Sunday / January 27, 2019 / 5 PM
Riley Auditorium in Battelle Hall
New Babylon (a silent film)
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Tausberg
Score by Dmitri Shostakovich
Peter Stafford Wilson, Conductor
The Historical Backdrop
New Babylon is set within the events of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and its aftermath. Bismarck's troops overwhelmed the French in short order and exacted harsh peace terms, which required France to pay a large indemnity and give up the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. In capitulating, the French Assembly, backed by the Parisian bourgeoisie, made plans to move from Paris to Versailles, sparking an insurrection in the city. Thousands of Parisian workers, students, artisans and intellectuals united under the banner of the Paris Commune to take over the city.
With the help of the independent national guard, the Commune held out for three months against the government. In May 1871, it was defeated with the loss of 20,000 people, most of them executed by the upper ruling classes taking out their resentment and terrors on the supporters of the Commune.
Although the Commune's agenda for ruling Paris was rather vague and certainly not very revolutionary by historical standards, later Communists, with the help from Karl Marx, would enshrine this resistance as a first attempt to set up a Communist state.
"New Babylon," the fictional department store that provides much of the film's setting, is based on the Parisian emporium "Bon Marche," which was founded in the 1860s. The Soviet filmmakers saw the department store as a fitting symbol for capitalist decadence and materialistic excess.
Grigori Kozintsev, born in 1905 in Kiev, was the youngest of the post-revolutionary filmmakers. He formed a performing group in 1921 with Leonid Trauberg and Sergei Yutkevich called the "Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS)." After staging several plays in Moscow, they began filming in 1924.
Leonid Trauberg was born in 1902, and his career was closely identified with Kozintsev through the 1920s and 1930s.
Kozintsev and Trauberg's first serious feature was The Devil's Wheel. Their second film, The Cloak, based on Gogol's The Overcoat and The Nevsky Prospect, was done in a more bizarre, expressionistic style.
New Babylon, their last silent film, was released in 1929 and was promptly rejected by Soviet critics as being too expressionistic and intellectual. Prior to its release, Soviet censors cut 25% of the film and as a result, Shostakovich's score no longer lined up with the film and made it largely incoherent. After its second performance it was pulled and lost to Soviet archives.
Kozintsev resurfaced in the late 1950s with the first of three highly acclaimed literary adaptations, Don Quixote, followed by Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971). He died in 1973.
Trauberg began to direct movies again in the late 1950s. His later films included Soldiers on the March (1958), Dead Souls (1960) based on Gogol's story, and Wind of Freedom (1961). He died in 1990.
Dmitri Shostakovich (born September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg; died August 9, 1975 in Moscow)
One of the greatest and most prolific composers to emerge from the Soviet Union, Dmitri Shostakovich will long be remembered for his significant and diverse musical contribution in an age when censorship and compliance were enforced. To his credit are fifteen symphonies, two operas, ballets, incidental music, chamber music, film music, choral works, music for military and dance bands, piano works and songs.
His parents were both musical and when Dmitri was nine years old, his mother started him off on piano. His talent developed so rapidly that after one year he was taken to the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Glazunov, who heard not only repertory pieces but also in some of his own first compositions. As a result, he entered the Conservatoire and studied both piano and composition. He graduated from the Conservatoire in 1923.
His composing career did not begin easily. Shortly after his graduation he became dissatisfied with his music and destroyed nearly all of his student works. However, this difficult time quickly passed. His First Symphony was premiered in May 1926, winning the composer early recognition when he was still under the age of twenty.
It is particularly ironic that Shostakovich's only full-length score accompanying a silent film should have been written after the "talkies" had triumphed almost everywhere except in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, like many struggling music students, had played in the cinemas, and the experience made him determined "To take cinema music properly in hand, to get rid of sloppy, inartistic vamping. The only solution is to write special music for each film." he wrote. When Kozintsev and Trauberg approached the twenty-three year old, largely on the strength of his avant-garde reputation, the result proved to be unique collaboration that marked both the climax and the end of the silent film era.
The problem of musical expressionism in the political establishment grew until the real storm broke out after the premiere of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1934. The official newspaper Pravda called it "confusion in place of music."
Shostakovich reacted quickly. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony which was in rehearsal and changed his artistic direction. This change is evident in his inscription to his Fifth Symphony: "A Soviet artist's response to just criticism." During World War II, he remained in the forefront of Soviet musical life. He was awarded a Stalin Prize for his Piano Quartet, and in 1942 he settled in Moscow with his family where he took up a post as teacher at the Conservatoire. The critical clouds gathered once again when a now notorious conference of the Composer's Union was convened by Stalin's right-hand man Zhdanov. The Soviet Union's leading composers, especially Prokofiev and Shostakovich were taken to task for their failure to remember their duties toward the Soviet people and reminded that their work should afford inspiration and relaxation. Shostakovich defended himself with dignity and composed "acceptable" works such as The Song of the Forests (1949) and the cantata The Sun Shines Over Our Land (1952). From this time on he wrote introspective and dark-colored music quite freely alongside the public works expected of him. He was awarded the Lenin Prize for his massive Eleventh Symphony (1957). After heart trouble was diagnosed in the early 1960s, his work was not halted or even significantly slowed. But at that time he intended to follow a wholly personal creative path. Thus the last of his string quartets (Nos. 12-15) and his Fourteenth and Fifteenth symphonies (1969 and 1971) are among his boldest yet most enigmatic works.
Shostakovich has been called "the only Soviet composer with an indisputable claim to genius." An obituary in The London Times described him as beyond doubt "the last great symphonist." Shostakovich perhaps looked with more courage into the abyss of despair than any other 20th century composer. He believed, he declared, in writing "good, beautiful, inspired music." After his death, his colleague Aram Khachaturian described him as "the conscience of Soviet music."
-- Written by Martin Marks and taken from the program notes from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's performance of New Babylon on May 19, 1990.