In her book Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card, film historian Susan Delson argues that Murphy was the film's driving force but that Léger was more successful at promoting the film as his own creation. However, after fighting at the front in World War I and spending the year of 1917 in a hospital after being gassed there, Fernand Léger exclusively made the dazzling effects of mechanical technology the subject of his art, and it is clear that he conceived of the film himself.
Léger's experiences in World War I had a significant effect on all of his work. Mobilized in August 1914 for service in the French Army, he spent two years at the front in Argonne. He produced many sketches of artillery pieces, airplanes, and fellow soldiers while in the trenches, and painted Soldier with a Pipe (1916) while on furlough. In September 1916 he almost died after a mustard gas attack by the German troops at Verdun. During a period of convalescence in Villepinte he painted The Card Players (1917), a canvas whose robot-like, monstrous figures reflect the ambivalence of his experience of war. As he explained:
...I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal. That's all it took for me to forget the abstract art of 1912–1913. The crudeness, variety, humor, and downright perfection of certain men around me, their precise sense of utilitarian reality and its application in the midst of the life-and-death drama we were in ... made me want to paint in slang with all its color and mobility.
The Card Players marked the beginning of his "mechanical period" of which Ballet Mécanique is a part, an artistic technique that combined the dynamic abstraction of Constructivism with the absurd and unruly qualities of Dada. We see this trend in the film from beginning to end.
However, a photo of a Dada sculpture with the name Ballet Mécanique had been previously featured in 391 (magazine), a periodical created and edited by the Dadaist Francis Picabia that first appeared in January 1917, and continued to be published until 1924. But it is not known if Fernand Léger was aware of it or not.
In its original release, the film's French title was "Charlot présente le ballet mécanique" (as seen on the original print), referring to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character as he was known in France. The image of a Cubist-style paper puppet of Charlot, by Leger, appears several times in the film. It is only the first of many visual puns in the film—a seeming display of the film's sheer visual modernity, as intended by its creators from the get-go.
George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique (1924) was originally conceived as an accompaniment for the film and was scheduled to be premiered at the Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik. However before completion, director and composer agreed to go their different ways. The musical work runs close to 30 minutes, while the film is about 19 minutes long.
Antheil's music for Ballet Mécanique became a concert piece, premiered by Antheil himself in Paris in 1926. Antheil assiduously promoted the work, and even engineered his supposed "disappearance" while on a visit to Africa so as to get media attention for a preview concert. The official Paris première in June 1926 was sponsored by an American patroness who at the end of the concert was tossed in a blanket by three baronesses and a duke. The work enraged some of the concert-goers, whose objections were drowned out by the cacophonous music, while others vocally supported the work. After the concert, there were some fights in the street. Antheil tried to replicate this scandal at Carnegie Hall by hiring provocateurs, but they were largely ignored.
Although the film was intended to use Antheil's score as a soundtrack, the two parts were not brought together until the 1990s. In 2000, Paul Lehrman produced a married print of the film. This version of the film was included in the DVD collection Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 released in October 2005.
As a composition, Ballet Mécanique is Antheil's best known and most enduring work. It remains famous for its radical repetitive style and instrumentation, as well as its storied history. Antheil himself was not a Dadaist, though he had many friends and supporters in that community.
In concert performance, the Ballet Mécanique is not a show of human dancers but of mechanical instruments. Among these, player pianos, airplane propellers, and electric bells stand prominently onstage, moving as machines do, and providing the visual side of the ballet. As the bizarre instrumentation may suggest, this was no ordinary piece of music. It was loud and percussive –- a medley of noises, much as the Italian Futurists envisioned new music of the 20th century.
In 1927, Antheil arranged the first part of the Ballet for Welte-Mignon. This piano-roll was performed on 16 July 1927 at the "Deutsche Kammermusik Baden-Baden 1927". Unfortunately, these piano rolls are now thought to be lost.
The original orchestration called for 16 player pianos (or pianolas) in four parts, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, at least 7 electric bells, 3 propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam. As it turned out, there was no way to keep so many pianolas synchronized, so early performances combined the four parts into a single set of pianola rolls and augmented the two human-played pianos with 6 or more additional instruments.
In 1953, Antheil wrote a shortened (and much tamer) version for four pianos, four xylophones, two electric bells, two propellers, timpani, glockenspiel, and other percussion. The original orchestration was first realized in 1992 by Maurice Peress.
In 1999, the University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble performed an entirely automated adaptation using robotic and MIDI-controlled instruments.
In 1986, the film was premiered with a new score by Michael Nyman.
The score and film were successfully combined in 2000 by Paul Lehrman, who used an edited version of the original orchestration in which he used player pianos recorded after the Lowell performance, with the rest of the instruments played electronically. This version is available in the DVD set Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 released in October 2005 and also in the DVD set Bad Boy Made Good, which also contains Lehrman's documentary film about Antheil and the Ballet mécanique, which was released in April 2006. The featured film print is the original version, premiered in Vienna on 24 September 1924 by Frederick Kiesler.
In November 2002, a version of the score for live ensemble (which required further editing, since live players couldn't play it as fast as electronic instruments) was premiered in Columbus, Ohio by an ensemble from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, conducted by Julian Pellicano. This version was then performed a dozen times in Europe by the London Sinfonietta in 2004 and 2005.
In 2005, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC commissioned Lehrman and the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR), Eric Singer, director, to create a computer-driven robotic ensemble to play the Ballet mécanique. This installation was at the Gallery from 12 March to 7 May 2006. It was installed in December 2007 at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, FL, and again at 3-Legged Dog in New York City, where it was used to accompany a play about Antheil and Hedy Lamarr, and their invention of spread-spectrum technology, called "Frequency Hopping." During the run of the play, the Léger/Murphy film was shown, with the robotic orchestra performing the score, at two special "after-concerts."
The Ballet is hard to surmise from just looking at the score—one must hear it to get a real sense of its chaos. It moves frighteningly quickly, up to 32nd notes at tempo (quarter = 152). It sounds like an onslaught of confusing chords, punctuated by random rings, wails, or pauses. The meter rarely stays the same for more than three measures, distracting from the larger form of the music and instead highlighting the driving rhythms. However, the piece is definitely structured in a sonata rondo.
The sonata rondo form follows an [AB] [A’C] [A’’B’’] [Coda] pattern, where A is a first theme, B is a second theme, and C is a middle section loosely related to A and B:
A – Theme 1 starts at the beginning of the piece. It is easily identified by the oscillating melody in the xylophones. It moves through rhythmic and intervallic variations until a bridge into the next theme (measure 38 in the original scoring).
B – Theme 2 (m77) features the pianolas, supported by drums. The melody is mostly built from parallel series of consonant chords, sometimes sounding pentatonic but often making no tonal sense at all. Antheil uses pianolas for things that would be difficult for human players (a 7-note chord at m142, for example).
A’ – Xylophones return in triple meter to recall Theme 1 (m187). This is not strictly a repeat of Theme 1 but another variation and development upon it. This section descends into increasing chaos (starting m283) which signals a transition into part C (m328).
C – The xylophones and pianolas play a new tune. They stay in better rhythmic agreement here and give a more ordered feel to this section. The xylophones eventually cut out to make way for a serene pianola passage.
A’’B’’ – The xylophones return (m403) with the theme from the beginning. There are differences from the original AB part, including new bitonal passage (m530) and miniature round (m622) between xylophones and pianolas. The pentatonic melody, hinted in part B, returns (m649) and gets developed in the context of the round.
Coda – A startling change occurs when all instruments cut out except for a lone bell (m1134). This signals the beginning of a very long and thinly textured coda. It alternates between irregular measures of complete silence and pianola with percussion. The measures of silence get longer until the listener begins to wonder whether the piece is already over. Finally, there is a crescendo of pianola, a flurry of percussion and a bang to mark the real ending. The score indicates the last measure of the piece to be ended with the pianos and drums only, but modern performances have the xylophones joining back in and doubling the melody of the pianolas to create a more firm, solid, and recognizable ending.
The mechanical pianos keep the tempo strictly at (quarter = 152). Interestingly, all longer rests in the pianola part are notated in 8th rests, as if to suggest the exactness of the instrument. At this rate, the 1920s pianola played 8.5 feet per minute of paper rolls over three rolls. This logistical nightmare has been described by some scholars as being an error, and that Antheil's suggested tempo was actually half that (quarter = 76), but in fact Antheil's 1953 Ballet Mécanique score indicates a tempo of 144-160.
The airplane propellers were actually large electric fans, into which musicians would insert object such as wooden poles or leather straps to create sound, since the fans don't make much noise. In the Paris performances, beginning in June 1926, the fans were pointed up at the ceiling. However, at the Carnegie Hall premiere on 10 April 1927, the fans were positioned to blow into the audience, upsetting the patrons."Fighting the Waves: Music of George Antheil." Ensemble Moderne, cond. HK Gruber. RCA, 1996.
"George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique." Boston Modern Orchestra Project, cond. Gil Rose. BMOP/sound, 2013.
"Ballet Mecanique and Other Works for Player Pianos, Percussion, and Electronics." UMass Lowell Percussion Ensemble, cond. Jeffrey Fischer. Electronic Music Foundation, 2000.