Film Music Review
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Napoleon (1994 Silva Screen CD )

17 Tracks (Playing Time = 52:41)

Album produced by John Boyden. Score performed by the Wren Orchestra. Recorded at St. John’s Smith Square, 1983.

Recording engineered by Tony Faulkner. Music remastered by K&A Productions, Ltd. 2009.

Carl Davis Collection 007

Rating: ****


The 1921 film NAPOLEON written and directed by Abel Gance is one of the great early epics of film. The original film covered the life of Napoleon over the course of six long episodes. At its premiere a shortened version ran to just over 3 and a half hours. In all, the complete film version is 5 hours long, but was never shown complete until it was restored for a revival in 1980.

NAPOLEON was intended to show off the finest cinema had to offer and part of that was an original composerd score by Arthur Honegger which was plagued by the many edits that occurred at that time. Portions of Honegger’s score have appeared in various excerpts as has another attempt to provide new music by Carmine Coppola. For this restoration, Carl Davis was commissioned to provide a new score, having already done so many times for the BBC’s “Hollywood Series.”

Davis has spent a great deal of time writing music for silent films and other early cinema classics. The daunting task here was to write music that honored the intent of this film and could communicate to contemporary audience expectations of film music. The early days of cinema orchestras playing live to picture did not always mean that the music would match the film. Selections from popular song or the classical repertoire would be adapted randomly and interchangeably to films with rarely a through-composed score being film specific. Davis has a way of taking those three elements and combining them superbly to create a sound that is consistent within his Napoleon score in ways that are constantly captivating.

A primary source for the score is Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, and piano variations, and that sound informs some of the Davis’ musical style. Though Wagner sounds like a big inspiration to the opening track, “Eagle of Destiny.” “Pursued” could easily have been penned by Berlioz. Staying true to some of the music of Napoleon’s time in musical style is one of Davis’ best tricks in this score. He also uses a number of period arrangements of songs such as “La Marseillaise,” “La Carmagnole,” and “Ca Ira.” In “Strange Conductor in the Sky,” Davis even includes a bit of Honegger’s score with that composer’s arrangement of Mehul’s “Chant du Depart.”

The present release is part of the Carl Davis Collection and is a straight re-issue of a 1994 Silva Screen release. The recording was made in 1983 but there is no recording information to discern if this was done in an analog or digital format at the time. The original CD unavailable for comparison, this remastered release has superb sound with loud climaxes managing not to overpower the sound picture and with superb performances by the Wren Orchestra under the composer’s direction. This is one of Davis’ most superb scores for a pre-existing film and is worth picking up this time around if you have missed the earlier incarnation.

 --reviewed by Steven A. Kennedy , 23 April 2010

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