Leonid Trauberg and Grigorii Kozintsev


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.


To write the music for their film, the directors enlisted the precocious talent of the young Dmitri Shostakovich, who at the age of 23, had swiftly risen to fame in the Soviet music world with his highly successful First Symphony (1925) and his opera The Nose (1928).

Dmitri Shostakovich

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.

 Leonid Trauberg and Grigorii Kozintsev

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."

Although the completed film had been approved by the Sovkino production cinema board in Leningrad, just one day later the Moscow office ordered it to be re-cut. This beauracratic fiasco took place three weeks before the March 18th 1929 scheduled premiere. The director's obliged and some would argue, created a tighter and more fast paced film, but Shostakovich's music did not fare so well. Between adjusting, editing, shortening the score and the copying of new parts, the music, as Shostakovich and the directors had originally intended, did not make the transition successfully. There were only a handful of ragged performances with Shostakovich's score, after which it was abandoned and seemingly lost. The film was subsequently re-cut again for export, and now exists in three versions - each incomplete - at archives around the world.

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.

The centenary restoration of New Babylon was premiered on January 26th and 27th 2007 by the University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at the University of Chicago, under the baton of Barbara Schubert, Senior Lecturer in Music, Director of the University of Chicago Performance Program and Music Director and Conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra and New Music Ensemble. In 2001 Schubert was Resident Conductor of the Contemporary Chamber Players. She is a Past President of the Conductor's Guild and a former Assistant Conductor of the Colorado Symphony. Winner of the 1982 American Conductors Competition, she also serves as Music Director and Conductor of the DuPage Symphony and of the Park Ridge Fine Arts Symphony Orchestra. In 2003 she was honoured by the Illinois Council of Orchestras as "Conductor of the Year".

New Babylon - In Performance - Restoration - Mark Fitz-Gerald
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