harmonium, and strings.

The Introduction reveals the two fundamental themes written for the film, those of the King (Charles le Bargy) and the Duke (Albert Lambert). Writer Martin Marks, in his book “Music and the Silent Film: Contexts and Case Studies,” describes them thus: “The first possesses a chromatic, serpentine motion that seems to reflect the cunning and menace of Henry III; the second, with its initial upward leaps of a fourth, fifth, and fourth, followed by a descending sequence, perhaps symbolizes the ambition and arrogance of the Duke”

Indeed,these themes are introduced as antagonistic figures to one another, opposed not only in their melodic design but also harmonically between the F sharp to C tritone. A marked trait of this score is the use of thematic transformation among its themes. They are frequently called upon throughout the film, but rarely do they appear in the same guise, using myriad variations, transpositions, and orchestrations to hypnotize the listener with absolute fluidity.

The first tableaux (subtitled ‘Marquise de Noirmoutiers Apartment’) opens with a jaunty minuet, indicating the cheerful relationship between the Duke and his lover Marquise before moving into sinister textures as they are warned of the King’s plot. Tableaux two (subtitled ‘Chateau de Blois Bedchamber’) continues with conspiring strings on the dominant as we are introduced to the King for the first time, moving into an insistent horn call and supported by a detached, circular figure appearing every third beat that inches its way forward as the king lays out his scheme. The third tableaux (subtitled ‘Chateau de Blois Council Chamber’) is defined by an impatient tempo as the Duke arrives to the Chateau de Blois, irritated by the fabricated pretense of his invitation and naively eager to get on with the summons.

For the most part the treatment undergone by the instruments stays well within their prescribed roles. The horns for example masquerade as symbols of nobility for the principle characters while the strings assume a polite dignity as envoys of aristocracy and grace. With exception to the bassoon, and the intermittent timbre of the clarinet that lends itself so well to the deceptive nature of the King, the woodwinds emit an alleviating presence to the picture, with treachery most often appearing in the form of galloping piano tremolos. En masse it is quite civil, that is until we come to the fourth tableaux (’ Chateau de Blois/Bedchamber/Cabinet Vieux Antechamber/Cabinet Vieux/Cabinet Vieux Antechamber/Bedchamber’) where the music breaks away from the large form to address the more nuanced intersections of the film.

The scene opens with a violent strike, entering into a cautious series of rebounding piano and string ostenuti before the Duke enters the trap. The agitated l’escalier passages that make up so much of this sequence are interrupted by mysterioso bass and admonishing flutes, all leading toward the moment in which the Duke is set upon by the assassins. A grand pause is taken by the ensemble just before the assassins make their move, rupturing into presto horn and violin flurries that dominate the score amidst diminished seventh chords and the return of the tritone, resolving only with an ironic statement of the Duke’s theme as the King looks upon his slain body.

The fifth tableaux (subtitled ‘Chateau de Blois Guard Room’) takes on a relieved character with victorious, march-like triplets from a subdued piano. The remainder of the ensemble joins the promenade before the harmonium makes its most significant appearance as a funereal dirge, alluding to Gounod’s Funeral March of Marionette. The score then recaps several prominent musical figures as a bookend to the introduction, excitedly summarizing the events of the film before making a grand cadence in the home key to formally announce its conclusion.

Just as the score adheres harmonically to the measure of Saint-Saëns’s mastery so too does the music enjoy enormous freedom in its classical nature. The range of dynamic and articulate expression by comparison to film music as we know it today is unmistakable. No discretion is required to accommodate dialogue or sound effects. Instead we can recognize this music as an aspect of the composer’s oeuvre, akin with his earlier tone poems; heavy-handed in its presentation but manifestly clear in how it interacts with the screen.

Obviously, the original film recording of the score is not available, but such was the benefit of films made in this brief window just prior to sound films, and like many of its contemporaries, L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise was later re-written by Saint-Saëns as a concert arrangement, Opus 128. Probably the best recording of the concert arrangement is the 2000 one on the Harmoni Mundi label, on which it is paired with additional re-recordings of Saint-Saëns works Le Carnaval des Animaux and his Piano Quintet Op.14.

The entire film of L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise is availale to watch on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bh0tonXPEKQ.

Buy the L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Introduction – Premier Tableaux (4:13)
  • Deuxième Tableaux (3:34)
  • Troisième Tableaux (2:17)
  • Quatrième Tableaux (7:00)
  • Cinquième Tableaux (2:32)

Running Time: 19 minutes 36 seconds

Harmoni Mundi 195147-2 (1908/2000)

Music composed by Camille Saint-Saens. Performed by Ensemble Musique Oblique. Original orchestrations by Camille Saint-Saens. Recorded and mixed by Jean-Martial Golaz. Score produced by Camille Saint-Saens. Album produced by Jean-Martial Golaz.

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