Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > STENKA RAZIN – Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov

STENKA RAZIN – Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

The short silent film’s genesis arose from a collaboration between two pioneers of the emerging 20th century Russian cinema; producer/cinematographer/correspondent Alexander Drankov, and director Vladimir Fedorovich Romashkov. Following the 1905 Russian revolution the country was simmering with worker and peasant discontent against the autocracy of Tsar Nicholas II and the aristocracy. In an effort to tap into public discontent, they conceived of a fictionalized account from the life of Stenka Razin, a heroic 19th century Cossack chieftain who led a peasant revolt against the oppression of the Tsar and landed nobility. The 10-minute short film would be financed by Drankov’s own production company, which he formed the year before in 1907. The screenplay was written by Vasily Goncharov, and is an adaptation from the play Ponizovaya Volnitsa. A single actor is credited, Yevgeni Petrov-Krayevsky who would play Stenka Razin.

The story is set is Tsarist Russia circa 1870 in the southern steppes inhabited by the Cossacks. The film reveals Cossack Chieftain Stenka Razin and his men crossing the Volga River. His men do not like his captive paramour, a Persian princess, and so they maliciously foment lies about her infidelity, which succeed in enraging Razin who angrily lifts her up over his head and throws her to her death in the river’s icy waters. The film was a commercial success and a seminal event in the history of Russian cinema as it was the first film to be supported by an original nondiegetic score. It meant that Russian films could now compete with foreign European films, which had been dominating Russian cinema. At this point in history there were no organizations that bestowed awards.

In conceptualizing their film, producer Alexander Drankov and director Vladimir Fedorovich Romashkov made the audacious decision to hire a premier composer who would provide original music for accompaniment. This had never been attempted before, and so this film offers a seminal event in the history of cinema – the first film to be accompanied by original music. The creative team reached out to fellow Russian Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, a composer and conductor whose works included operas, orchestral music, chamber music and a large number of songs; his most famous works to date at that point were his Caucasian Sketches, completed in 1895.

Drankov and Romashkov wanted to directly engage the audience and so Ippolitov-Ivanov conceived of interpolating the popular Russian folk song “Mother Volga” within the fabric of his eight and one-half minute score. His energetic and quintessential Russian orchestral score really assisted the film’s pacing, and was song-like, which allowed the actual song to enter seamlessly without impeding the music’s narrative flow. The “Mother Volga” folk song was familiar to Russians and Ippolitov-Ivanov arranged his composition so that an audience could join in with the chorus and sing, especially for the film’s dramatic grand finale. By making the film experience interactive, it ensured an indelible and memorable cinematic experience.

The ten-minute film offers a series of tableaux, which Ippolitov-Ivanov supports with an eight-and-a-half-minute composition. We open with racing strings energico and horns nobile supporting the main titles “Stenka Razin’s Wild Revels on the Volga”. At 0:09 we flow into the film proper atop a lush prelude by sumptuous strings, which usher in the “Mother Volga” song sung by a solo bass voice with supportive wordless men’s chorus as we see Razin and his men crossing the Volga River on four boats. The melody is warm and wistful until 1:14 when it bursts forth with pride as the men’s chorus moves to the forefront and begin singing. The solo bass voice returns to take up the song until 2:02 when the orchestra begins a slow buildup of tension led by horns set against contrapuntal strings as we see men celebrating in a forest near the river bank. They lay a carpet and the princess begins to dance atop it, yet she is soon escorted off the carpet and three men begin traditional bravado dancing, supported by strings swelling with urgency.

At 3:09 a string descent ushers in portentous horns as we see the brigands plot against the princess, becoming agitated that Razin is doting on her and ignoring them. They conspire to make him drunk so he will fall prey to a fake letter, which will arouse his jealousy, which Ippolitov-Ivanov supports with song-like orchestral support, an undercurrent of discontent. The plot succeeds as Razin reads; “My dear Prince Hasan, I cannot live in captivity, I am tired of these revels. I cry when I think of you and our beloved land with its fragrant gardens. Forgive me, and don’t forgive me. Yours until the grave, your unhappy princess.” At 4:01 horns of doom resound as the drunken Razin grabs the princess in anger and throws her to the ground as the music’s energy shifts to a molto tragico expression. At 4:33 the solo bass and wordless chorus resumes the song, now full of sadness, as the princess weeps and Razin rages. We conclude at 5:04 powerfully atop full men’s chorus as Razin forcibly grabs the princess and pulls her to his boat. As he lifts her over his head the solo bass voice supported by chorus resounds as he tosses her to her doom into the all-consuming dark waters of the Volga.

This short 1908 Russian film constitutes a historic, seminal event, of when film music was officially born – the first time a film was accompanied by original non-diegetic music. Three weeks later, the French would follow with “Camille Saint-Saëns sixteen-minute score to the short film “L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise”. With these two pioneering efforts the cinematic experience was forever transformed with the marriage of cinematography and musical accompaniment. The creative team of Drankov and Romashkov wanted to directly engage the audience and so Ippolitov-Ivanov conceived of interpolating the popular Russian folk song “Mother Volga” within the fabric of his eight and one-half minute score. The song was familiar to Russians and Ippolitov-Ivanov arranged his composition so that an audience could join in with the chorus and sing. By making the film experience interactive, it ensured an indelible and memorable cinematic experience. This is where it all began, and it is a damn shame that an independent audio recording does not currently exist. Nevertheless I have provided a YouTube link so that you can hear the music in film context. I cannot overstate the importance, significance or magnitude of Ippolitov-Ivanov score.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the film itself, the only place you can hear Ippolitov-Ivanov’s composition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=hIhB20KTWzA

Track Listing:

  • NOT AVAILABLE

Unreleased (1908)

Music composed and conducted by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. Orchestrations by XXXX. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Alexander Drankov and Vladimir Fedorovich Romashkov.

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