by Robert Israel, Composer
Seven years ago, I embarked upon a project which would take nearly one year to complete and occurred during a time in my life which shall forever remain indelible to my memory. When 2007 began, I was living quietly near Helsinki, Finland with my wife, but in February of that year, my mother, who was living in Los Angeles, passed away very suddenly. I was devastated and it was not long after her funeral that I received a phone call and I was told, “We are a go on the Abel Gance Project! You need to create scores for both La Roue (1923) and for J’Accuse (1919), which is in the process of being restored as we speak.” It was the middle of April 2007, and soon thereafter did my wife and I understand that we were headed to a divorce. My reason for sharing this personal and dramatic episode of my life is that the painful days I experienced seemed to echo distantly something of Gance’s own drama during the production of two of his arguably best feature films. I cannot claim that anything in my life has been nearly as dramatic as being on the front line during The Great War, but I was to experience more catastrophic losses by the end of this project. During the making of J’Accuse, Gance experienced a constant loss of people he cared about as a result of the war; and, surrounding the production of La Roue, Gance would lose his wife, Ida Danis, and his friend Séverin-Mars, who appeared in both films. Both features deal with loss, and ironically, I was to spend the next year of my life experiencing profound losses of all kinds.
There is a tendency to romanticize the artistic creative process. One may imagine that my personal losses helped me to appreciate more sensitively the emotional qualities of each film, to tap into a realm of consciousness which could be regarded as sympathetic to Gance’s artistic spirit, to find Abel Gance’s spirit channeling into my field of energy. The truth of the matter is more ordinary: it was a blessing for me to be able to concentrate on such epic films (J’Accuse runs at 2 hours and 45 minutes, and La Roue runs at 4 hours and 20 minutes), to find so many inspirational moments to keep my mind occupied, and to challenge my own musical creativity. It is possible that metaphysical processes were in play of which I was completely unaware, but during the composing process, nothing felt lofty to me–I was simply surviving day by day, but I was fully committed to the completion of this gargantuan task.
Where the Gance films are epic in length, I would prefer brevity in discussing a few ideas I worked on developing during the process of scoring J’Accuse. The very opening of this feature is unlike any film I have ever seen from around the year 1919. The gathering of the mass of soldiers to form the words “I accuse,” and then to see them fall to the ground–immediately, it is a penetrating image and my first reaction was to feel stunned. I chose as a title theme the immortal Gregorian chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Director Stanley Kubrick considered this music to be one of the most horrifying compositions that he knew and I agree with this assessment. I wanted to make a declamatory musical statement that could parallel with Gance’s powerful image. The Dies Irae is followed by a piano composition by the French composer Charles Alkan and is entitled simply Marche funèbre, Op. 26 (Funeral March). In my orchestration of both compositions, I used the entire resources of a full orchestra with the goal of creating a powerful representation of these themes. This section carries us through the introductory credits and into the main story which opens with a joyous sequence, “A festive night in Provence.” A quote from Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne appears, “De grand [sic] matin j’ai rencontré le train.” This specific text has been immortalized by Georges Bizet in the composer’s inspired Farandole, which is the music I adapted for this scene. As various themes begin to emerge from this extended sequence, the villagers gather and dance in the streets. Where director John Ford used American folk songs in his films to help distinguish location and time, and sometimes to provide a subtext, I found the use of traditional French folk melodies to be appropriate and of great effect: Cadet Rousselle, Au clair de la lune, and Le Roi Dagobert to name a few compositions. As the narrative develops and becomes increasingly dramatic, I found many classical compositions (including works by Franz Liszt, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonín Dvořák, Edvard Grieg, Richard Wagner, and Gustav Mahler) which added a powerful dimension to Gance’s indictment of the war.
Undoubtedly, the film’s culmination, in which the dead arise to see if their sacrifice has been meaningful, required particularly careful scoring. The last movement of Mahler’s Symphonie Nr. 6 had often conjured apocalyptic images in my mind upon listening to its prophetic strains: the work was composed between 1903–06, just a decade before the Great War. For me, the music practically warns of the impending doom lurking behind a frail cloak of hope. It is practically kismet that the opening sequence of this music synchronized in such beautiful timing with Jean Diaz’s horrific tale of what he saw one night on the field of the dead. With timpany and snare drum roll underscoring the awakening of the legion of the dead, this is followed by Richard Wagner’s funeral music for Siegfried from Die Nibelungen. It was not my objective to make any political counterpoint by using such a classic Germanic composition, but rather that the inherent musical language is so emotionally intense, it can be said that the sheer raw power of this music captures the deathly phantasmagoria of the awakening of the dead.
After the dead have spoken and return to their oblivion, Jean Diaz returns to his former home, and it is at this point that Abel Gance unleashes the full fury of his rage about the war. Jean Diaz condemns all those responsible for the war and even Our Father in heaven. It is not merely anger that is a part of this moment, but a profound feeling of heartbreak, repugnance, and betrayal. Gance’s own devout faith has been tragically shaken and he has been overwhelmed with disillusionment as a result of his experience in the war. I remember very well that as the darkest moment of the tempestuous narrative unfolded before my eyes, as I was studying this film, I was overcome with a torrent of emotions–I had to stop my work in an instant. Wiping tears from my eyes, a flood of memories raced through my mind and suddenly my mentor, organist Gaylord Carter, came to my thoughts. He had often spoken of a great and dramatic work for organ and this awakened and inspired a rare moment for me. Julius Reubke was a student of Franz Liszt and one of his greatest compositions is his Sonata on the 94th Psalm for organ. It is a grim and violent composition inspired by the biblical text. The opening of this work (which I adapted and scored for full orchestra), again, serendipitously appeared to synchronize with the visual pacing of the aforementioned sequence. Apart from expressing in musical terms what Gance does with his film, the Psalm 94 provides a chilling subtext to this scene:
“O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself.
Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud.
Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?”
For me, the Abel Gance Project, (as I like to refer to it), shall remain one of the most special moments of my entire career. Out of the personal tragedies I survived during this time, while adapting and composing my scores, I look to this epoch in my life and I feel privileged that I had these films to draw out my musical ideas and expressions. Whatever one may think of Abel Gance’s work, for me there is no doubt that there is a rarified quality imbued within his images and his editing, and after almost one hundred years, J’Accuse still has the power to devastate through its visceral passion, and its genuine condemnation of the war.
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