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NEW BABYLON – Dmitri Shostakovich

January 31, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The film’s genesis lies with Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), an avant-garde artists association founded in 1922 by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. The mission of the organization was to promote a new film methodology call “Eccentrism”, which rejected the traditional aesthetics of bourgeois art, instead seeking a new path that would embrace Futurism, Surrealism and Dadaist Constructionism. To that end Kozintsev and Trauberg conceived of a film that would tell the story of the Paris Commune of 1871; the first effort to form a government committed to communist principles. Their screenplay was reviewed and they secured permission to proceed from Goskino – The Soviet State Committee for Cinematography, which would fund and distribute the film. Kozintsev and Trauberg would jointly direct and a fine cast was assembled, which included; Yelena Kuzima as Louise, Pyotyr Sobolevsky as Jean, Sergei Gerasimov as Loutro, Vsevolod Pudovkin as Baliff, Oleg Zhakov as a member of the Paris Commune, and Yanina Zhejmo as milliner Teresa.

The film is set in Paris during the tumult of France’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Emperor Napoleon III was captured at the Battle of Sedan and the Monarchy collapsed, replaced by the 3rd French Republic. Civil war erupts between Monarchists back by the French army and left-wing socialist workers backed by their Garde Nationale. Paris fell under the control of the Paris Commune, which raised the red socialist flag and instituted a Communist government. Against this backdrop unfolds a tragic love affair between Louise, a socialist salesperson employed by the New Babylon store in the Commune, and Jean a soldier in the Monarchist army. The Commune is eventually defeated and Jean is ordered by the court to dig Louise’s grave as she has been sentenced to death. The film was severely edited to meet Soviet cultural demands for the proletarianization of art, the forerunner to Soviet Realism, which fractured Shostakovich’s score, which was found to be unplayable for the premier performance. The end result was a commercial and artistic failure.

Twenty-two-year-old Dimitri Shostakovich was a fellow member of FEKS and Kozintsev and Trauberg were familiar and impressed with his talent. They hired him to score the film and he composed what many believe to be a score of unprecedented complexity. Assigned Opus 18 in his canon, Shostakovich saw the film as an opportunity to gain recognition, and so poured his heart into the project. Given the French revolutionary setting, he infused his soundscape with popular songs of the revolution, which included “Ca Ira” (1790), La Carmagnole” (1792) and “Le Marseillaise” (1792) by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1792). He also utilized popular French dances, operetta melodies as well as traditional French folk songs. All served to establish an authentic French sensibility, which grounded the film and fortified its class struggle.

In conceiving his approach to scoring the film, Shostakovich decided not to speak directly to and mirror the film’s imagery that was unfolding on the screen but to instead offer musical counterpoint by expressing the underlying emotional dynamics. He fully embraced sarcasm, sardonic wit, impressionist dissonance, and unbridled ebullience. Unfortunately, disaster struck when the directors significantly re-edited the film less than two weeks before its debut, which forced Shostakovich in nine days to rewrite his music and prepare the musician parts. In terms of themes, Shostakovich interpolated “Ca Ira”, La Carmagnole” and “Le Marseillaise” as identities of the Communard revolutionaries while the burlesque Can-Can Dance was used to represent the bourgeoise and capitalist establishment. The album is structured into eight pieces, each supportive of one of the eight reels of the film. Lastly, the music provided in the film was not congruent with what was found on the album, which constitutes Shostakovich’s original score that was ravaged by Soviet censors. As such I dialed out the film’s score and utilized the album score instead, trying my best to synchronize its music with each film scene. I acknowledge there may indeed by some minor synchrony imprecision, but on balance I believe the review succeeded when all is said and done.

The film opens without musical accompiament as the roll of the opening credits proceeds. Music enters 0:28 into the credit roll atop sardonic trumpets joined by abyssal bassoons. We segue into Reel 1: “General Sale: War – Death to the Prussians” atop dissonant horns into a score highlight of innovative writing. We see French flags waving in the breeze atop a jeering mob filled with hatred of the Prussians. At 0:15 the Can Can Theme erupts supporting risqué dancers as we see the bourgeoise continuing on with their privileged lives at the Moulin Rogue burlesque palace. Across town other bourgeoise are complaining that the war has made prices go up as they frenzy shop at the New Babylon Warehouse. The Can Can ebullience propels and animates the scene with an infectious exuberance. At 2:03 we shift gears atop xylophone animato, which supports the bustling shopping on the screen. At 2:49 a diminuendo reveals a drunk and oblivious patrician sitting at the Moulin Rogue which is supported by a danza inebriato. At 3:07 the music darkens as we descend into sweat shops, where we see dispirited workers toiling, supported by the tedium of a string ostinato and discordant horns. The Can Can returns 3:33 as we return to the frenzied women shopping during a dress sale. At 4:37 a sardonic clarinet supports the inebriated patrician ordering his dessert. At 5:30 the music darkens and becomes questioning as we see shop assistant Louise being advised by her boss that the Board of Directors has invited her to attend a ball tonight. At 6:45 a surging string ostinato and trilling woodwinds animato join as the manager repeatedly shouts “Sale”, which increases shopper frenzy, juxtaposed by the sight of Prussian troops marching on to Paris. Strings energico, a frenetic violin and bubbling xylophone felice propel a montage of scenes of frenzied shoppers interspersed with shots of workers suffering without hope in sweat shops, fat patricians drinking champagne, and a mob shouting “Let them bleed!” at the Prussian troops. We close with a danza triste, which unleashes a coda of the Can Can Theme.

Reel 2: “Head over Heels: Paris” offers a stupendous score highlight of amazing creativity, innovation and complex orchestrations – a masterpiece cue! We open with an amazing valzer comica, which sweeps you away and features a meandering violin and farcical horns. We see a drunk woman spoking a cigar and drinking champagne shouting “My beloved Paris!” as bourgeoise couples dance full of merriment. We see a montage of images including; stage dancers, a wealthy man still imbibing champagne, a gaudy seductress saying “We are all looking for love”, many couples hugging, yet with each couple one is oblivious to the other, and lastly Louise being escorted by her boss to the lecherous wealthy man’s table. At 4:00 we up shift atop strings spiritoso and horns as the wealthy man shamelessly advises Louise that he is looking for love. The music’s energy propels the stage show and dance floor in the background. At 4:45 we are off to the races as Shostakovich unleashes a torrent propelled by strings rapido as the people continue their celebration, cheering; “Here’s to a cheerful Paris!” At 5:33 strings energico usher in martial horns to crown the patriotic moment. At 6:12 the Can Can Theme returns for an amazing rendition as we see the people on the crowded dance floor dancing in a drunken frenzy. A quirky “Yankee Doodle Dandy” spices up the performance. At 6:53 we commence a slow and amazingly rich and complex crescendo, which crests at 8:06 with a man shouting to the crowd; “Defeat!” We conclude with music, which darkens and advances with resolute strings buttressed by drums as we see French troops routed and Prussian calvary advancing on Paris. Shifts to a harsh sawing string ostinato followed by racing strings unleash an accelerando furioso. We close with horns and woodwinds sardonica as the Moulin Rogue empties as patrons flee in terror.

Reel 3: “The Siege of Paris” reveals that the Prussian army has surrounded, and is laying siege to Paris. Shostakovich sow a bleak soundscape with a forlorn cello duet full of sadness as we see a montage of desolation and despair in the many faces of Parisians. French workers prepare to defend the city as a French flag wave in the breeze during sunset. The men need guns but lack money, with commentary stating that if Paris falls it will not be the bourgeoise that pay the price, but the workers. At 1:39 a solo oboe a vigorous musical surge propelled by a string ostinato and blaring horns, which slowly builds. Woodwinds and horns take up the musical narrative with martial accents as a boy enters an declares that they had capitulated to the Prussians who are colluding with the bourgeoise to disarming the workers. The alarm is raised, the workers mobilize and at 4:27 we surge with staccato horns, string ostinato and trumpets militare. At 5:52 strings tristi support Jean, a young soldier who tells Louise that he does not want to fight, but instead return to his former life in his village, which earns her rebuke, although we discern a romantic attraction in their eyes. At 7:26 as woodwinds emote fragments of Le Marseillaise, joined with a string ostinato and horns, slowly swells atop a crescendo bellicoso, which crests at 9:09 as his anger erupts. A diminuendo descent follows in the aftermath and elicits strings tristi as Louise is speechless. We close at 10:04 atop field drums and horns, which sound the alarm for the coming confrontation.

Reel 4: “18th March 1871: On the morning of 18th March the workers still guarded their guns” opens with Shostakovich again sowing a bleak soundscape with grim woodwinds and churning bass. We see a solitary soldier guarding their canons, while across the city a pretentious music director prepares for the premier of his operetta. At 0:42 an oboe countered by a low register bassoon usher in strings energico, joined by woodwinds animato and horn ostinato as Prussians shoot the lone worker guard. Across town the rehearsal proceeds as French troops wait for horses to move their canons. At 2:44 surging woodwinds, a pulsing bassoon, and strings energico raise tension as a crowd gathers below the French fighters and the captain urgently orders the canons moved. The crowd walks up and joins the fighters and demand to know what they are doing. They feed the hungry troops milk as they have gone hungry for days. At 3:45 an accelerando spiritoso, which showcases amazing writing for woodwinds initiates a crescendo as the horses finally arrive. At 5:17 we surge on repeating stepped crescendo dramatico as conflict between the troops, which intend to withdraw, and the crowd who demands they stay and fight escalates. At 7:00 field drums, dire horns sow a torrent of conflict as the women lay under the canon wheels and demand to be shot. At 8:03 horns nobile usher in a bright and confident musical narrative as armed French workers arrive. The workers led by Louise shout at the captain that they will not allow themselves to be disarmed. The captain orders his troops to “Shoot this rabble!” At 9:32 cymbal strikes and grim horns elicit drama as the soldiers mutiny and throw down their guns as we see across town shots of dispirited workers in a rage and the rehearsal at the opera house called a failure by its angry director. At 10:15 a bleak passage by strings supports the decision by the workers to occupy town hall, while the bourgeoisie decide to assembly at Versailles. Louise is enraged as the captain orders his troops to Versailles and the workers depart for the town hall, supported at 11:37 by bass grave and a dark and foreboding musical narrative. Louise confesses her love for Jean, they embrace, but in the end, he departs with the troops as she is unable to convince him to join the workers. We close with woodwinds animato, which dance over a marcia cupa as the workers march to their destiny.

Reel 5: “Versailles against Paris: Paris has stood for centuries” offers an astounding and inspired score highlight. It reveals a panorama of the great city of Paris highlighting gargoyles, animal statues, and monuments supported by forlorn woodwinds and impressionist strings as script reads; “This Paris is no more.” At 0:39 a woodwind led accelerando fortified with strings energico and trilling woodwinds usher in a dynamic galloping musical narrative, which supports a montage of scenes of happy workers now enjoying their former mundane jobs. Script reads; “We work for ourselves and not for the owners, as decided by the Commune!” “We don’t work nights anymore, as decided by the Commune!” At 1:54 strings nobile emote “La Carmagnole” joined by woodwinds and horns fieramente to declare the Worker’s Anthem as script reads; “Our children aren’t cannon fodder for the rich anymore, as decided by the Commune!” “We aren’t evicted from our homes anymore, as decided by the Commune!” At 3:22 resolute strings joined by horns bravura declare worker pride as we see the Commune Council meeting argue policy, joined by shots of happy workers. At 4:12 a diminuendo by woodwinds animato ushers in impressionist strings and woodwinds tristi as we shift to Versailles. We see a dispirited Jean who reflects on leaving his love Louise behind as the wealthy elite bestow gifts upon French army generals as they declare; “Thieves, prostitutes and murderers have taken over Paris!” “They take away our land and divide it!” At 5:44 strings animato usher in fanfare bravura as we see the generals receptive to the bourgeoise oratory. At 6:57 a crescendo dranatico is unleashed, which crests powerfully at 7:57 as the Commune leadership declares to the people “No violence. We will solve everything peacefully.” At 7:58 the wealthy elite call for “Le Marseillaise”, the proud French national anthem, is which is provided an inspired and extended rendering as we read; “Arise, children of the fatherland! The day of glory has arrived!” At 9:49 we read “Let the blood flow! To Paris!” as the generals order an attack to retake the city from the revolutionaries. A montage of scenes of happy workers juxtaposes artillery shelling the city. We close with tremolo strings dramatico, which concludes with a powerful crescendo that ends with a drum roll.

Reel 6: “The Barricade: The 49th day of defense” offers a dynamic score highlight. We open with great tension with tense tremolo strings, grim horns, and dark bass as we see armed workers standing guard and pensive shots of Commune leadership as the Commune has been surrounded and cut-off from the rest of Paris. At 0:46 horns of alarm resound, joined by tense tremolo strings as a worker enters the council chamber and declares; “The enemy has broken through!” At 1:37 woodwinds animato surge, joined by violins energico and horns militare as people begin tearing up the cobblestone streets and throwing out furniture into the streets to construct a new, barricade for their last stand. The worker anthem “La Carmagnole” fortified by drums of war and strings bellicoso supports their valiant efforts. At 2:55 the orchestra erupts with churning bass, which escalates a torrent of violence as Louise and fellow workers toss out the New Babylon store’s inventory. At 3:37 we shift to Versailles supported by a graceful danza gentile as we see the wealthy elite resting comfortably and anticipating the return of their privileged hierarchical social order. The music is sustained in a scene change to the barricade where workers rest and enjoy each other’s company. At 5:28 all Hell is unleashed with “La Carmagnole” joining a torrent furioso as the loyalist forces attack the barricade in force. Shostakovich propels the attack with a ferocious tour de force. The workers fight valiantly, but are outnumbered and outgunned. At 8:59 horns of alarm resound to support the withdrawal of the loyalists and usher in a diminuendo of sadness for the aftermath. At 9:25 a threnody unfolds as people grieve as we see a montage of the fallen. At 11:50 the loyalist commander orders cannon bombardment and Shostakovich evokes an eruption of violence with dire horns of doom and sawing strings bellicoso as a furioso of violence is unleashed. The barricade and workers are pummeled and then overwhelmed by loyalist troops who charge and breech their defenses. Louise joins the fight, kills a soldier and then grabs a dress and shouts; “Sale!” She is eventually overcome and taken prisoner. We close at 14:14 with the bourgeoise at Versailles celebrating their victory, supported by a danza gioiosa.

Reel 7: “To the Firing Squad: There is peace and order in Paris”. We open with a string ostinato, forlorn woodwinds of despair, and grim horns as we see Parisians walking the streets again as we read; “Peace and Order” as a flute animato takes flight at 0:55 for a spirited musical narrative. At 1:51 the string ostinato, forlorn woodwinds, grim horns return as we see a corpse with chalk in his dying hand, which wrote on the wall as his epitaph; “Long Live the Commune”. A montage of the countless fallen laying in the streets follows, after which we read; “Peace and Order”. The bourgeoise are seen celebrating as we read “Our army has brought peace and order!” At 2:48 an impressionist nightmare with a dark descent usher in horns brutale, drums of doom, and sawing strings bellicoso as we see the Commune survivors standing in the rain surrounded by bayonet bearing troops. The bourgeoise look down with satisfaction from their windows above the square, including the wealthy patron Louise spurned, who offers a contemptuous toast to her as he vilifies her. A grotesque violin tremolo ushers in at 4:42 a perverse rendering of “Le Marseillaise” as the bourgeoise rush out to the streets and begin savagely beating the Commune prisoners as the troops stand idly by. At 5:36 a cello triste mourns and the musical narrative offers a Pathétique joined at 6:54 by woodwinds affanato, which usher in a marcia funebre as we see the prisoners begin walking to their doom – a firing squad. Juxtaposed is a montage of shots showing the bourgeoise returning to their food, drink and life of privilege. Jean asks a waiter where the prisoners were taken and is stunned by his answer, more so as the patrons celebrate him as a hero. We close at 9:29 atop harsh trumpet brilliante declarations and a the marcia funebre as Jean repeated fails to find where the prisoners have been taken.

Reel 8: “Death: The trial” opens grimly on drums of doom and foreboding bass, as the prisoners are brought to the military trial judge who one by one and sentences them to death. At 0:52 by woodwinds of despair join as Louise is sentenced after she strikes the judge for calling her a prostitute. Strings of mourning speak of futility and desolation as Jean helplessly looks on. At 2:10 a mid-register string ostinato, opposed by bass, usher in horns dramatico and drum strikes of doom from which joins aching strings full of despair as Jean is commanded to dig Louise’s grave. The prisoners are all sentenced to death for being arsonists, prostitutes or murderers. At 4:02 two orchestra shrieks of pain release strings writhing in pain as Louise mocks Jean for digging her grave. Pulsing horns, bass grave and forlorn woodwinds emote his anguish as Louise sees from his eyes his devastation. At 5:43 Louise regrets her treatment of him and yells that they will meet again. At 6:05 a crescendo of dread with impassioned grieving strings builds with menace, cresting horrifically at 7:06 as we end with a last defiant reprise of “La Carmagnole”. The firing squad kills all the prisoners as they shout “Long Live the Commune!” This is where the edited film ends, however, the cue “Original ending” reveals Shostakovich’s conceived film ending, which was cut along with the closing part of the film by Soviet censors. It offers a truly bitter coda as we see Jean photographed for posterity so he may be included in the “Album of Heroes”. The music offers an anguished commentary, which speaks to Jean’s desolation, regret, and profound sense of loss. The piece concludes with anger on a grand crescendo dramatico.

I wish to praise Andreas Werner, Mark Fitz-Gerald and the album creative team for the magnificent release of one of film score art’s Holy Grails; Shostakovich’s masterpiece “New Babylon”. The audio quality is excellent, and the performance of the Basel Sinfonietta under Mark Fitz-Gerald’s baton, superb. Shostakovich was twenty-two years old and saw the film as an opportunity to gain recognition, and so poured his heart into the project. Given the French revolutionary setting, he infused his soundscape with popular anthems of the revolution, which included “Ca Ira”, La Carmagnole” and “Le Marseillaise”, which served as leitmotifs for the revolutionary Communards. Juxtaposed were the burlesques Can Can dance and an ebullient valzer felice, which supported the capitalist bourgeoise. All served to establish an authentic French sensibility, which grounded the film and fortified its narrative of class struggle. Folks you cannot take in and fully appreciate this score with a single listen. The complexity, dynamism, richness and extraordinary impressionism challenges even the most well-trained and discerning ear, however, if you take in repeat listens, you finally realize the genius of this composition and are left, awestruck. Cues such as “Head over Heels: Paris”, and “Versailles against Paris: Paris has stood for centuries” just leave you speechless as you bear witness to Shostakovich’s compositional brilliance and mastery of his craft. Folks, this Silent Age film very effectively drove home its visual narrative of social injustice, worker exploitation, and class struggle. Yet I assert that it was Shostakovich’s astounding score, which empowered the film’s narrative, embracing its aspirations, pathos, joy, tragedy, devastation and inhumanity. I believe this score to be one of the finest of the Silent Film Age, and highly recommend this album as an absolutely essential purchase for all those who profess their love for the art form.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the actual recording session; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKQsTt6lk0o

Buy the New Babylon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Reel 1, General Sale: War – Death to the Prussians (9:02)
  • Reel 2, Head Over Heels: Paris (10:01)
  • Reel 3, The Siege of Paris (10:51)
  • Reel 4, 18th March 1871: On the Morning of 18th March the Workers Still Guarded Their Guns (13:21)
  • Reel 5, Versailles Against Paris: Paris Has Stood For Centuries (10:21)
  • Reel 6, The Barricade: The 49th Day of Defense (14:51)
  • Reel 7, To the Firing Squad: There is Peace and Order in Paris (10:39)
  • Reel 8, Part 1: Death: The Trial (8:11)
  • Reel 8, Part 2 Original Ending (4:07)

Running Time: 91 minutes 24 seconds

Naxos 8.572824-25 (1929/2011)

Music composed by Dimitri Shostakovich. Conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Performed by the Basel Sinfionetta. Original orchestrations by Dimitri Shostakovich. Recorded and mixed by Andreas Werner. Score produced by Dimitri Shostakovich. Album produced by Andreas Werner.

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