A Parisian Soundscape, 1925: Fréhel, Bechet & Baker


One of the joys of composing music for silent films is the opportunity it presents for wide-ranging research, an opportunity to get deep into the sound contexts of the film and to use the found materials as the basis for the composition.

In previous posts on my explorations of the sound world of Nosferatu, I have discussed the process I use in construction of a sound world of a composition through examination and application of the film’s wider social and political contexts. This often involves piecing together a series of related sources, whether they be the Hutsul music and church bells of Count Orlok’s Carpathian mountains or, in the case of my current work on the films of Kirsanoff, the multi-layered, multi-cultural urban soundscape of 1920s Paris, to form a kind of thematic and/or harmonic centre for the film’s score.

It is clear from even these explorations that Kirsanoff’s provides us in Menilmontant with a vision of Parisian life for the working and under-classes, which is far removed from the glitz and glamour of the Moulin Rouge, Champs Elysee and the jazz-inspired revues.

At the base of this post is a link to a youtube playlist I’ve created to illustrate some of the sounds of Paris in and around 1925-26. I feel the need, looking at some of this material through contemporary eyes, to place a significant distance between myself and their content, and any sense that I might somehow endorse some of their content. Today the racial stereotyping and downright abuse on display seems so alien to our sensibilities. But this is what was known by media and venue owners and producers, or a good slice of them in Paris at the time, as entertainment.

Kirsanoff distanced himself from both the mainstream industry and what he saw as the more bourgeois experimentalists in the politics of Dada and surrealism.

As a composer and performer to silent movies that are nearly 100 years old, I do not feel the need or have much interest in recreating on the basis of some kind of attainable authenticity the experience of the first audiences for these films. My interest in the historical contexts is purely to base my work in some kind of interpretive dialogue with the movie and to provide a new experience for contemporary viewers, bringing out aspects of the film that might be lost beneath layers of nonspecific generic movie music themes.

Kirsanoff was born Markus David Sussmanovitch Kaplan in Estonia in 1899 and, prior to becoming a film maker, he worked in Paris in the early 1920s as a cellist in cinema orchestras. It is a reasonable assumption that he therefore knew very well the popular music both of Paris in general and the usages of music in its diverse and often explorative cinema culture in that period.

Unlike his Parisian film-making contemporaries, Kirsanoff explored as much in the development of accessible narrative with retained, popular film editing referencing, as he did in the development and application of ground-breaking editing and cinematographic techniques.

Parisian music was in the 1920s in a phase of considerable reinvention with the growing influence of musical imports (particularly) from the US in the form of jazz. The period was also marked by the gradual reinvention of the popular Bal-musette accordion and pipe dance & song tradition, a French and Italian rural influence that flourished from the late 1880s through to the early 1940s and the golden age of Chanson from that point onwards.

Kirsanoff’s 1926 film, Menilmontant, was released into a Paris hot with the arrival of jazz, especially in the music of Sidney Bechett and the song, dance and electric persona of Josephine Baker, pictured below in her break-through European show, La Revue Nègre, which opened in Paris in 1925.


Whilst many of the big shows by the likes of Baker on the Champs Elysee would have been the haunts of the wealthy, the decadent swing culture and its racial clichés, it would have been present in everyday Parisian consciousness, popular fashion and in the less expensive venues spawning modifications of the Bal-musette. The Bal-musette dance halls and bars were home to a raucous mix of all classes of Parisian life. Crowded dance halls swaying to waltz-type accordion and pipe tunes, but these too adapted to the changing fashions and a new more sensual if not lewd form of Bal-musette theme emerged, Java and Java Bleue.

One figure in the sustained Bal-musette style strikes a particular chord with the dual heroines of Kirsanoff’s  Menilmontant, especially with regard to the archetype of the vulnerable young female cast out into the unforgiving and lascivious clutches of city life and yearning for the simpler, innocent rural ways. That is the singer Fréhel, born Marguerite Boulc’h. A native of Paris, born to parents from Brittany, she lived very much on the streets as a young girl before her singing caught the attention of a music hall promoter and she took to the stage under the name Pervenche (Periwinkle). Her growing stardom and her first marriage ended when she succumbed to alcoholism and her husband left her for another music hall star. After a failed suicide attempt she left France for a life in the show halls of Russia.

In the mid-1920s Marguerite Boulc’h returned to Paris, reportedly emaciated and haggard by years of drinking, she returned to the stage under a new adopted name, Fréhel  the name of the birth place of her parents in Brittany. She became a major star once more in the Bal-Musette form and in Parisian cinema in the 1930s. She was briefly married to Maurice Chevalier, but he too left her.

The Paris 1925/1926 Youtube playlist:


There are a few additional elements in the playlist. Firstly, Bechet made no studio recordings between leaving America in 1925 and arriving in berlin in 1929/1930. The video clip here is about as close as it is possible to get to the sound and feel for the work that Bechet was a part of in the European cabaret scene.

Secondly, for the full extent of the oddity that pervaded class and race in Paris in the 1920s, I have also include the short film ‘The Fireman of the Follies Bergere’ (1928). This film includes copious gratuitous nudity in the most bizarre transgender and racial morphing fashion.  For anyone who might be offended by such a film, it is in this playlist purely for illustration purposes.

Finally, the Paris 1930 video contains a few muted examples of Bal-Musette dance halls, and a totally bizarre commentary.

There is an excellent introduction to Bal-Musette here: