Opus 41a: Girlfriends (1935)

Girlfriends, op. 41a (1935)
CD:  Various soloists, Camerata Silesia, The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)

Lev Arnshtam’s Girlfriends is another of Shostakovich’s early film collaborations available in its un-subtitled entirety on the Internet but I opted instead for the music without images, because I want to get to know Mark Fitz-Gerald’s disc and, with Love and Hatred and Maxim’s Youth in recent memory and still more films (the rest of the Maxim Trilogy!) looming ahead, I want to pace myself on the intriguing but also sort of tiresome act of watching a propagandistic, somewhat dated, frequently incomprehensible movie in discrete and sometimes slow-to-download chunks.  Actually, between Maxim’s Youth and Girlfriends I may have picked the wrong one to watch in full, as this score — largely reconstructed from the original film soundtrack by Fitz-Gerald — is the richer and more varied one, a mix of chamber music, large orchestra work, novel solo instruments, and revolutionary song.  As in The Golden Mountains, Shostakovich deploys a pipe organ, in a voluntary accompanied by brass instruments that heralds the 1919 civil war; as in Alone, Shostakovich makes a rare use of the theremin, in an unstable rendition of the Internationale, then the Soviet national anthem, that plays as the titular girlfriends (serving as nurses) and some wounded soldiers flee from the enemy by train.  Whether the effect is more comical or unsettling in the film I don’t yet know, but in its pure audio form the electronic solo wavers neatly between the two:

I’ll eventually need to watch the film, too, to take in the contrast between the vintage recording of the score and Fitz-Gerald’s thoroughly contemporary, clean-lined account.  Based on the past films I’ve watched there’s a lot of charm in that older, warblier sound, but my tastes in vocal music are very much a product of my times, I think, and I appreciate the lucid, filigree-free (and, certainly, well engineered) solo and ensemble singing on the Naxos album:

Our enemy did not mock you,
At your death you were surrounded
By your own people, and we,
Your friends, closed your eagle eyes.

That excerpt (text translated by Anastasia Belina) comes from the revolutionary song “Tormented by a Lack of Freedom”, one of a couple such numbers that Shostakovich incorporated into the Girlfriends score and, notably for Shostakovich theme-spotters, one he much later worked into the emotionally searing medley of his eighth quartet.  The film score actually has a more direct relationship to his string quartet writing:  Music from the 1938 first quartet serves as the movie’s introduction, which seems uncanny until you read in the booklet essay (by John Riley, he of the ever-helpful film handbook) that the usage dates from a 1960s restoration.  There is original quartet music in the film, though, sometimes augmented by other instruments, and it presents a view of the composer’s emerging chamber music sound, as well as the expressiveness of his general middle-period style:

All in all it’s a fine forty-five minutes of music.  I expect its joys would be diminished outside the context of Shostakovich’s career and the music, designed to coexist with moving images without overwhelming them, suffers on its own as most film scores do (I learned this phenomenon well enough from playing John Williams’ official Jurassic Park soundtrack CD over and over at a tender age), but it very much supports Riley’s thesis that Shostakovich’s cinematic work deserves more credit and attention than it usually gets.  If nothing else, the ties between it and his string quartets — that most respected, intimate, consistently high-quality body of Shostakovich’s work — puts the lie to the idea that his film music can all be dismissed as perfunctory, politically expedient stuff.  It’s a neat facet of his compositional personality to get to know, all these years after becoming so deeply attached to his music.

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