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Sunday, 20 June 2010

On Music in Russian and Soviet Film

In an excellent monograph on Shostakovich's career in film ('Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film' published by I.B.Tauris), John Riley states that "film critics often seem oblivious to the soundtrack". A statement that is without and shadow of a doubt very true. I have spent maybe ten or more times watching Klimov's 'Sport,Sport,Sport' in order to subtitle it (& produce annotated notes on the film) and although I knew that the film was made in collaboration with Schnittke it is only now that I am beginning to see how the soundtrack contributes to the film as a whole. I am no musicologist and am rather uncertain as to how one can write about this aspect of the film. Yet there seems no end to the amount of Soviet films in which the soundtrack is vital to an understanding of the film itself.

John Riley's book on Shostakovich's work has some fascinating accounts of his work on almost fourty films. Even though Shostakovich's contribution varied in terms of quality according to the period in which he worked and the people with whom he collaborated on a film, for many of these films the music contributes to an understanding of the very meaning of the film. Examples of great films he contributed to were many films by Kozintsev and Trauberg (New Babylon, Alone, The Youth of Maksim, Simple People and then with Kozintsev alone in Pirogov and then in the masterpieces Hamlet and King Lear) Yutkevich's The Golden Mountains and Man with a Gun as well as The Counterplan co-directed with Ermler), Gendelshtein's Love and Hate, and then various films with Arnshtam (including Girlfriends and Zoya), with Faintsimmer (The Gadfly) and with other great directors such as Kalatozov, Dovzhenko, Roshal and Joris Ivens. He also worked on the soundtrack of Chiaureli's films during the most dangerous period for Shostakovich after the denunciation of him at the 1948 Congress of Musicians, though obviously in this case it was a question of physical survival which led him rather reluctantly to this work.

Of course, great film music was also to be contributed by the likes of Prokofiev (in his work with Eisenstein and Faintsimmer's 'Lieutenant Kizhe') and the trio of Schnittke, Gubaildulina and Artemyev were to provide some of the greatest soundtracks in world cinema. Moreover, often music which was surpressed or discouragd as music could turn up in the films where its radical innovation would be less likely to be noted. Film was an area where composers not conforming to Socialist Realist musical canons were still able to work. And thankfully. Cinema in the Seventies, for example, would be immensely enriched by the contributions of Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ganelin, Kupriavicius who were practically banished from other musical arenas just as film music was the shelter for Shostakovich decades previously.

Soviet cinema would develop new forms of sound-visual interaction. The 'song film', the symphonic type of dramaturgy, the musical comedy, Eisenstein and Prokofiev's experiments in sound-visual counterpoint, polystylism in the late thaw. Popular film would also have its Dunaevsky's and Kancheli's who would add to the extraordinary quantity and quality of popular tunes and songs.

I recognise my own woeful obliviousness in the past of the place of music in films but this neglect of the past will hopefully be rectified by much more attention in the future. Apart from Riley's superb account of Shostakovich's work in cinema, Tatiana Egorova's hostorical survey is a fine introduction to this subject in a historical perspective. However, the book is appallingly translated and edited (at least my 1997 edition of it is). A pity because the book seems the only general history in this field and has some fascinating accounts of many films from a musicological perspective.


  1. Looking at Russian animation, it is not hard to find examples where the music is an inseparable element. i.e.:
    When the Sand Will Rise:

    How Brave Ivan Saved the Tsar's Daughter:
    ^the relationship here is very obvious.

    A little-known fact is that Shostakovich heavily participated in the creation of what would have been the first Soviet animated feature, writing the score mostly from 1933-4. He continued editing it until 1936, when work on the animated feature was discontinued (~40 minutes were completed) because of three strikes against it: too artistically unusual for the period (felt like a left-over from the 1920s), denunciation of Shostakovich in Pravda at the same time, and the first screening of Disney cartoons in the USSR at the 1st Moscow International Film Festival, which were so well-received that the government amalgamated all animation studios into Soyuzmultfilm, and decreed that its task was to forget the past and copy Disney. Most of the completed footage was destroyed by the German shelling of Leningrad in WW2. Only this small segment survives:

    A lot of the music was lost and forgotten. Nevertheless, this was in my opinion some of the very best and most interesting music made by Shostakovich, which deserves far more attention than it has gotten. In 1999, Russia's Bolshoi Theatre decided to unearth the surviving score and stage a ballet based on it. One of Shostakovich's students, Vadim Bibergan, restored and completed the surviving music for this purpose. This version was released on CD for the first time in 2006:
    (check out that page; it has audio samples)

    The Wikipedia article includes an instrumentation chart that I made (referenced from a score imported from Russia):
    I've also arranged some of it for modern wind ensemble and brass quintet - can't link it here, though, because Shostakovich is still under copyright. :(

    The tradition of repressing Shostakovich's music seems to be alive and well in Russia even today. A 2006 production of the ballet was censored to remove every scene that included the Priest (which was most of them), after criticism by the Russian Orthodox Church:

  2. Thanks once again for a fascinating comment. There is another animated film that John Riley mentions in his book which Shostakovich wrote music for - Skazka o glupom myshonke (The tale of the silly little mouse). Do you know if this is available anywhere online? I made a quick search but couldn't find it available online but I did find this reference to it as being available in a DVD with Kozintsev and Trauberg's Alone (strangely).,0,0,1,0,0

  3. Yeah, sure, it's this one:
    It was also published in the same book that the "Balda" score was published in (DSCH, New Collected Works of Shostakovich, vol. 126). I don't think it is nearly as interesting, either as a film or musically. That film was also directed by Tsekhanovskiy, but is a radical departure from his earlier attempted feature film. He was heavily punished for working in too radical a style, so he turned from a brilliant, award-winning innovator (his 1928 cartoon "Post"/"Почта" brought him international renown) into a competent, but very risk-averse director. He soon went to the other extreme of avoiding any controversy over his style by making his cartoons with rotoscoping (tracing over live-action).

    Music, or sound, is a huge part of animation and live-action cinema. I think that it's at least half of the impression you get from it, but it's kind of a hidden half because many people process it without consciously realizing it. It can make an enormous difference in how a scene is perceived.

    The biggest complaint I've heard in recent years from the Open Russian Festival of Animated Film is that often, very little attention is paid to sound these days. Whenever the exceptional film comes that does pay attention to it, it is like a breath of fresh air. In the worst case, it can be the glue that holds together mediocre editing.

  4. Off topic: I'm looking for a film from the Soviet era called "We Can't Go On Living Like This." Can you give me any tips on finding it?

  5. Hello and sorry I haven't replied as this summer I have being taking a break with barely any internet access. I know of the film but am not sure whether there is a subtitled copy. I have a Russian VHS version. It's by Stanislav Govorukhin and details what he sees as the collapse of Russian society during the perestroika period. The only place in the UK that would probably have a subtitled version would be the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London (but there is usually no public access to the collection). Otherwise you could try the BFI to see if they have a subtitled copy. Outside the UK I would be hard pressed to indicate any institution. Am not sure whether it would be available on DVD with English subtitles- the Ruscico label would be one place to try:

  6. Hi.
    I hope someone can help me.
    I am looking for a movie where a girl is born with a fisherman, who could sing only.
    I saw the movie about the 80s.
    For 20 years I am looking for the film, but can not find a single clue.
    I am grateful for every single note.
    Thanks in advance.