“New Babylon”. Music to the Silent Film
Piccadilly cinema, Leningrad
Sovetsky Pechatnik (Soviet Printer) Association - parts, 1929; DSCH Publishers - score, 2004
GSCMMC, rec. gr. 32, f. 26, 108
"When writing the music to 'Babylon' I hardly paid attention to the principle of illustrating each shot come what may. I started out from the key shot in any given series... The music is sustained as an uninterrupted symphonic whole. The main aim of the music is to keep to the tempo and rhythm of the film and to enhance its impact".
Music to the Silent Film
The contents of the film are related to events from the history of the Paris Commune, its action dates to 1870, and some episodes take place in a department store called New Babylon (hence the title of the film).
The scriptwriters and directors of New Babylon were Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. They decided it would be a good idea to have special music for the film and asked Shostakovich to compose it.
The tradition of musical accompaniment to silent films arose in the early days of cinematography, and by the end of the 1920s it was already a well-organised system. “The music business in those days had its own rules,” recalls Kozintsev. “Conductors (in elite cinemas) and pianists (in ordinary cinemas) accompanied films with the same old hodgepodge of miscellaneous music.” In order to make this work easier, in 1928-1929 special collections were published containing fragments of music for all kinds of standard themes and emotional conflicts (night, dawn, morning, remorse, foreboding, attack, chase, rivals fighting, and so on).
On 10 August 1928, the heads of the Leningrad Studio asked Sovkino to enlist composers to compose music (in the terminology of those days it was called the “music script” or “composition script”) for specific films. The letter said that “the directors of the film New Babylon are already looking for the composer needed to prepare the corresponding music script”. On 29 August, the board of directors of Sovkino gave permission for a “composition script” to be ordered for the film.
On 28 December, a contract was signed at Sovkino with the composer “for compiling and writing special music to... the film New Babylon in the form of a complete music composition”. The contract stipulated 1 February as the deadline for submitting the piano score, and 1 March, 1929 for submitting the scores “for an ordinary cinema symphony orchestra” and for a chamber ensemble. In this way, the composer had only one month to compose the music for an eight-reel film that ran for more than an hour-and-a-half, and another month for composing two scores—one for an orchestra and the other for a chamber ensemble.
The tight deadline was due to the fact the film was scheduled to be screened on 18 March, Paris Commune Day.
By 20 February, the music for New Babylon was ready. This date is also confirmed by another document: “Shostakovich began his work on the music immediately after signing the contract and carried it out in extremely close contact with the directors, Kozintsev and Trauberg... By the time the film was ready, comrade Shostakovich had finished not only the piano score, but also a rough draft of the score.
On 18 March 1929, the official premiere of the film was held in Leningrad. The film aroused a fervent discussion in the press. The reviews, according to Kozintsev, were reminiscent of “the shorthand notes of frenzied speeches”, “the recording of a tempestuous dispute”, escalating into a scandal, free-for-all, and fight.
“The specially composed music added fuel to the flames,” Kozintsev relates. The orchestras were not ready to perform such a complicated score, the conductors were not interested in implementing the new idea, since this deprived them of their permanent royalties as conductor-compilers. During the premiere, “the composer rushed in desperation from one cinema to another, trying at least in some way to ensure his music was performed properly”. This was to no avail. “The cinema conductors organised their own discussions, criticising the composer for being an upstart and accusing him of not knowing how to orchestrate.” Two or three days later, most cinemas stopped performing Shostakovich’s music.
Despite the obstruction raised by the conductors, Shostakovich’s work was unanimously praised in the press. “The film New Babylon... captivated our young composer Shostakovich, who wrote the music to the film, by its emotional charge. It should be said in all honesty that, without the latter, it would be difficult to give New Babylon a worthy evaluation,” maintained a reviewer from the magazine Sovetsky ekran. “Shostakovich’s music intrinsically blends the rhythm of the takes into the rhythm of the musical images. A special study should be done of this new work by Shostakovich.”
The composer himself viewed this work as an essentially important step not only in his further cooperation with Kozintsev and Trauberg, but also in his creative work in cinema music as a whole, and in his understanding of the film’s musical dramaturgy.
Recalling this work a decade later, Shostakovich said: “I really love this film, but unfortunately I must admit that nothing came of this undertaking in the end. Since the picture was silent and the music attributed to it, only the author could perform this music. The tempo, metre, and rhythm all had to coincide and it turned out in the end that only the author could manage this.”
In the mid-20th century, New Babylon, already a cinematographic classic, was brought back to the world screens with the live performance of Shostakovich’s music. But the composer was skeptical about this.
In 1976, conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky compiled a suite from the music to the film New Babylon and recorded it on a gramophone record with an ensemble of soloists from the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (Melodiya C10 07381-2).
3. The Siege of Paris
5. Paris has stood for Centuries