Shostakovich’s film music on the Paris Commune

This video is about the Magic Lantern Show Orchestra improvising a soundtrack to the 1929 Russian silent filmNew Babylon“.

From British daily The Morning Star:

New Babylon

Directed by Grigorii Kozintsev/Leonid Trauberg, restored by Marek Pytel

Wednesday 12 August 2009

by Karl Dallas

Shostakovich‘s music for New Babylon, the film about the Paris Commune, almost destroyed the young composer’s career.

“My troubles on the political front began with New Babylon,” he wrote in 1975.

It is only now that the full worth of the film and the 23-year-old composer’s music can be seen and heard, 80 years after its premiere on March 18 1929, thanks to the assiduous restoration work of Marek Pytel.

Not only were we able to see the film in Leeds recently, as even Shostakovich could not, with the full orchestral accompaniment in total sync with the film’s brilliant images. But the full story of its tempestuous career has been told by Pytel in a unique limited-edition book-and-DVD box set.

Shostakovich was familiar with contemporary approaches to music for silent films, since he had made money playing piano in cinemas – work which he said “undermined my health and nerves.”

“It’s time,” he wrote, “to take cinema music in hand, to eliminate the bungling and the inartistic and to thoroughly clean the Augean stable. The only way to do this is to write special music.”

Which is what he proceeded to do.

Pytel explains what made Shostakovich’s music for this film different from others: “In a piece published just one week before the film’s premiere, Shostakovich described his approach to the music for New Babylon.

“His two principal techniques were the principle of obligatory illustration and the principle of contrasts.

“In the former, the music reveals the true inner meaning of a scene despite the images we may see on the screen.

“With the principle of contrasts on the other hand, the music is intended specifically to contradict the meaning of the images. To achieve these effects Shostakovich styles and melodies are distorted, juxtaposed and superimposed – sometimes all at once – according to the development of the film in which the music’s ‘fundamental aim is to keep to the rhythm and variations of the film, to augment the force of its impact’.”

The film was produced to celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871 by the avant-garde directors Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whose Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS) manifesto threatened to “fling the galoshes of prosperity and good taste into the faces of the deserving,” finding art in “the shouts of newspaper sellers, scandals, policeman’s truncheons, noise, shouting, stamping, running.”

The film ran into bureaucratic problems even before its first screening and a recut, discarding 510 metres of the original 2,580 metres or 178 shots out of the original 1,349, was ordered by the Moscow office of the Sovkino production cinema board.

This meant that it became out of sync with Shostakovich’s music. One member of the audience decided that the conductor must have been drunk.

After its first screening, the controversy heightened.

There were calls for the film-makers to be put on trial for “jeering at the heroic pages of revolutionary history,” though the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers defended it. …

New Babylon: Trauberg, Kozintsev, Shostakovich, a limited and numbered edition book and DVD slipcase set is available from, price £75 plus P&P.

6 thoughts on “Shostakovich’s film music on the Paris Commune

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