NEW BABYLON IN PERFORMANCE
As one of the last great film masterpieces of the Soviet avant-garde
and the last of Kozintsev and Trauberg's FEKS group, New Babylon represents
an early climax of the directors' artistic talents. Made when they were
in their mid - 20's and featuring the notorious avant garde acting school
they had founded in post revolutionary Leningrad, The Factory of the Eccentric
Actor. (whose 1922 manifesto ECCENTRISM, may be read by clicking HERE
), New Babylon tells the story of the great lost historical moment of
the 19th century; the failed revolution of the Paris Commune of 1871.
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. He disdained the work,
commenting that it "all undermined my health and nerves," and
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.
Shostakovich's score, completed in less than three weeks, is a masterpiece
of contrasts responding to and interacting with the fast visual and emotional
cuts of the film. With its fast cutting and dynamic pace the work had
no precedence in the USSR and it was in fact intended to have been the
Soviet Union's first sound film.
As a composer, Shostakovich was disturbed by contemporary live film music accompaniment practices which merely "illustrated the frame" and called these 'the most absolute garbage". Together with Kozintsev and Trauberg, Shostakovich instead intended to link the music to the inner actions and emotion of the film.
New Babylon was to open on 18 March 1929 but, though the directors began
work in February 1928, Shostakovich only signed the contract on 28 December,
leaving less than eleven weeks to write a 90-minute score. Adding to the
pressure, he was simultaneously scoring for Meyerhold's Moscow staging
of Mayakovsky's Bedbug, as well as teaching in Leningrad and preparing
a concert - and all this while suffering a severe bout of flu. Commuting
between the two cities, Shostakovich wrote 23 items for the play and,
after watching the film twice and timing each scene, delivered the piano
score (Trauberg claims) after only two weeks. However long it took, Shostakovich
was well-paid: 2,000 roubles was around 15 months average worker's salary.
In a speech published just one week before the film's premiere, Shostakovich
described his approach to the music for New Babylon. His two principal
techniques were "the principal of obligatory illustration,"
and the "principle of contrasts" . In the former 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, distorting, juxtaposing
and superimposing - sometimes all at once - according to the development
of the film in which the music's "fundamental aim is to keep to the
rhythm and variations of the film, to augment the force of its impact."
Since the mid 1970's when a manuscript of Shostakovich's score was made available to the west several efforts have been made to reconcile the film and the complete score. Given the different versions of the film in circulation this has proven to be a thorny task, made more complex still by the fact that at least two different manuscript versions of the score also circulate, neither of them complete.
The 2006 centenary reconstruction of New Babylon restores all originally
cut filmic materials and projects the film at its intended constant sound
speed of 24 frames per second, for which the music was scored. It is intended
for performance with the DSCH 2004 critical edition of the full score
as composed by Shostakovich before the last minute re-edit of the film.
This full arrangement was never publicly performed by the full thirty
piece orchestra which Shostakovich intended. The composer at the piano,
however himself performed it at two preview screening performances which
took place on the 20th and 21st of February 1929, three weeks before the
premiere - a chaotic and controversial event which brought about the film's
swift disappearance from the screen and its loss to world cinema for over
78 years, in its original form.