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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Roll over, Lully

The source of the sublime music for Bresson's Pickpocket

is less obvious than you might think.

Enter JCF Fischer.

Part One

For decades I've thought that the music for Pickpocket was by Lully (1632-87), court composer to the Sun King, Louis XIV. No longer, for some of it is in fact by Johann Casper Ferdinand Fischer (1656-1746), a German baroque composer.

The partial misattribution is reasonable, for the film's opening credits tell us that the music, even as it plays on the soundtrack, is by 'Lulli (transcription F. Oubradous)'. This 'fact' seems to be a staple of Bresson filmographies; 'A History of Film Music' by Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge UP 2008) says it is by Lully, and Cooke is a Professor of Music; my DVD of Pickpocket (Artificial Eye 2005) gives Lully as the composer.

I had found myself thinking, 'Yes it's by Lully, but which of his works? Why do I never hear it on the radio?' Wikipedia turns up something important (at least to me): the music is from the orchestral suite no.7, not by Lully but by JCF Fischer, his Opus 1 of 8 suites collected under the title 'Le Journal du printemps' or 'Spring Journal', published in 1695.

So, it is from Bresson's beloved 17th century, just - Pascal's century we might call it. The suite is in four movements and Bresson uses the overture. It is melodic and serious, whose gravity provides a perfect overtone to the opening of the film and whose grace – when the music breaks into a quicker-stepping dance – beautifully complements the union of Michel and Jeanne at the end.

A prize therefore goes to the anonymous contributor to the entry for Pickpocket on Wikipedia for this information, but he/she must have got it from some film scholar. Who? Answers on an e-mail please to [email protected].

An even bigger prize goes to Herr Fischer, turning in his grave each time someone writes that the music is by Lully, not by him. Composers compose for immortality's sake – even that seems to have been denied to Fischer. Until now, at any rate. So, roll over, Lully; rise up, step forward, take a bow, Johann Casper Ferdinand Fischer. Pickpocket makes you immortal.

Part Two

But I then spotted that IMDb mentions Fischer's orchestral suite as uncredited (so a prize to them) but it also states that the Lully used in the film is a selection from his Symphonies d'Amadis. If this was the case it had to be somewhere during the course of the film, not at the beginning or end.

Analysis shows that music is used nine times in Pickpocket:

  1. for the opening credits, as mentioned.
  2. when Michel is inducted into the finer arts of pickpocketing by Kassagi (22 mins 5 secs).
  3. after Michel has told Jacques that he had believed in God for three minutes, he makes a diary entry to the sound of music (28.02).
  4. Michel's room again: after a conversation with Jacques he makes a diary entry (43.10).
  5. Michel's room: after a conversation with the Inspector, they go into the passage and music starts (53.50).
  6. Jeanne's room: they embrace and Michel decides to leave Paris. Music runs for a minute and a half to cover Michel leaving Jean, getting money from his room and going to the station in a taxi (57.25).
  7. One minute later, after Michel has boarded the train to Milan, the music resumes over Michel writing in his diary (60).
  8. Michel returns to Paris, talks to Jeanne in her room: music for 50 seconds covers Michel leaving work with a pay packet and giving it to Jeanne (62.48).
  9. for the ending: Jeanne visits Michel in prison. Michel: "Something lit up her face". The music of Fischer's overture starts up, quickening its pace as Michel tells Jeanne, "What a strange path I had to take to come to you." The 'End' title follows, and the music runs for about 90 seconds against a black screen (72.30).

For all these instances the overture is used except for the sixth, just after Michel and Jeanne embrace. This music is different and presumably is the piece of Lully that IMDb mentions, although I have not been able to confirm this.

Sweet and wonderful though it is, is there maybe too much music in Pickpocket? Perhaps Bresson thought so because ten years later he had abandoned music for his films, at least when it was externally added rather than coming from instruments seen to be played or a machine such as a record player.

In Pickpocket it acts not just as a punctuation but as a way of adding a tone to the film. This is grave except in two places: famously, at the end, but also (and I had not spotted this before) to mark the union of Michel and Jeanne, 57 minutes into the film, the end of act 2 as it were, and to mark the transition to Act 3, and the film's dénouement. Here, the music is lighter, even as the images show Michel leaving Jean to flee Paris. It is this therefore that maybe by Lully.

© Tim Cawkwell 2013