Few presentations of silent films will achieve the greatness of the operatic cinema that is Napoleon. Over eight hours, including three intermissions, the audience was enchanted and roused by Abel Gance’s 1927 silent masterpiece accompanied by an excellent, muscular Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra (Gelders Orkest) conducted by American-born composer Carl Davis. The French director also wrote the screenplay for the film and based it on Napoleon’s memoirs dictated to his generals during his exile on St Helena.

The epic recounts Napoleon's childhood, his early life on Corsica, his military rise and victories with the French army, and of course his affair with Josephine. Ahead of his time, director Abel Gance was a revolutionary technical wizard when it came to shaping his films, including colours (red and blue), rapid-editing, stereoscopy, and Soviet montages. He experimented with his camera by mounting it on wheels, trains, horses, and even trapezes, leaving the audiences gasping in wonder during the many chases and battles. Gance even creates an inspiring cinematic triptych when he expands threefold for the film’s 40 minute, panoramic finale. From the moment the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra began its marathon to the touching afterword by the film’s editor and curator Kevin Brownlow, the performance combined a dazzling piece of cinema with a superlatively arranged score by Davis, who effortlessly synthesized contemporaneous symphonies by Beethoven and Mozart with his own original themes into a resounding pastiche score that spans all five and a half hours of film. This event, part of the Holland Festival and previously hosted in San Fransisco and London, was a rare opportunity to experience the sublime.

Abel Gance's Napoleon
Abel Gance's Napoleon

During Act I, Gance follows a 12-year old Napoleon. Bullied at school, but already showing skill in strategy during an impressive snowball fight, the future emperor is depicted as a true underdog. Davis chose to accompany the scenes of young Napoleon with an arrangement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 in G minor. The choice of Mozart’s energetic and lighthearted piece amplifies the sprightliness fervour of the young man. It makes for a delightfully funny experience in which Davis demonstrates his impressive skill in arranging the symphonic music to Gance's humorous and manic visuals.

After the first intermission, the film follows Napoleon in his young adulthood. Davis includes Gossec’s rousing orchestration of La Marseillaise, which frequently returns throughout the score as the theme of the revolution. During the scenes of Napoleon on Corsica, Davis created an orchestration of three original island folksongs. This arrangement, rich with Mediterranean rhythms and melodies, reminded me of Ravel or Chabrier’s Spanish rhapsodies. The music evokes the cinematic energy of the horse chases all filmed on location on Corsica. Continuing in Act II, Davis introduces Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony as Napoleon rises against all odds in the ranks of the French army. Again, the musical arrangement sounds tailor-made for the film, and of course, Beethoven originally dedicated the piece to Napoleon, only to change his mind disappointingly when he crowns himself Emperor. In Act III, Davis introduces Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major to reflect the energy (Allegro con brio) of Napoleon’s victories. While in the last act, Davis arranges the same symphony to reflect the crippled state of the French army in Italy. 

In a highlight of the performance, during the second act’s finale against the British (including a few notes of Rule Britannia here and there), as Gance superimposes an earlier scene from his childhood snowball fight onto Napoleon’s current battle, Davis flawlessly intersperses the opening melody of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 throughout Beethoven’s Eroica. Reflecting the superimposition on screen, the composer’s awe-inspiring musical arrangement truly shines here.

Besides the masterful arrangement of symphonic works, Davis also composed large pieces of new music for the film. While lacing the score with Beethoven, Mozart, and Gossec, Davis creates remarkable, original themes for important characters in the film. Though not as exquisite as Beethoven or Mozart, these themes transition naturally between the symphonic arrangements. Perhaps anachronistic for the music in Napoleon’s time, these early Romantic themes composed for both Josephine and a majestic eagle (symbolizing Napoleon), reminded me of, dare I say it, Wagner’s leitmotifs! Davis weaves these musical aspects together elevating the entire work to the heights of French, Romantic, sweeping grand opera. This was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

*****