Jean-Luc Godard et Anna Karina
Jean-Luc Godard et Anna Karina  © Getty  /  Giancarlo Botti

What Was the Role of Classical Music in the Nouvelle Vague?

Godard, Truffaut, Varda ... All the great names of the Nouvelle Vague used very different music to refine the aesthetics of their films. What role then did classical music have in the films of the 50s and 60s?

Classical music and cinema are like an old couple, sometimes distant, sometimes incredibly close ... Some films have made classical masterpieces central to the plot. The New Wave of the 1950s and '60s, was not defined by any one musical style, as the filmmakers of the movement were drawn to very different musical genres or commissioned works from composers. 

Jazz, Song and Classical Music 

Three films mark the beginning of this cinematographic period: Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais, François Truffaut's Les Quatre cent coups and A bout de souffle by Jean-Luc Godard. They are, as Professor Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb, author of two books on this subject: Georges Delerue - Une vie (1999) and Analyzing Film Music (2010), attests "Three films that have used very different music: jazz, contemporary music and more classic film music".  

"No director systematically used classical music. But all of them, at one point, appealed to a living composer or, at a certain period of their career, came closer to classical music ", Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb adds. Of the Nouvelle Vague directors, François Truffaut perhaps made the most use of classical repertoire in his soundtracks. Melomane, the director of Jules et Jim, did not just use music in his films, he fully imbued his characters with it; Antoine Doinel frequents Parisian concert halls, is part of the Jeunesses Musicales de France and then marries a classical violinist in Domicile conjugal.

Other directors of the period have used classical music. Agnès Varda scored her film Le Bonheur with works by Mozart, while Louis Malle used Erik Satie's Trois gnossiennes and Gymnopédie No.1 in Le Feu Follet, among others ...

But these examples are more of an exception than the rule in the New Wave. Directors from this period generally preferred to commission living, avant-garde composers. Using music from previous centuries did not suit their aesthetics or approach, they were focused on innovation. Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb adds: "In this period that was, rightly or wrongly, defined as avant-garde, it was necessary to acquire the sound of the musical avant-garde that was not represented by classical music".

Film Music VS Music for Concert Hall 

Pierre Jansen, Antoine Duhamel, Michel Legrand or Georges Delerue were some of the most in demand composers, who often devoted themselves to film music whilst also composing classical repertoire. The 50s and 60s in France were marked by a desire on the part of some composers to create a total break with past traditions. Directors followed suit, turning to musicians who specialised in film music to help to develop modernist on-screen language. Eric Rohmer asked Louis Saguer to compose the solo violin piece heard in Le Signe du Lion (1959), Philippe Arthuys composed the music for Paris nous appartient by Jacques Rivette (1960) and Godard's Carabiniers (1963). While Jean-Claude Eloy worked on two films by Jacques Rivette: La Religieuse (1966) and L'Amour fou (1969).

Almost all of Claude Chabrol's films were scored by Pierre Jansen, the former dodecaphonist student of Leibowitz and Messiaen. While Michel Fano audaciously experimented with "sound scores" (a controlled mix of concrete music, dialogue and sound effects) on Alain Robbe-Grillet's film L'Immortelle (1963).

In his book Georges Delerue - A Life, Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb states that "a film composer will always be considered by those of his colleagues who are devoted to" pure "music as a separate entity". Indeed, film composers often had to fight to have their concert work performed and to gain legitimacy in the classical milieu, despite their huge film successes.

Temporary Music

Directors often did not meticulously plan out the score. As Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb notes "In the film making process of the time the music always came to an end". The director would often use temporary music, as a stand-ing. These were often classical pieces.

"By the end of the film making process, the director was usually so used to the temporary music he had been using during editing, that he asked the composer to mimic it," Gimello-Mesplomb adds. These pastiches are commonplace in New Wave films. Lully's style is elegantly handled by Bernard Herrmann in François Truffaut's La Mariée était en noir. A pastiche of Brahms can similarly be found in Godard's Le Mépris.

In an interview, Jean-Luc Godard admitted to having no idea what he wanted for the (now very famous) Camille theme. Georges Delerue proposed a pastiche of Brahms, and Godard agreed without hesitation. He was not so kind to this composer in A bout de souffle - 

- Aimez-vous Brahms ?              
> - Comme tout le monde : pas du tout.

(- Do you like Brahms?
- Like everyone... not at all.) 

"Godard reacted like that because he did not want to use records. He openly scorned film composers in the 1960s, but remained fascinated by the dramatic power of classical music on screen. In the 70s, he completely freed himself from the obligation of commissioning a composer and instead used recorded music, though not necessarily classical", Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb explains. Classical music can be found in the directors later works, especially in Adieu au langage (2014), which features Beethoven's 7th symphony

The end of the Nouvelle Vague marked the return of recorded music: "At the beginning of the New Wave before the films were successful, they were often low-budget, aesthetically daring films. When the movement runs out of steam, for economic reasons, recorded classical music re-emerged, "says Frédéric Gimello-Mesplomb. This can also been seen in modern cinema, where the budget is often insufficient to commission a composer.

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