Soviet Detour…

If you saw yesterday’s posting about Vaughan Williams’s music for the film 49th Parallel (rel. 1941), you’ll have seen that I ended by saying that I’d get back to William Walton and his film-musical Nazis ‘unless there is another point someone would like to raise’. To be honest, I mostly wrote that line as a cheap and cheerful way of ending — using that old writer’s trick of wrapping a piece up by means of a quick allusion to its opening. But, sure enough, someone took me at my word and sent a private message — which, as I’ve said before, is perfectly fine.

What’s more, the question in that message was jolly interesting. For, having obviously digested my thought from the previous posting about the psychological obstacles that seem likely to confront a film composer in wartime when required to produce a musical depiction of the people trying to kill him, my reader’s thoughts turned to a different theatre of war entirely:

How did Prokofiev and Shostakovich deal with the issue of musically picturing the invading German armies in Alexander Nevsky and the Leningrad Symphony? Does it seem that they have faced the same kind of obstacle?

aleksandr_nevskiy_172_525bcfd0533c5That’s a really super question, I think you’ll agree. And, as it happens, I think I can come up with at least a provisional answer — though I do have to begin by pointing out two things.

The first is that the Eisenstein-Prokofiev film of Alexander Nevsky was released in 1938, three years before Hitler’s Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and so doesn’t really fit the precise terms of the topic. All the same, it’s a very important early example of the creative marrying of music and film and a depiction of invasion and war produced in a politically charged environment, so I’ll definitely find an excuse to come back to it. (In the meantime, readers can watch some, most, or all of it by clicking here.)

The second thing is about Shostakovich. Obviously, to be best able to see what might or might not be true about his depiction of the Nazi threat in film music, we need something written for a film — and while the Seventh Symphony, ‘Leningrad’, Op. 60 (1941) has long been taken to have at least some ‘programmatic’ content, it isn’t film music and can’t be treated as if it is.

As for Shostakovich’s actual film music, I’ve never encountered any of it apart from what is in the Kozintsev films Hamlet (1963-4) and King Lear (1970) — ‘art house’ classics, both of them; but neither having anything to do with invading Germans. What we need is a few of the patriotic movies the composer worked on during and after WW2 — and I simply don’t know any of these.  In fact, I wouldn’t even feel confident in guessing which of the following titles would be the ones to investigate (though The Fall of Berlin looks like it might be a good one to start with):

59 Priklyucheniya Korzinkinoy [The Adventures of Korzinkina] (dir. K. Mints), 1940–41
64 Zoya (dir. Arnshtam), 1944
71 Prostïye lyudi [Simple People] (dir. Kozintsev and Trauberg), 1945
75 Molodaya gvardiya [The Young Guard] (A.A. Fadeyev, dir. S. Gerasimov), 1947–8
76 Pirogov (dir. Kozintsev), 1947
78 Michurin (dir. A. Dovzhenko), 1948
80 Vstrecha na El′be [Encounter at the Elbe] (dir. G. Aleksandrov), 1948
82 Padeniye Berlina [The Fall of Berlin] (dir. M. Chiaureli), 1949

[The above listing from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians]

So let me use my noddle and see what I can produce on the strength of what I think I already know — and if someone can show that I’m wrong, we’ll come back and sort it out. You see, my own suspicion is that for Shostakovich to do what Walton did in The First of the Few — i.e. to retreat to the role of, essentially, documentarian, and remain ‘at arm’s length’ artistically by giving the Nazi side slabs of what was its own choice of music — would have been quite unthinkable in the Soviet environment. Now, if anyone can find me a Shostakovich film score that proves me shatteringly wrong by actually using the Horst Wessel Lied or some other piece of military or popular song in its musical depiction of the Germans, I’ll withdraw at once; but I do feel sufficiently confident about this to have had a small bet with myself…

The reason I say this is that we have plenty of musical evidence of the use that the old Soviet Union made of popular songs, folk songs, workers’ songs, etc — not merely as tunes compulsorily known and sung by whole sections of the population, but also as material to be incorporated within great ‘public’ art forms like the symphony. To see what this could amount to, we don’t even have to move away from Shostakovich: his Eleventh Symphony, ‘The Year 1905’, Op. 103  (1956-7) uses (I gather) nine revolutionary tunes; and his Twelfth Symphony, ‘The Year 1917’, Op. 112 (1959-61) then re-uses some of them.

44-shostakovichI don’t think it’s too difficult to understand that the ‘official’ view of this kind of song material was that it would not only ‘unify’ all strata of the population around shared experiences, but would also work towards ensuring the comprehensibility and ‘relevance’ of concert music for even the least-initiated listener, in line with ‘Socialist realist’ principles. And, while my own personal incredulity is, of course, no guarantee of anything, I do find it extremely difficult to imagine that, in such a system, the introduction of something like a Nazi song — bringing with it the inevitable memory of its words (or, at the very least, of the sound of its alien text) and the impression of the system it served — could ever be considered anything other than a counter-revolutionary, even traitorous act. To me, the ‘state-serving popular song’ of the Stalin era qualifies as the religious music of the Soviet Union — the repertoire that spread and glorified the society’s ostensible values and official myths — and one thing we never see embattled cultures doing is soiling their religious rites with obtrusive quotations of material from their enemy’s religious rites.

Walton could quote Horst Wessel because in his society music was officially apolitical, and a Nazi tune was simply a ‘documentary’ token of what happens in a society that uses primitive music as an arm of state propaganda. Shostakovich surely couldn’t — because in his society primitive music was an arm of state propaganda — and to use a Nazi tune would not merely have been religio-politically ‘blasphemous’, but would also have risked opening people’s eyes to the way such state propaganda worked. Far better just to ‘not go there’…

For that reason, I don’t expect anyone to be able to come up with a German tune in the film music Shostakovich wrote to characterise Hitler’s forces — not even in the form of a sarcastic distortion or parody, nor in the form of something ‘serious and heavy’ derived from a Wagner opera or other artefact bearing a potentially inconvenient degree of ‘cultural authority’. Am I right? Over to you, dear reader!

All of which leaves the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony undiscussed. But not for long: watch this space!


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One thought on “Soviet Detour…

  1. Actually, Shostakovich’s film music does contain some interesting (at times, curious) references to music by other composers. In 1960, he travelled to Dresden for about a week or ten days, where he was so shocked by the devastation that remained of the Allied bombardment of the city in 1944 that he was moved to compose his Eighth String Quartet opus 110 (in three days!), dedicated (I think) ‘To the memory of the victims of fascism’. Whilst in Dresden, he also composed much of the score of his music to ‘Five Days, Five Nights’ opus 111, which was being filmed by Lev Arnshtam in the then German Democratic Republic (as the Communist-dominated partition of Germany was called). This film was a co-production between Soviet and East German film-makers. A movement in the orchestral suite from the film, ‘Dresden in Ruins’, recalls the Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies, as well as parts of the Eighth Quartet, and it also includes a quotation from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.


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