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La Révolution française
  • Composed by Georges Delerue
  • Music Box Records / 2014 / 127m

A monumental undertaking, 1989’s La Révolution française was a six-hour pair of movies released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.  It was all pulled together by producer Alexandre Mnouchkine, born in Russia but based in France for most of his career, and filmed in both French and English.  The two parts (“The Light Years” and “The Terrible Years”) were directed by Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron respectively.  Unfortunately, despite its huge budget and massive cast of well-known actors, the film was very unsuccessful even in France, with its striving for strict neutrality and historical accuracy seemingly coming at the cost of real dramatic impetus, particularly in the sprawling first half.  It fared much better as a kind of educational document when re-edited (and made even longer!) for television.

In a glorious career spanning many decades, Georges Delerue left a rich legacy of film music.  His very Gallic joie de vivre shone through in just about everything he wrote.  Even after his move to America in the 1980s which left him scoring some projects which were so far beneath him it’s almost an insult, in his music was such spirit and always, always such class – and when he chose so, the most astonishing beauty that I’ve ever heard in film music.  On the really special projects was something even beyond that – and for the huge undertaking that was La Révolution française, the composer was inspired to a level extraordinary even by his standards and wrote what I believe to be his masterpiece.

Georges Delerue

Georges Delerue

In 1989 Polydor released two volumes of music from the film (one from each part), running about 45 minutes each, and these became prized collectors’ items.  In 2003 the Canadian label Disques Cinémusique re-released those albums, but brought together in a single volume, in an edition limited to the bizarre number of 550 copies, which were snapped up before a lot of people even knew the album had been released.  Finally in 2014 Music Box Records made the score available again, which corrected the stereo mix-up of the earlier releases and added just over half an hour of additional music (though not in quite as good sound quality).  Unfortunately it seemed that demand had been underestimated once again and all 1,500 copies sold out in short order, now trading for high prices.

The composer’s main theme (“Hymne à la Liberté”) runs through the scores for both parts (though they are fairly distinct in several other ways) and it’s outstanding.  Full of passion, it’s the sound of a proud nation encapsulated in musical form, a stirring anthem for freedom and triumph.  The “Version Orchestrale” which opens both discs actually also features a full choir too, wordless.  Rousing beyond measure and absolutely unmistakably Delerue, it is easy to imagine it being the nation’s real anthem.  (Of course, France does already has a wonderful one of those, and inevitably “La Marseillaise” – which was written during the revolution – is used by the composer in his score, appearing for the first time sung by a male choir late on the first disc.)  “Abolition des privilèges” takes the melody and runs off in a slightly different direction with it, a profoundly moving piece for strings.

There is plenty of music here written in a period style, of which Delerue was a master; as ever, it manages to have an authentic sound to it while being unmistakably his.  The jaunty flute theme in “Le hameau de la Reine” is so beautiful; “Fête des barricades” lighthearted and delightful.  Great moments of state are treated respectfully and at times with great opulence.  “Ouverture des États généraux” is so grand, one expects Louis XVI to come walking through the door when it comes on.  Later, the heraldic trumpet solo of “Appels et serment” is another treat.

Of course, there were many harrowing moments for the composer to deal with too.  The tense “Prise de la Bastille” is the first of them, tight suspense punctuated by urgency and eventually an initially expansive version of the main theme which is cleverly flipped over into fairly desperate action territory.  The action motif is later reprised in “Défaite des régiments français”, an urgent and thrilling piece.  “Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme” is enough to move anyone to tears, the heavenly choral sound of Agnes of God making a welcome return to the Delerue oeuvre.  The first part’s finale, “Fin de la royauté”, is dramatic and crushingly tragic.  Finally, a version of “Hymne à la Liberté” with lyrics (penned by the composer) closes the main programme on the first disc, sung beautifully by the soprano Jessye Norman.  It’s just ravishing.

The second half’s music is a little more narrowly focused and more like a traditional film score, with the film more concerned with a smaller group of people over a shorter span of time.  There is a considerably darker tone to the music, especially in the earlier moments.  “La Fayette” is an emotional dramatic vignette followed by a piece of tricky action, “Les Prussiens” and then a very moving elegy, “Français contre Prussiens” which explodes into an heroic militaristic processional.  The wafer-thin “Le destin de Marie-Antoinette” is so delicate it’s like a tiny feather just waiting to be taken away by the breeze.

“Folie et massacres” – as its name suggests – is dark stuff, extremely bold and somewhat aggressive in its power.  This brings in a more brooding part of the score as it nears its end, building up to “Exécution de Danton et Desmoulins” and “Exécution de Robespierre” which both have a profoundly haunting aspect.  When the former moves from the stabbing strings into a choral requiem, the emotional impact is devastating.  The latter, with its noble trumpet fanfares over military drums, is very different but no less exceptional.  There is one final emotional surge in “Épilogue”.

They broke the mould when they made Georges Delerue.  Had he been born a couple of centuries earlier I’m sure his music written during the Revolution itself would now be being played as part of the standard repertoire.  Being a “mere film composer”, it isn’t – and so few people are truly aware of his greatness.  The richness of La Révolution française is extraordinary, such passion running through its veins that I suspect a lifetime of listening will still not reveal all it has to offer.  I imagine most people will still just listen to the originally 42-track programme and treat the bonus tracks as exactly that; and each of those 42 tracks has something to offer.  Delerue wrote truly great music on numerous occasions; for me this one stands tall above them all.  It’s the score of a lifetime; the score of a nation.

This little extract from the composer’s lyrics to his main theme says everything that needs to be said about the man and his music:

Sois notre espoir et notre force
Sois notre joie, notre bonheur
Nous pourrons chanter chaque jour plus haut
Chanter chaque jour plus loin

Be our hope and strength
Be our joy, our happiness
We can sing every day above
Sing every day further

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Kevin (Reply) on Tuesday 5 May, 2015 at 22:00

    In the digital age I will never understand this limited print BS. It’s insulting these companies want to drum up false demand in order to charge a boat load of money for music. It’s a shame this isn’t available anywhere as I’d have bought it just based on your review.

  2. Chris Avis (Reply) on Wednesday 6 May, 2015 at 01:15

    I don’t think every company’s out to drum up false demand. The soundtrack market seems to be very difficult to gauge these days – a lot of titles that would have sold out instantly a decade ago now languish for a couple of years before selling out. There’s the odd massive seller like this one (but even this album was on sale for what – a couple of months? – before it sold out), but it can often be surprisingly difficult to call these ones. I don’t blame soundtrack companies for not wanting to sit on 1,000 disks that go nowhere.

    That said, it would be nice if Music Box would look into a limited repressing of this title (like Quartet did with the Thomas Crown Affair) because as James’ review indicates, this is a truly stellar release.


  3. Kevin (Reply) on Wednesday 6 May, 2015 at 01:34

    Or just get out of the physical media game altogether and release it digitally. I know there are soundtrack collectors out there who want to have something physical – let them fight over the 1,500 copies. For those of us who are just interested in the music, put it on iTunes or Amazon or allow us to purchase and download direct from your site.