Archive for September, 2010

Opus 25: Virgin Soil (1930) — Lost

September 30, 2010

Virgin Soil, op. 25  (1930) — Lost

The manuscript of Shostakovich’s incidental music for the play Virgin Soil, by Arkadiy Gorbenko and Nikolai Lvov, is lost.

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Opus 24: The Gunshot (1929) — Unavailable

September 29, 2010

The Gunshot, op. 24 (1929) — Unavailable

Shostakovich’s incidental music for Alexander Bezymensky’s play The Gunshot (alternately translated as The Shot) is evidently extant but almost entirely unrecorded.  I may eventually have to spring for a copy of Derek Hulme’s weighty Dmitri Shostakovich Catalogue but, based on an Amazon preview, the score has been published but only one song recorded for a BBC broadcast in the mid-1990s but (referenced in this DSCH Journal album review).  Perhaps with time, and with continuing interest in even the most marginal of Shostakovich’s works, the world will hear it once more.

Opus 23: Two pieces for the opera Poor Columbus, by Erwin Dressel (1929)

September 29, 2010

Two pieces for the opera Poor Columbus, by Erwin Dressel, op. 23 (1929)
CDs:
Overture (Entr’acte): “The Unknown Shostakovich”, Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Valeri Polyansky (Chandos 9792)
Finale: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 10 & 11, etc., USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 63461 2)

These two pieces, written to fill out a Leningrad production of a satirical opera by contemporary German composer Erwin Dressel, are utterly continuous with the other works Shostakovich wrote in the years 1929 and 1930, and, except for us completists, completely redundant.  Laurel Fay notes that he composed the works out of excised Bedbug music as a favor to the opera producers who were, at the time, still readying the first staging of The Nose; it’s very much occassional material.  Like the Scarlatti transcriptions they occupy the periphery of what Shostakovich was up to during these years.

Polyansky’s “Unknown Shostakovich” album on Chandos presents the overture, which scampers through four minutes in a by now familiar style.  I’ve had this disc for some time and I thought I remembered a likeably weighty climax in this track, but that turned out to be the opening procession of The Golden Age.  This is comparatively nondescript:

Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the finale, from another of BMG’s now-withdrawn Melodiya reissues, is more interesting sonically, maybe due to the drier and fussier sound of his ensemble.  I like the instrumental smear early in the clip below; it’s also worth noticing that the trumpet melody that comes gallivanting out of it is the one used in The Golden Age that’s also destined for the first piano concerto:

This sort of recycling, besides demonstrating Shostakovich’s apparent regard for the tune, is what I’d expect from a young composer trying to make money in difficult times, on the hook for writing a tremendous amount of music in a short time within a culture with pretty lax ideas about intellectual property.

The finale accompanied an epilogue to the opera consisting of an animated, anti-American short film.  The film’s long gone but the episodic quality is evident in the music; at one point a choir sings out, briefly, “Peace! Peace! International Peace!”; Shostakovich’s contribution to the production turns a couple of his somersaults and booms to a close.

Dressel’s musical legacy, based on albums and sheet music for sale, seems to consist mainly of his solo saxophone works, and Poor Columbus itself, as far as I can tell, is gone but for its glancing association with Shostakovich’s career.  YouTube, however, does surface a brief video of a dog that, by an accident of naming, unexpectedly connects the pet to a long-forgotten satirical opera of the Weimar Republic.  Embedding disabled per that owner-videographer’s request, or else I’d try to secure that doggy’s own legacy here.

Opus 22: The Golden Age (1930)

September 28, 2010

The Golden Age, op. 22  (1930)
CD:  Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier (Naxos 8.570217-18)

The polka from The Golden Age — within the ballet, a parody of Western decadence that pops up in the middle of the third act — is one of Shostakovich’s most enduring numbers.  I was thinking the other day that the intermezzo from The Bedbug would be a more varied replacement but, really, it doesn’t outshine the polka’s wrong-note charm:

Besides the polka, which multiplies tribble-like within any growing Shostakovich collection, in the form of album fillers and transcriptions for other instruments, I was already familiar with the concert suite from the ballet (just as often translated as The Age of Gold), which presents some highlights but doesn’t hint at the vast and wild expanse of the full score.

Following the path of The Nose, the New Babylon score, and The Bedbug, the ballet continues to lean on what you could call the three Fs of Shostakovich’s late-1920s style:  feistiness, fretfulness, flexatones.  The only well-known ballet close to it stylistically is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (which you’ve likely heard some music from), written about five years later as that composer was transitioning back into the USSR, and superficially the scores have a similar Soviet-modernist shine.  Shostakovich even makes some incremental approaches towards Prokofiev’s melodic accessibility and lightness of touch, most winningly in the brief third scene:

Despite Shostakovich’s marginally greater generosity with grabby melodies and harmonies, as well as a larger rhythmic crumb (perhaps for the sake of being able to dance to it), the complete Golden Age is an equally brilliant and exhausting two and a half hours of music.  Scurrying episodes build violently into orchestral gigantism; the music veers between parodying the bourgeoisie and giving into its own giddy enthusiasm.  The “Tahiti Trot” gets an encore as the Act 3 entr’acte, with added saxophones.

Indeed, saxophones dominate Shostakovich’s orchestration, tying it back to dance hall music and that peculiar Soviet conception of jazz.  Shostakovich seems to enjoy mapping out the instrument’s possibilities:  In one striking and rather bizarre usage, the “Dance of the Black Man and Two Soviet Football Players”, a breathtakingly percussive sequence drops off to a leisurely, dimly American-folksy passage for saxophone and banjo:

A saxophone also opens the Adagio in Scene 2, carrying the ballet’s most extended moment of tenderness and sentimentality:

For stretches the music can sound like perpetually moving underscoring for the action onstage, but highlights abound as well.  The greatest joys for me lie in Shostakovich’s longer dramatic climaxes, when the music starts light but, gaining mass and momentum, barrels into a chaotic and unexpected place.  For example, the Act 1 conclusion (the track carries the evocative name “Foxtrot… foxtrot… foxtrot”) begins with the composer’s most literal representation of cabaret music yet:

But the textures thicken over the next minute or so into a pile-up like that in the second symphony.  Fans of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto will recognize the tune which emerges from the cacophony, as he reuses it less grandiosely in that later work:

Similarly, the Can-Can that ends Scene 5 begins nimbly:

And then, following up a crescendo and a dark turn at about the four-minute mark, it rushes into an almost perversely exuberant, minor-key finale:

The music in the final, sixth scene is generally weightier than what came before it, or perhaps by that point I was just worn down as a listener.  But even then the music has its charms — the “Scene of the Freeing of the Prisoners”, for one, features a nice transformation of the earlier foxtrot / eventual piano concerto theme.  The ballet perks up for its final dance, too, and ends in a characteristic, supersaturated whirlwind of sound, with just a touch of the major-key jubilance and triumphalism that would come to define (and be imposed upon) Soviet music through the coming decades.

The plot of the ballet concerns a Soviet football team that visits a “Golden Age of Industry Exposition” in the nonspecific Western city of U-town and, in between sporting events, apparently thwarts and/or is thwarted by Fascists, the Bourgeoisie, Agents Provocateurs, etc.  According to Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay for the Naxos disc, Shostakovich and the ballet’s original choreographer never precisely agreed on a scenario; the album’s synopsis and track titles draw from both schemes without providing any real detail.  (I’m not sure whether it’s more a sign of the times or of the youth of the artists involved, but a number of Shostakovich’s early collaborative efforts — see also New Babylon — seem more or less to have been disasters.)  In shopping for this work I saw a used VHS release of an ’80s-vintage Bolshoi Ballet production for sale, though Whitehouse notes that it featured a cut and re-edited score and (in an unpromising and oddly amusing phrase) “attempted a different, non-football approach”, so I’m happy to have run with this audio-only release.  The Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds strong throughout — they also cut several excellent Shostakovich albums under Neemi Järvi a couple of decades ago — and José Serebrier directs with the necessary high energy and punch.

I recommend the disc, and the music:  Again, I found it hard to process, at least all at once and with my undivided attention, although there is a wealth of ingenious and extraordinary material here.  (Based on seeing The Nose live I suspect it would get the usual lift from an in-person performance, too, but still groan under its own weight by the end.)  I don’t subscribe to Naxos’ online music-streaming service — I spend too much of my daily life behind a corporate firewall to use it, although I’ve heard good things about it — but if you belong I suspect that would be an ideal way to listen through this album, since despite the abundant highlight’s it’s not likely to be a frequent or casual go-to.  I did find that I got more simple pleasure out of the music when I ran parts of it in the background of other tasks at the end of last week — while working, or washing the dishes — so although it feels wrong to say so (one should seek to be attentive and not distract oneself from their chosen task, etc.) the most effective place for this music may be in the background, or at least in the middle distance of some otherwise less interesting time.

A final point:  By now I have trouble imagining what this all sounds like to a non-fan of Shostakovich’s music, or someone not already deeply acquainted with his work.  To draw the analogy to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet again, I can remember first listening to that music in high school and finding it scintillating yet not very gripping, sometimes charming yet maddeningly willing to let an incipient big tune or juicy harmonic progression dissipate back into the musical ether before fully materializing; I suspect The Golden Age would have sounded like that and more so.  For my own part, it’s sheer pleasure to listen to a serious, large-scale Shostakovich work that’s essentially brand new to me.  Additionally, I love hearing how the abrasiveness and vitality of his early work — largely missing from his later, more familiar output, due largely to increasingly reactionary official tastes and, I think, to his own maturation as well — fits in with his stylistic development and his more popular style.  As a closing example, Shostakovich’s traditionally structured fifth symphony is typically taken as an aesthetic reversal in the face of ominous criticism from the state, and based on isolated musical examples it’s easy to find little connection between the frenetic, grenade-lobbing spirit of his early works and the famous symphony’s expressive, Mahlerian solidity.  Yet in listening closely through the course of Shostakovich’s early career, I hear the elements of his style which, pared down and finally invested with the tragedy of his experience, characterize his music after his supposed about-face.  I pointed out such a passage in the third symphony; here, as a closing example, is a moment within a Scene 4 dance in which the rhetoric of the fifth symphony begins to take form.

This Week in Shostakovich

September 27, 2010

I have no update this morning, as I’m gearing up to listen through José Serebrier’s complete, three-act recording of The Age of Gold this evening. But this week will bring that ballet; two pieces contributed to a non-Shostakovich opera; two sets of incidental music gone missing; and Shostakovich at the movies for a second time. Beyond that, it looks like various works for stage and screen for about another week or so. Good times will be had!

Happy Shostakovich Day

September 25, 2010

Tomorrow is my sixty-second birthday. At such an age, people are apt to reply coquettishly to questions such as “If you could be born over again, would you live your sixty-two years in the same way?” “Yes,” they say, “not everything was perfect of course, there were some disappointments, but on the whole I would do much the same again.”

If I were ever to be asked this question, my reply would be: “No! A thousand times no!”

–Dmitri Shostakovich in a letter to Isaak Glikman, September 24, 1968

Many happy returns of the day, the 104th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Opus 21: Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets (1928-1932)

September 24, 2010

Six Romances on Texts by Japanese Poets, op. 21, for tenor and orchestra  (1928-1932)
CD: “Shostakovich: The Orchestral Songs, Volume 2” (Deutsche Grammophon 447 085-2)
Ilya Levinsky, tenor; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi

On Wednesday evening, my girlfriend Kyle and I went moonviewing at the Portland Japanese Garden, an event they host annually based on a traditional Japanese festival.  From folding chairs lined up to face east, we had a dramatic view of the partially clouded full moon rising over the city skyline below us and the indistinct hills beyond it.  Also on offer were food and sake samples, koto and flute music, bilingual haiku readings (each read twice, I suppose, to make them last longer), quietly mesmerizing demonstrations of the Japanese tea ceremony.  And, most importantly, a rare chance to walk around the Garden’s grounds after dusk.  It may have been appropriate, I thought, to skip ahead one work to Shostakovich’s Japanese songs that day, to add another element of reflected Japanese culture; but why break the satisfying monotonic increase of the opus numbers?  Besides, the Japanese Garden’s O-Tsukimi, despite its trappings of middlebrow entertainment, fostered a mood of quiet contemplation of the passing seasons; Shostakovich’s songs are youthful treatments of the universal artistic concern of sex and death, with emphasis on the former.

These six songs, like the pieces for string octet, are familiar to me from years of occasional CD listening — Järvi’s fine volume of orchestral songs, unfortunately discontinued, is a favorite of mine — although they’ve always resided somewhat outside of my understanding of Shostakovich’s stylistic development.  Heard now, they represent another modernist-leaning path in the composer’s early career, full of prowling lines and eerie, penumbral dissonances.  The set, though assembled piecemeal over four years, sustains a mostly continuous atmosphere of nocturnal restlessness.  The first song, “Love”, sets the tone with illustrative touches of harp, mallet percussion, rumbling gongs, distant-sounding brass; in the present recording, tenor Ilya Levinsky sings with an artful strain in his voice, playing up the music’s passionate anxiety.  (Shostakovich’s music seems to suggest that the planned rendezvous of the poem may not be so confidently expected.)  The dissonances become more raw in the unsubtly dramatic second song, “Before Suicide”, with some expressionistic tone-painting for “The wild geese [that] cry out in fright / over the lake, cry out once more”:

(I quote from Joan Pemberton Smith’s translations in the album notes, as Laurence R. Richter’s Complete Song Texts turns out to have translated a slightly different version of the poems than what is sung here.  The Russian translations of the original texts, from various and sometimes anonymous Japanese poets, are credited at least in part to one A. Brandt.)

The tension never leaves the work even in its lighter moments; at the end of “An Immodest Glance”, a saucy little scene of the wind momentarily blowing a woman’s skirt up from her legs, there is an uncertain or abstract quality to the music that removes it from the poet’s professions of joy:


The music becomes less gauzy for the actually consummated romance of “The First and Last Time”, and “Love without Hope” reaches a lovely, fleeting reverie at the thought of an encounter, albeit a hypothetical one couched within a negation:  “It is not I who will caress you, / not I who, exhausted by your caresses, / will fall asleep beside you.”


Looking slightly ahead, the moment has an analog in Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, composed in parallel with the last of these songs.  In Katerina’s aria of sexual longing late in Act I, a similarly constructed text and musical concept gets a more extensive, more ardent treatment.  (“No one will stroke my white breast, / No one will tire me out with his passionate embraces”, etc.)

The sixth song, “Death”, returns to the dark mood of the opening, with its repetitions of “I am dying” and its final pensive fadeout.  It’s good music, particularly in its instrumental colors, and though there isn’t great variation among each setting it works as a continuous, inwardly agitated fifteen-minute rumination on the fraught intensity of love.  (Shostakovich dedicated the songs to his new wife Nina Varzar, as he did with the sexually frustrated/explosive/disastrous Lady Macbeth, making it all but impossible to avoid an autobiographical reading.)  Shostakovich’s popularity seems to grow year by year — I’ve been riding that wave myself, really, since the mid-90s — so I can’t claim that any aspect of his output is underrated, but nonetheless I feel that his orchestral songs deserve more attention.

Opus 20: Symphony No. 3, “First of May” (1929)

September 24, 2010

Symphony No. 3, “The First of May”, op. 20  (1929)
CD: Shostakovich: Symphonies 3 & 14, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Mariss Jansons (EMI 3 56830 2)

Listen, workers, to the voice of our factories:
in burning down the old, you must kindle a new reality.

Today was a cool and sporadically rainy first day of autumn in Portland, so it’s hard for “the first of May” to evoke any image other than a bright, springtime afternoon.  But rereading Semyon Kirsanov’s tedious poetic text for this symphony’s finale, not to mention listening to the bombast of the music itself, brings me around to the correct revolutionary program.

Taken in isolation, the pair of lines above could illustrate the mindset of Shostakovich in the late 1920s, among other artists (certainly the film directors Kozintsev and Trauberg), and indeed legions of young artists across time, geography, and ideology:  Dynamite the stylistic traditions of the last generation and forge a new aesthetic appropriate to the changing times.  Yet Shostakovich’s third makes a move towards musical conservatism:  Structurally it lives in the same state of unending flux as his past few scores, but the surface-level restlessness is considerably toned down.  Given the darkening political atmosphere and the official criticism that rained down on the likes of New Babylon — and quite possibly a more purely artistic impulse not to repeat himself wholesale — it’s unsurprising that the composer avoided the jaunts of formal experimentation that characterize his second symphony.

The third starts out promisingly, with a plainspoken yet modern melodic line for solo clarinet, later joined by a second.  Its broad, consonant intervals remind me more than anything of Aaron Copland’s popular style — most famously Appalachian Spring, but more directly the opening movement of his clarinet concerto — although Shostakovich is cooler to the touch:

As in the second symphony, the orchestral body of the work leading up to the choral finale unspools in a single through-composed movement, though in broad outline it has something like the slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of traditional multi-movement symphonies.  The first episode when the music reaches a rolling boil (marked as section II in the Jansons album) serves as a good example of the piece’s character:  I hear the brightness and kinetic energy of New Babylon, The Bedbug, or The Nose, but without either those scores’ wildness or more conventional thematic development, the gestures here sound repetitive and stereotyped.

I heard Valery Gergiev conduct the symphony, I think with the Mariinsky Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall in 2007, and (programmed with Shostakovich’s fourth symphony) it made for a really brash, engaging show of early Shostakovich music.  As usual, the immediacy of the experience, not to mention the sheer acoustical gut-punch of unrestrained orchestral loudness, is vastly diminished on disc.  Listening at home, the quieter moments are more intriguing; if I focus on a small enough time frame that the work’s structural amorphousness doesn’t become obvious, and before it gallops off into the blustery choral finish a few minutes later, I can hear the beginnings of the musical language, even the emotional directness, that I know so well from the fifth symphony onwards:

These moments of interest aside, it’s not a strong work overall.  I touched on this point a little bit in writing up the second symphony, but I think it’s a little bit of a shame that this work gets more attention than the ones Shostakovich produced at about the same time, just by virtue of it being a symphony — based on the 15 he wrote, Shostakovich’s reputation is mainly as a symphonist, and at least in my own history as a listener (though I suspect I’m not alone in this) paying most of my attention to that chunk of his output first gave me the impression for a long time that the span between his well-known first and fifth symphonies was occupied by two amoeba-like, possibly halfhearted propaganda symphonies; a lighthearted piano concerto; the “Age of Gold” polka; and the opera that got him in trouble.  (The gigantic fourth symphony is missing from that tally, as it remained a cipher to me for a long time, even when I’d been listening to it for a couple of years.)  I got over that impression some time ago but I’ve been enjoying slowly stepping through Shostakovich’s early career and becoming more deeply aware that, in his first decade as a composer, the fullest realization of his talent was in his non-symphonic output.

This EMI disc is still a good pickup if you’re piecing together a Shostakovich library, for its clearly drawn third symphony but more so for its fine, sharp take on the fourteenth (composed almost exactly 40 years after the third, and inhabiting an entirely different sonic world).  I’ve been a fan of Mariss Jansons for a long time, as he was the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra while I was a teenager in the city’s northern suburbs, and then a college student in town — a couple of his electrifying Shostakovich shows were formative concert-going experiences for me and in retrospect I’m lucky that the hometown professional orchestra had such a world-class interpreter of the composer’s works in charge while I was getting to know the music.  Jansons’ cycle of the symphonies on EMI hasn’t struck me as consistent (in particular his recordings of the fifth and tenth didn’t affect me much, and they’re the linchpin of any complete set) but this is a solid entry.

Opus 19: The Bedbug (excerpts) (1929)

September 22, 2010

Excerpts from The Bedbug, op. 19 (1929)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, Soloists Ensemble, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Shostakovich wrote his incidental music to The Bedbug almost simultaneously with his New Babylon score and, for several years, it marked a successful colaboration with two of the Soviet Union’s preeminent artists:  The play, a social satire on those early Stalinist years, was a new one by Vladimir Mayakovsky, staged by theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold.  The ensuing years would not treat those two well; Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930 and Meyerhold, after years of increasing criticism, was arrested on false espionage charges and executed in 1940.

I don’t know whether Shostakovich’s full set of musical selections still exists but, apparently, seven have been recorded, four by Rozhdestvensky in their original orchestral version (based on Onno van Rijen’s and Yosuke Kudo’s thorough online discographies).  I have little to add about these excerpts’ style to what I wrote about New Babylon — predictably enough, since Shostakovich composed the scores practically on top of each other, they’re made of very similar material.  The Bedbug‘s instrumentation sounds smaller and more novel (saxophones, fewer strings) and its punchier, wind-heavy sound, plus a greater tendancy to carry a recognizable tune, make it coincidentally resemble Kurt Weill’s more memorable Threepenny Opera music, which had opened in Berlin half a year earlier.

The two marches that bracket Rozhdestvensky’s set don’t make much of an impression on disc; the “Scene on the Boulevard”, leading with saxes and muted trumpets, sounds like affable but leering out-on-the-town music.  The Intermezzo is the standout, though; I’m still in the flush of hearing it for the first time yesterday but, though it’s obviously not one of his more consequential pieces, I think it’s a really fine three-and-a-half-minute specimen of his early style.  It opens with a fluid, faintly mysterious melody in the saxophone; this leads into a smoky swell in the strings, which opens up into a pirouetting wrong-note dance bit, laced with grating trumpet outbursts and trombone slides:

The selection rounds out with similar, slightly off-balance antics, a reprise of the opening tune, and a final loud razz.  The flute and flexatone, a combination used to evoke an unsettling bugle call in New Babylon, instead go for a whistling stroll together here:

I listened to the track the first time while walking up the sixteen flights of steps to my office in the morning, an apt accompaniment to the nose-thumbing tone of the music.  The minor physiological indignities of light exercise (sweating, heavy breathing in a musty, otherwise empty high-rise stairwell) pair pretty well with early Shostakovich.

Opus 18: New Babylon (1929)

September 21, 2010

New Babylon, op. 18  (1929)
DVD:  New Babylon, The Eccentric Press

I’ve been looking forward to watching New Babylon, to hear an unfamiliar, early Shostakovich score (his first for film) in something like its original element.  Just prior to starting this blog survey I tore through John Riley’s Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film, a fine account of each of the composer’s film scores.  Practically, I expect it to come in most handy in the many cases when I can’t get ahold of a DVD copy of a movie and Riley can flesh out the plot as well as the context of the musical cues that made it into the concert suites.  One of Riley’s bigger points, though, is that Shostakovich’s film music is too often dismissed as perfunctory and unworthy of much attention, while in his view the film scores, though they exhibit as much inconsistency and varying quality as the rest of Shostakovich’s output, constitute a coequal branch of the composer’s career.  I’ve been interested in hearing and seeing what I can; Riley makes a good case for Shostakovich’s seriousness in crafting some of his scores and in seeking a viable film-music language but he doesn’t describe the composer’s film style in contrast to his concert or theater works.

This DVD edition of Grigori Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s film, prepared by Marek Pytel, comes bundled in a special-edition set (at a fairly premium price point) with his informative but haphazardly edited book New Babylon: Trauberg, Kozintsev, Shostakovich, based on his research into the film’s history.  It doesn’t speak directly about the version of the film on the disc but lays out Pytel’s justification for trying to restore it to a version prior to several studio-mandated cuts just prior to its premiere, which besides adding a more propagandistically appropriate ending (still in place) muted some of its formal experiments and threw the final edit of the film out of sync with Shostakovich’s score.  Pytel fails to credit the musical performance in his disc; it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent the soundtrack has been recut.  There is another, apparently similar, considerably cheaper DVD release on Arte Edition, though I haven’t (yet) seen it for comparison; in a quasi-public exchange of emails through a reviewer at DVDBeaver.com Pytel asserts that his own edition’s frame rate is the correct one.  Both are based on an old print of the film which, for international release, censored some of its allegedly racier shots.  All of this to say, it doesn’t seem there is an authoritative version of New Babylon currently on the home video market, and the concept of authority itself gets tricky for such a long-troubled film, but the energy and inventiveness of both film and score both shine in the present version.

The film presents a predictably one-sided account of the 1871 Paris Commune with a romance, not often in the foreground, between a perpetually fiery salesgirl / eventual Communard (Yelena Kuzmina) and a thoroughly miserable-looking soldier (Yevgeni Chervyakov).  Its 1929 premiere of the film was a disaster by all accounts:  The film’s avant-garde techniques baffled the audience, despite the above-mentioned late cuts, and an under-rehearsed and uncomprehending cinema orchestra butchered Shostakovich’s unconventional score.  On disc now it’s lucid and bracing.  My previous exposure to early Soviet film consists of Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera (and my familiarity with early film in general doesn’t go much beyond that) but, compared even to those strikingly constructed works, Kozintsev and Trauberg deploy an extraordinarily kinetic editorial style.  Unlike anything else I’ve seen in film, too, is an uncanny, muddy quality they bring to out-of-focus figures moving in the middle background of several scenes, most notably dancers in a restaurant early in the film and soldiers digging graves for executed Communards late.  Maybe due to the directors pushing at the bounds of a not yet settled cinematic language and maybe due to their freedom from the stagey anchor of dialog, the film frequently pushes into swirling near-abstraction, full of high contrast (both photographically and thematically) and extremely fast-cutting montage.  The clearest example to me is this scene of a journalist attempting to announce the defeat of the French army over the din and bourgeois nonchalance of a Parisian dance hall:

The film works as propaganda but, by propagandistic standards, it still seems sardonic and gloomy by turns, willing to find dark humor in the Communards’ circumstances and show their pessimism:  In a scene near the end, the salesgirl, awaiting her execution, notices that her soldier is digging her grave and bursts into hysterical laughter before breaking down into tears.

The music here — to turn finally to Shostakovich — is one of his characteristic sweet-sour dance numbers, both comical and cloudy.  His score, which according to Trauberg he wrote in three weeks, is stylistically of a piece with The Nose, although it’s also thinner in texture and more repetitive.  The brash instrumentation is, by now, recognizably the composer’s, for instance in the eerie use of a flute paired with, I think, a quiet flexatone (I do love mentioning the flexatone) to indicate nighttime bugle calls.  It almost constantly propels itself and the film forward, although a very few dramatic silences and lowerings of the music occur at key moments.  It’s highly parodistic — the composer and filmmakers alike are at their most exuberant when lampooning the excesses of wealthy Parisians.  One thing it’s not is directly tied to what’s happening onscreen:  At some times the score is illustrative of the images (most literally when a solo piano shadows an old Communard as he plays a sentimental song onscreen) but more often Shostakovich’s music suggests a more abstract level of drama, or else just seems to exist on its own plane entirely.  The latter kinds of moments have their joys, especially when the music is in its elbowy, high-energy mode, but the sequences in which Shostakovich draws out a lower emotional layer are some of the most powerful.  In my favorite example, a group of radical women trying to protect cannons from a French army detachment give the starving soldiers milk and attempt to win them over to their cause, only to have the soldiers turn on them when reinforcements arrive; the score, in marked constrast to the fury of the filmed action, is pensive, tragic, tender, evocative of the women’s feelings of betrayal:

I’ll conclude with an example of the film’s overall mood of anarchy, visual energy, and warped humor, as the French army mounts its final assault on the Commune’s defenses.  (The burning mannequin belongs to the titular “New Babylon” shop where the salesgirl worked before joining up with the Communards.)  This excerpt also shows off Shostakovich’s willingness to repurpose existing music, his own or anyone else’s:  A prominent musical theme throughout the film, including here, is a distended, wrong-note-ridden version of Offenbach’s famous cancan from Orpheus in the Underworld, associated with the Parisian bourgeoisie.  (Riley suggests that Shostakovich’s tendancy to recycle was exacerbated in this score’s case because of his close deadline.)

It’s just a stunning movie for its youthful exuberance all around and the music, while not Shostakovich’s most careful score, is a fine specimen of his spirit.  I wish he’d written music like this longer (although there is more work in this vein to listen to) and I wish more narrative movies today were made with this level of visual daring.