Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > L’ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE – Camille Saint-Saëns


November 23, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

During the 1880s a technological revolution occurred with the invention of celluloid photographic film and motion picture cameras. The first public screening of a motion picture in which an admission fee was charged occurred in New York City 1895 by the Lambda Company, founded by Woodville Latham. The idiom quickly gained popularity, and in 1907 Paul Lafitte, a wealthy novelist, publisher and financier founded the French production company Le Film d’Art to produce French films, which he hoped would gain the admiration of the cultural elite as well as the patronage of the common people. Throughout his life Lafitte had been tireless in fostering literature and the theatre. He saw motion pictures as a new way to bring education and entertainment to the masses. He recruited talented stage actors from the Comédie-Française theatre group, and in 1908 decided to produce his first film, the French historical drama L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise originally titled La Mort du Duc de Guise. The Pathé Frères company would distribute the film, and he tasked French actors Charles le Bargy and André Calmettes to direct. French dramatist Henri Lavedan was hired to write an original screenplay, and a fine cast was assembled, which included Charles le Bargy as King Henry III, Albert Lambert as Le Duc de Guise, Gabrielle Robinne as Marquise de Noirmoutier and Berthe Bovy as Le Page. The final product was a short film of 18 minutes.

The story is set in France 1588 C.E. during the reign of King Henry III. In 1576 Henry, Duke of Guise with the patronage of Spain and the Pope founded the Catholic League to combat the Protestant Huguenots movement, which were funded by England and the Dutch. The resultant religious wars undermined the authority of King Henry III, who was determined to bring the strife to an end, believing that a strong monarchy, committed to religious freedom and tolerance was the best path forward for France. To achieve that end he conceived a diabolical plot to assassinate his adversary, Henry, Duke of Guise. He invited the Duke to his royal residence Château de Blois located within the city of Blois in the Loire Valley. The Duke accepted the invitation, and upon entering the King’s private chambers is brutally murdered. The film was a resounding critical success in France, which inspired other French companies to form and begin producing motion pictures. It premiered in New York City February 17, 1909, where it also received critical acclaim.

Co-director André Calmettes had been an actor for over twenty years in French theater and often complained of the intrusion of audience noise during the performance. He perceived that this did not occur during opera performances and so conceived of supporting the film with musical accompaniment. In an audacious move he solicited renown French composer Charles Camille Saint-Saëns to join the project. Saint-Saëns was fascinated by the offer to undertake something that had never been done before, and readily agreed to write the music. He felt he was well within his element as he had written a number of operas in his career with his Samson and Delilah (1877) achieving critical acclaim. He was provided a finished version of the film and after viewing its scenes several times conceived of composing and introduction, and five distinct tableaux to support its narrative. He was not afforded a large budget, and therefore hired a small chamber ensemble, which consisted of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, harmonium, and strings section.

Saint-Saëns chose to utilize leitmotifs to support the identities of the two principle actors. King Henry’s Theme embodies his persona and opens with a dark low register rumble over which cello and later various woodwinds sinistre flow in serpentine fashion. It builds to a dire crescendo, only the descend unto its grim and menacing depths. Duke Henry’s Theme emotes with woodwinds animato, which exude vitality and confidence, but also a feeling of detachment. The contrast is overtly obvious, each reinforcing their namesakes both in form and purpose. Both themes are very malleable and throughout the film Saint-Saëns renders them in different guises, using different instruments and orchestrations. Given the lack of dialogue, the challenge for the composer was to reinforce the actor’s expressions as well as to flesh out the unspoken, covert emotional drivers lurking within. What is also observed is that Saint-Saëns did not utilize the formal compositional sonata-allegro form characteristic to European classical music of the day. He instead developed his music utilizing leitmotifs singularly focused on the film’s characters, imagery and narrative,

“Introduction” opens darkly with low register string rumbling against a foreboding black screen. At 0:03 solo cello ushers in King Henry’s Theme, which joins with grim purpose with Duke Henry’s Theme at 0:09 in a tête-à-tête, which supports the film’s introduction and flow of the opening credits. At 0:34 we commence a crescendo dramatico, which never crests, instead descending on King’s Henry’s Theme into its grim depths of dark purpose. At 1:07 we segue into “Premier Tableaux”, which is subtitled ‘Marquise de Noirmoutiers Apartment’. We see the Duke visiting his beloved Marquise’s apartment; which Saint-Saëns supports with a minuet gentile led by solo flute and kindred woodwinds. The ambiance is pleasant and full of contentment, yet the mood darkens at 1:35 when a courier arrives with a note, which warns the Duke not to attend today’s meeting with the King as he is in danger. Yet despite the menace a romance for strings unfolds on solo violin with strings as the Duke enters and becomes amorous with Marquise. She is worried and hands him the note. As he reads the it at 2:39 King Henry’s serpentine theme supports on woodwinds, growing in intensity and urgency with each iteration. Yet the Duke is dismissive and then determined at 3:03 to forge ahead, as he reassures Marquise. At 3:19 he prepares to depart empowered by strings bravura rendering of his theme. With his departure at 3:42 the romance for strings transfers to woodwinds as Marquise waves goodbye and blows a kiss from the window. We close darkly with a final, portentous statement of the King’s Theme.

“Deuxième Tableaux”, subtitled ‘Chateau de Blois Bedchamber’, displays script of “King Henry prepares for the assassination of the Duke”. We open with strings gravi, which usher in a sinister rendering of the King’s Theme on strings. At 0:52 the Duke’s Theme joins on woodwinds doloroso as King Henry informs his guards of his intentions. At 1:05 repeated and intensifying phrases by French horns, strings bellicoso and piano support the King giving precise instructions to each of his guards on how the Duke is to be murdered. At 1:43 energetic woodwinds animato inform us of the King’s confidence in his plan. We build on a crescendo, which culminates at 2:20 with the guards raising their swords in solidarity for the king. We return darkly with a reprise of the sinister motif by French horns, strings and piano. The scene closes with menacing statement of King’s Theme as they prepare for the Duke’s arrival.

“Troisième Tableaux”, subtitled ‘Chateau de Blois Council Chamber’, reveals script that states “The King summons the Duke of Guise”. The Duke arrives and is received by the chaplain and members of the court. Saint-Saëns supports his arrival and pleasantries with an ambiance of gentility. Horns nobile, strings and woodwinds, interplay with his theme. Yet the music sours at 2:00 as the Duke displays impatience for his audience with the King. When the King’s herald arrives the Duke at last departs for his audience in the King’s bedchamber.

“Quatrième Tableaux” offers a powerful score highlight. Script displays stating “The King’s guard (the 45) stab the Duke of Guise”. We open with a violent ensemble strike, which ushers in repeating phrases by strings ostinato and piano which sow palpable unease as the Duke enters the trap. At 1:00 the ostinato pattern shifts to a descending construct joined by an intensification by strings sinistre emoting the King’s Theme, which lead to at 1:19 to a pausa de sventura. At 1:22 Saint-Saëns unleashes a swelling string ostinato, which supports the violent attack of the assassins. A tempest propelled by strings furioso and horns barbaro support the many stabbings as the Duke reels, unable to flee or grasp his sword. Slowly the tempo and intensity of the tempest diminishes as life drains from the Duke until 2:12 when a grim statement of the King’s Theme enters to support his viewing of the Duke’s corpse. A last reprise of the Duke’s Theme joins on bassoon as the Kings hovers over his body. Script states that “He is taller in death than in life”. At 2:44 an elegy of strings doloroso supports the King’s inspection of the Duke’s body to ensure he is indeed dead. Repeating grim statements of the Duke’s Theme join at 3:48 first on piano, then strings and woodwinds as the magnitude of the King’s treachery sinks in. At 5:32 a harmonia emotes a dirge as the Duke’s body is carried away. We close at 6:06 with malevolence on repeating phrases of the King’s Theme as he kneels and contemplates the magnitude of his heinous act.

“Cinquième Tableaux”, subtitled ‘Chateau de Blois Guard Room’ opens with a grim serpentine exposition of the King’s Theme by woodwinds sinistre as the Duke’s body is brought to the Guard’s room. At 0:29 a solo oboe affanato, strings and piano emote a threnody using the Duke’s theme as his body is laid on a table and a crucifix is placed atop him. The film reveals the suggestion to burn the Duke’s body in a large furnace, but the screen fades to black. At 1:01 a slow, inexorable intensification of his theme commences and culminates gloriously in a flourish to conclude the film.

There is no original film recording of the score, and the album featured here offers a recording of Saint-Saëns later concert arrangement of his music, Opus 128. The quality of the recording is excellent and provides a wonderful listening experience. For those of you who wish to view the film and score in context as I did, I have provided this link, which offers English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bh0tonXPEKQ. As a composer of operas, Saint-Saëns understood the power of music to drive and empower a story’s narrative. To that end he crafted a fine score anchored by two antagonistic leitmotifs for the principle actors. In each of the five scenes his music spoke to the emotional dynamics and drivers powering the actors. Despite the lack of dialogue, we were well aware of both the overt and covert in the unfolding drama.

I believe Saint-Saëns composition for “L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise” served as a seminal event in the history of film score art in that it represents the inaugural effort to support a film’s narrative with original, non-diegetic music. The outcome Saint-Saëns achieved informed producers of motion pictures of the unharnessed power of music to enhance their story-telling. Thanks to Calmettes’ vision, Saint-Saëns fundamentally transformed the cinematic experience and opened the door of possibilities where the power of music could manifest in wondrous confluence with a film. It would take an additional 25 years for Max Steiner with his score for King Kong (1933) to fully demonstrate the artistic and commercial power, utility and limitless possibilities of music. As a lover of the art form, I cannot overstate the historic importance of Saint-Saëns’ achievement. I highly recommend you explore the YouTube video as well as the Harmoni Mundi recording.

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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