New Babylon in Performance

New Babylon, the last great film of the Soviet avant-garde and the last masterpiece of Kozintsev and Trauberg’s FEKS group represents an early climax of the two directors’ artistic talents. Made when they were both in their mid 20’s it tells the story of the Paris commune of 1871 through a kaleidescope of techniques pop - art of the Russian revolution. Through gripping cinematography and an unrelenting rhythm. Kozintsev & Trauberg depict this frenetic period with drama, pathos subversion, sedition and excitement, while also giving it a human face through the love story of Louise, a worker at the New Babylon Emporium, and Jean, a soldier in the republican army. Ultimately they are forced to take opposite sides in the conflict and inevitably their relationship can only end in sorrow.

To write the music for the film, the directors enlisted the precocious talent of the young Dmitri Shostakovich, who at the age of 23, had quickly risen to fame in the Russian music world with his highly successful first symphony (1925) his opera The Nose (1928) and work at Meyerhold’s theatre on Mayakovsky’s Bath House and The Bedbug – both designed by the constructivist artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko. Although known at the time mainly for his concert works, Shostakovich was no stranger to the cinema. As a student he had earned money accompanying silent films at a number of Leningrad’s cinemas. While he disdained the work, commenting that it “all undermined my health and nerves,” he needed the money to support his family. Annoyed by the difficult hours, tyrannical theatre managers, unsympathetic audiences and what he felt was a cheapening of the art of composition, Shostakovich swore never to work in the cinema again. His departure would be short lived, however as he signed onto the New Babylon project only a few years later and would go on to compose over 30 film scores, spanning his entire career. As much as Shostakovich disliked accompanying silent cinema, the experience clearly helped him practice and develop the techniques that would later find expression in the compositional language of his more mature works and of course, in New Babylon.

Shostakovich’s score, which he astoundingly completed in less than three weeks, is a masterpiece of contrasts: it responds to and interacts wonderfully with the quick visual and emotional cuts of the film. Shostakovich had been disturbed by contemporary film music practices that merely “illustrated the frame” - he called these ‘the most absolute garbage. Together with the directors, Shostakovich instead intended to link the music to the inner actions and emotion of the film. In a speech published in the Sovetskii Ekran journal of 12th March 1929, just a week before the film’s premiere, Shostakovich described his formalist approach to the music for New Babylon.

His two principal techniques were “the principal of obligatory illustration”, in which 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 tunes by distorting, juxtaposing and superimposing them - sometimes all at once – as is appropriate according to the development of what they represent in the film. In the end, Shostakovich wrote, the music’s “fundamental aim is to keep to the rhythm and variations of the film, to augment the force of its impact.”

The premiere of the film was a fiasco. Although the completed film had been approved by the Sovkino production cinema board in Leningrad, the Moscow office ordered it re-cut just three weeks before the premiere. The directors obliged, but Shostakovich’s music did not fare so well. Between adjusting, editing, shortening the score for piano and the copying of new parts for orchestra, the music as Shostakovich and the directors had intended did not make the transition successfully. There were only a handful of ragged performances with Shostakovich’s unfinished score for which orchestral sections were interspersed by extended piano sequences, after which it was abandoned and the manuscripts declared “lost”. The film was subsequently re-cut again for export and until recently existed only in various states of completeness in three different versions, preserved by archives around the world.

Since 1972, when a manuscript of Shostakovich’s orchestral score was first made available to the west, several efforts have been made to reconcile the film and the complete score. But with several different versions of the film this has proven to be a thorny task.