Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN – Edmund Meisel

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN – Edmund Meisel

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1925 the Soviet Central Executive Committee directed the People’s Commissariat for Education to organize a celebration to commemorate the 20th anniversary the first Russian Revolution of 1905. A patriotic film that revealed the corruptness of the former Tsarist regime while espousing the ideals of Socialism was envisioned to be integral to the celebration. As such Nina Agadzhanova was tasked with writing the screenplay, Sergei Eisenstein was assigned to direct, and Mosfilm would oversee its production. Agadshanova’s original script explored a broad narrative comprising several topics, which covered the totality of the uprising, however Eisenstein significantly narrowed the scope of the film, focusing its narrative on the now legendary mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. The film would star Aleksandr Antonov as Grigory Vakulinchuk, Vladimir Barksy as Captain Evegeny Golilov, and Grigori Aleksandrov as Chief Officer Giliarovsky.

The film is set in 1905 aboard the Imperial Russian Battleship Potemkin, assigned to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, and stationed in the port of Odessa. The crew of the ship are treated badly by the officers and are sympathetic to the uprisings occurring across Russia in the popular uprising against Tsarist tyranny following Russia’s humiliating defeat by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The pent-up anger and frustration boil over when the men are served maggot infested spoiled meet. Their complaints are brushed aside by the ship’s surgeon who says the meat is edible after you wash away the maggots. The men, led by Vakulinchuk, rebel, are incarcerated, and brought to the main deck to be executed for mutiny. For the rest of the crew this is the last straw, they mutiny, kill or throw the captain and officers overboard, and dock at the port of Odessa. Their fame spreads throughout the city and thousands join the rebellion, only to suffer a brutal crackdown and massacre by loyalist Tsarist forces. With news of the approach of the loyalist fleet, the Potemkin sails out of port to its destiny flying the red Socialist flag. Yet the sailors of the approaching fleet refuse to fire and instead cheer as the defiant Potemkin sails through their midst. The film was very popular in Russia and Germany, but was censored by the United Kingdom and France for promoting socialist revolution and social unrest. As it approached its 100th anniversary its legacy is ensured, as it is still widely regarded by critics as one of the greatest films ever made.

Edmund Meisel gained recognition in the burgeoning German film score industry in the early 1920s for his compositions for the films of producer and theater director Erwin Piscator. His big break came in 1925 when Prometheus Film GmbH, the German distributor of the Soviet silent film “Battleship Potemkin” hired him to provide a film score as they believed music was essential to empowering the film’s narrative. He was given a small budget and just twelve days to write the score as there was a fixed opening date for the film. Director Sergei Eisenstein was supportive and made only one request that during the 5th and final reel, that his music eschew melody, and instead forcefully empower the build-up of the film’s suspenseful narrative with deafening, melodramatic fury and stark rhythms. Eisenstein also asked that Meisel interpolate a number of revolutionary songs from Russian and European sources to speak to the socialist struggle, believing that these worker anthems would resonate with the aggrieved viewing public.

Meisel was under some duress to compose the score given the time constraints. Due to the minimal budget, he composed for a salon ensemble of 16 – 18 players, which consisted of; flute, piccolo, trumpet, trombone, harmonium, percussion violins, celli and bass. Conceptually he understood well the film’s narrative of the socialist struggle against an archaic, unjust, and corrupt Tsarist regime. As such to speak to this, the vast majority of his score is minor modal, dissonant, and imbued with augmented triads, which sow struggle, tension, unease, and agitation. Noteworthy is that Meisel was meticulous in his methods and precisely scored each camera shot and scene, a ground-breaking technique that would be adopted by other composers, and move to the forefront in scoring later European films. He also used synchronization or parallelism of the orchestra to express the film’s imagery and physicality, or using the pejorative term, ‘Mickey-mousing’. Examples include the crashing waves in the film’s opening, the squirming maggots, the swaying mess tables, the bubbling soup, or when the baby carriage rolled down stair steps in Odessa. After viewing the film with the live score, Eisenstein expressed his disappointment, saying that Meisel had turned his film into an opera. Yet despite this the enormous popular success of “Battleship Potemkin” led him to hire Meisel for his next film “October in 1927.

For his soundscape Meisel composed three primary themes; the Rebellion Theme is used to express and empower revolutionary fervor. It offers resounding declarations by horns bravura with an ascending contour and syncopated rhythm, in which Meisel sow tension by augmenting it with a triad. The Victory Theme is heard just once in the score, and it makes a powerful and lasting impression. Soaring strings eroico and warm French horns nobile empower a paean of celebratory joy, which culminates in a glorious flourish as the Potemkin, symbol of the revolution, cruises proudly, and defiantly into legend. The Cossack Theme offers a horrific marcia della’inferno, which empowers their attack on innocent civilians. It speaks to their brutality, cruelty and inhumanity, as their unison marching black boots crush all before them without mercy – unstoppable. Meisel also infused his score with famous revolutionary anthems long associated with popular uprisings against oppressive and corrupt monarchical regimes. The iconic French revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise (1792) by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, is woven into the very sinews of the Rebellion Theme. While La Carmagnole (1792), another the French revolutionary anthem empowers the aggrieved Odessa revolt. Also notable is Meisel’s use of rhythmic ostinati to express orchestrally the churning, mechanical power of the Potemkin engines, as well as the lethality and relentlessness of the Cossack’s attack. Lastly, cue titles preceded by (*) offer music not found on the album.

We open with three thunderous timpani rolls, which heighten drama and support the display of the opening credits (not on the album). We enter the film proper with “The Ship”, which opens powerfully atop horns dramatico fanfare declaring the Rebellion Fanfare with supportive timpani roll as we see turbulent waves crashing against a sea wall. Tremolo strings and horns bellicoso with orchestral lashes resound. At 0:59 dire, repeating statements of the seven-note Rebellion Theme support onscreen script, which displays; “Revolution is war. Of all the wars known to history it is only the lawful, rightful, just and truly great war… in Russia this war has been declared and begun.” – Lenin, 1905. We see the Potemkin cruising and sailors Matyushenko and Vakulinchuk together on deck, with Vakulinchuk arguing “We, the sailors of the Potemkin must support our brothers the workers. We must stand in the front ranks of the revolution!” Portentous horns and grim timpani sow unease and we close with an agitato as the two conspirators descend to the crew quarters. At 1:37 “Sleeping Sailors” as we see the crew sleeping in hammocks as “Vakulinchuk stews at their inhumane treatment and living conditions. Meisel weaves a bleak and desolate soundscape, which speaks to the terrible conditions. At 2:15 an ascending motif of tension supports Vakulinchuk waking his comrades. He gives a passionate speech and we read; “Comrades! The time has come for us to speak out. What are we waiting for? All of Russia has risen.” Meisel supports the speech with a reprise of his bleak soundscape of dread, juxtaposing Vakulinchuk’s rousing oratory with the crew’s tepid response.

“Smirnov” reveals the crew assembling on deck where they take turns examining a maggot infested side of rotten beef. Meisel slowly sow an aggrieved dissonant tension as anger rises as Ship’s physician Smirnov removes his pince-nez to examine the maggot infested slab of meat. After the inspection he says it is eatable if you wash the maggots off with brine. At 0:41 a close-up of the maggots is supported by grotesque wiggling woodwinds. At 0:49 anger explodes as we read; “We’ve had enough of rotten meat! It’s not fit for pigs!” The men shout “Russian POWs in Japan are fed better! We’ve had enough rotten meat!” Meisel unleashes a rising orchestral torrent of anger, as Smirnov states “Stop that talk! It’s good meat.” The music swells into rage, and explodes at 2:14 as officer Gilyarovsky orders the men to work and the cook to prepare the daily soup with the rotten meat. At 2:35 we segue atop a fluttering flute into “The Soup” as we see the soup boiling on the fire supported by a trilling piccolo motif. As we see the crew working above Meisel creates a dissonant simmering anger, which percolates with sardonic bassoon as we read “The men seethed with rage.” Tension dissipates at 4:08 with a segue into “The Canteen” where we see the captain brought to the canteen and advised that the crew refuses to eat the soup. We see the cable supported mess tables with untouched soup bowls swaying with the waves, which Meisel supports the motion with swaying strings. At 5:27 we segue into “Our Daily Bread” we hear forlorn irony as the men wash the officer dish ware supported by sardonic woodwinds and forlorn strings to support the dread and tedium. Meisel interpolates the melody from the Russian work song “Dubinushka”, which is traditionally sung by those doing hard labor. We see that the dishware is engraved and we close reading “Give us this day our daily bread”, where Meisel interpolates the chorale melody “Jesus Christ, my sure defense”, which was adapted by J. S. Bach from a hymn by Johann Crüger.

“The Deck” opens with bugles militare declarations and snare drums calling the men to assemble on deck. Ominous abyssal strings create a dark, foreboding tension as the officers and crew line up as Captain Golikov prepares to address the crew. He orders all who enjoyed their soup to step forward; which are the Petty officers and two crewmen. He states that he will string all those who did not up on the mast and orders the armed guards to report. They line up with menace and at 1:16 tension builds as Matyushenko quietly asks the men to assemble by the gun turrets, resulting in a stand-off. A marcia della’inferno rises up as the captain orders a tarpaulin brought up to the deck. “Vakulintschuk” opens powerfully with portentous horns of doom, ushering in a cacophony of violence. Horns bellicoso and martial snare drums drive the action, stoking tension as the captain orders two dozen sailors isolated and covered with a tarpaulin. At 1:35 the marcia della’inferno returns as the captain prepares to order the mass execution

In “Fire!” we open with grim horns repeating statements of the Rebellion Theme. At 0:22 dire trumpets sound as the guards take aim, but when Matyushenko calls out, “Brothers, who are you killing?” They waver and disobey the captain’s order to fire. At 0:57 we segue into “The Mutiny/The Priest” a score highlight where Meisel provides a tour de force! The men mutiny and all hell breaks loose as officers battle the crew propelled by quotes of the Rebellion Theme replete with trilling piccolo, martial horns and a percussive storm. At 2:22 we are offered a comic moment as they pummel the priest and then proceed one by one kill or throw all the officers overboard. “Brothers, The Victory Is Ours!” erupts with snare drums militare introduce a plodding marcia brutale as the tide of victory shifts to the crew. At 1:40 we segue into “Death Of Vakulintschuk” as he is shot by one of the remaining officers. A solitary drum beat of death and stings lamentoso emote a dirge as they swim out to retrieve his body. We close with heartache and remorse as he is brought back by his comrades who honor his noble sacrifice.

“The People Of Odessa” offers a poignant score highlight that offers a sublimely evocative threnody. It opens with drums of death and a plaintive English horn, which support a dirge as Vakulintschuk’s body is brought by a transport boat to the port of Odessa. At 1:27 reverential woodwinds emote an aching threnody with a pizzicato bass pulse, which is passed to strings lamentoso as we see Vakulintschuk body laying in state under a tent. Slowly news spreads through the city and thousands of people come to view his body and pay tribute to their hero. At 3:07 the music gains dramatic fervor and potency, evolving into a marcia della giustizia as people cry out and demand vengeance for his murder over a bowl of soup. We then read a dispatch from the crew; “People of Odessa! Here lies Vakulintschuk, a sailor brutally murdered by an officer of the battleship Potemkin. Death to the oppressors! We shall take revenge!” At 5:36 the threnody resumes with plaintive statements of the Rebellion Theme woven into its fabric. The music slowly swells on a crescendo of anger as we see people clenching their fists in anger, erupting into a revolutionary anthem at 5:57, a rousing cry for freedom as we read “Down with Tsarism!” as people shout with fervor “Mothers, Sisters, Brothers, let nothing divide us!” At 6:20 the threnody returns as a marcia della giustizia. At 7:48 after a man cries out “Kill the Jews!” the crowd is outraged, turn on him, and he is brutally beaten to death as a furioso of grinding strings irato mark his doom. We culminate is a grand marcia della vittoria filled with revolutionary fervor as the people march together in unity, shoulder to shoulder, as we read “The future is ours!” Aboard the Potemkin crewman cry “We must deal the enemy a decisive blow! Together with the workers of Russia we shall fight and win!” A rousing anthem of the revolution supports the hoisting of the red Socialist flag.

In “The Harbor Of Odessa” people sail out in small crafts to join the crew on the Potemkin in an act of solidarity. Meisel supports with some of his most lyrical writing of the score, with a waltz like melody by bubbling woodwinds and strings animato. The crew welcomes them and are gifted livestock and provisions. At 0:44 Meisel interpolates the French revolutionary anthem La Carmagnole as the workers and sailors join in solidarity aboard the Potemkin. “The Odessa Steps” offer a powerful score highlight, where Meisel unleashes one of the most dramatic, devastating and destructive marches in cinematic history. It reveals hundreds celebrating the city’s liberation from Tsarist rule on the main city steps. Suddenly Imperial white tunicked Cossacks appear at the top, start marching downwards, and then begin firing their rifles, which causes the crowd to flee downwards in panic. People topple over each other in the stampede, with many crushed, including a baby boy. Meisel supports the slaughter with the malevolent Cossack Theme, a horrific marcia dall’inferno, juxtaposed by a rapid, descending chromatic contour as people flee for their lives. (*)“Aftermath” offers a score highlight where a perfect confluence of film imagery and music is achieved. We witness the ending of the Cossack’s horrific march, by their synchronous boot steps, which are relentless, irresistible and unstoppable. The aftermath; the lifeless bodies of men, women and children, joined with weeping, and aching inconsolable grief. For this scene of devastation Meisel composed an aching lament, which when joined with the film’s imagery elicits tears. The descent motif of a baby stroller rolling empty down the stairs offers an indelible cinematic moment, which echoes through time.

“Restless Night/The Floating Bridge” reveals news that the Tsarist loyalist fleet of five ships will arrive in Odessa harbor in the morning. The men are all tense and spend a restless night preparing for their date with destiny. Meisel supports with a pathos of plaintive strings and woodwinds, which create a soundscape of grave uncertainty. It is always darkest before the dawn, and Meisel masterfully weaves this tapestry as we see a montage of images of crewman, each coping with their imminent deaths in their own way. At 3:02 it is dawn and we segue atop trumpets militare into “All Hands On Deck!” as the Potemkin is alerted to the approach of the Tsarist loyalist fleet. The alarm is sounded and we read “To Action Stations!” as we see the crew rapidly deploying to battle stations. Meisel sows a swelling torrent of militaristic tension buttressed by grim statements of the Rebellion Theme. At 5:15 a furioso commences as they prepare to get underway. In “Machine Room” we read “Full steam ahead!” and we see the engineer place the engines into forward – Full Ahead. Meisel uses his orchestra with a prominent string ostinato to synchronize and mimic the mechanistic, churning rhythms of the engine pistons propelling the ship forward. An attending violin line joins adding vital energy as the mechanistic rhythms assume an ascending contour. We bear witness to the greatest accelerando in cinematic history as Meisel propels the Potemkin to its destiny. The brilliance of Meisel’s music is two-fold; its kinetic mechanistic rhythms propel the ship, but also stoke an escalating tension as the Potemkin approaches the fleet.

“Full Speed Ahead!” and the following cue offer supreme score highlights where Meisel’s score reaches its zenith. It reveals the Potemkin flying the red socialist flag, cruising defiantly, directly into the jaws of Tsarist fleet propelled by a low register percussive driven marcia meccancistica, replete with cymbal crashes and tambourine accents. A secondary mid register string ostinato joins at 0:47 and intensifies the drama. At 1:23 an accelerando commences as the Potemkin closes on the fleet as we see bridge personnel at work. At 2:00 trumpets of war resound as the Potemkin comes within firing range firing range. Potemkin signals the fleet; “Join us!” and a ferocious accelerando is unleashed as we read “Will they open fire”? We culminate on a crescendo dramatico with a seamless segue into “Brothers!” as the Potemkin safely sails through the fleet unharmed as the Tsarist crews refused orders to open fire. Meisel supports the passage with the Victory Theme, a celebratory paean of joy, which ends in a glorious flourish as the Potemkin crew cheers their comrades on the other ships who join in solidarity! Bravo!

I would like to praise Thomas Karban and the Edel Company for this outstanding reissue of Edmund Meisel’s masterpiece, “Battleship Potemkin.” The digital remastering of the 1987 performance is excellent and the performance of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Mark Andreas’s baton, superb. Following the astounding success of King Kong (1933), Max Steiner over time has been widely credited as the “Father of Film Scores”, however I believe that this accolade, while laudable, is not fully justified. I assert that it would be more precise to state that he is the “Father of Hollywood Movie Industry Film Scores”. In reality, Edmund Meisel eight years earlier wrote a film score for “Battleship Potemkin”, a seminal event in the European film industry, which ultimately transformed it. In reality, Edmund Meisel eight years earlier wrote a film score for “Battleship Potemkin”, a seminal event in the European film industry, which ultimately transformed it. Meisel was meticulous in his methods and precisely scored each camera shot and scene, a ground-breaking technique that would be adopted by other composers, and move to the forefront in scoring later European films. So, to set the record straight, I believe that both men should share the honor as transformative pioneers in the history of film score art, each independently shaping the development of the art form on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Meisel was given a Herculean task to compose a film score in just twelve days, without the synchronization technology available to modern composers and money that limited him to a salon size orchestra. He understood that at its core, this was a propaganda film, whose narrative sought to extol the righteous struggle of aggrieved people fighting for the socialist ideals of dignity, equality, and justice against a brutal Tsarist regime. To that end he infused his soundscape with popular French revolutionary anthems familiar with the viewing public, as well as three primary themes. The proud and defiant Rebellion Theme drives the film’s narrative as an anthem of the revolution. The Cossack’s Theme embodies the cruelty and inhumanity of the Tsarist regime, a horrific marcia della’inferno, which drives their relentless march of death. The Victory Theme offers a celebratory paean of joy as the Potemkin, in defiance against all the odds, cruised unto legend. I believe that director Sergei Eisenstein’s assertion that Meisel’s handiwork was operatic was correct. I cannot understate in saying that in every way he succeeded in empowering Eisenstein’s narrative with inspired music which helped earn the film the accolade as one of the greatest films in cinematic history. I highly recommend this album, which also includes Meisel’s score to the 1926 film The Holy Mountain, as a historic film score, essential for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the astounding finale; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKd8OFndJE0&t=2s

Track Listing:

  • BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN
  • The Ship/Sleeping Sailors (3:24)
  • Smirnow/The Soup/The Canteen/Our Daily Bread (6:53)
  • The Deck (2:13)
  • Wakulintschuk (2:24)
  • Fire!/The Mutiny/The Priest (3:39)
  • Brothers, The Victory Is Ours!/Death of Wakulintschuk (3:39)
  • The People of Odessa (10:14)
  • The Harbor of Odessa (3:41)
  • The Odessa Steps (5:42)
  • Restless Night/The Floating Bridge/All Hands On Deck!/Machine Room (6:54)
  • Full Speed Ahead! (3:17)
  • Brothers! (1:36)
  • THE HOLY MOUNTAIN
  • Prelude/Diotimas Dance to The Sea (5:52)
  • Two Friends From The Mountains/Grande Hotel/Mazurka/Nocturne (4:50)
  • Diotimas Walk Into The Mountains/Spring In The Mountains/Bridge Of Ice/The Meadow/The Meeting (8:32)
  • In His Homeland/He And His Mother/The Kiss (4:02)
  • The Great Long-Distance Run (5:32)
  • The Horrible Northern Steep Mountain Side (6:51)
  • The Abyss/Hallucinations/Bad News For Diotima (7:52)
  • The Act/Torch-Lights In The Night (6:25)
  • His World/Vision/The Temple/The Rescue Team/The Funeral Procession/Fidelity (8:27)

Running Time: 111 minutes 59 seconds

Edel Records 0029062EDL (1925/1926/1997)

Music composed by Edmund Meisel. Conducted by Mark Andreas. Performed by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana Original orchestrations by Edmund Meisel. Recorded and mixed by Joachim Gottschallk. Score produced by Edmund Meisel. Album produced by Thomas Karban.

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