Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
New Babylon- Music for the film (1929).
Reel 1: General Sale. ‘War - Death to the Prussians’ [9:02]
Reel 2: Head over Heels. ‘Paris’ [10:01]
Reel 3: The Siege of Paris. [10:51]
Reel 4: 18th March 1871. ‘On the morning of 18th March the workers still guarded their guns’ [13:21]
Reel 5: Versailles against Paris. ‘Paris has stood for centuries’ [10:21]
Reel 6: The Barricade. ‘The 49th day of defence’ [14:51]
Reel 7: To the firing squad. ‘There is peace and order in Paris’ [10:39]
Reel 8: Death. ‘The trial’ [8:11] Original ending [4:07]
Basel Sinfonietta/Mark Fitz-Gerald
rec. Volkshaus, Basel, Switzerland, 1-3 May 2011
World Première Recording of the complete score
NAXOS 8.572824-25 [43:15 + 48:08] 

It is always an exciting event when a previously unrecorded complete score receives its première and in this case especially so since it is by one the 20th century’s greatest composers. The wonderfully copious notes accompanying this 2 CD set give a comprehensive history of the background to the events portrayed in the film as well as the making of it and the creation of the music for it.
The Paris Commune which existed from 18 March to 28 May 1871 was an attempt at revolution by large numbers of Parisians, mainly workers. It followed the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, launched the previous year by Napoleon III. It resulted in huge loss of life and the ceding of 4700 square miles of territory to the newly established Germany. However, the French government, obviously fearful of German reaction, used the French regular army to quell the uprising themselves. This resulted in a second siege of Paris that was infinitely more ferocious than the first one by the Germans. Thousands of ‘communards’ and their families were force-marched to Versailles, where the government and bourgeoisie had decamped for safety. There they were tried and thousands were executed or transported to New Caledonia. Despite its defeat the Paris Commune was seen by revolutionaries around the world and down the ages as an example of workers’ power in action. Things were far from perfect as criticism was levelled at the leaders of the commune for their conduct, including vacillation in not taking over the banks and not seeking to topple the government in Versailles.
These events were an obvious choice for the young film makers Grigori Kozintsev and his friend Leonid Trauberg in the heady days in which artistic freedom flourished in the years following Russia’s own revolution. That state of affairs was already on the wane when the film was made and would shortly come to an abrupt end. The country would then experience a clampdown in which such freedom was stifled and those involved in the arts were made to conform to the diktats of committees and the “needs of the State”. The two young Ukrainian Jewish friends met when they enrolled in Meyerhold’s theatre school in Petrograd. They went on to found the “Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) and gathered around them various people, some of whom would later be involved in the making of New Babylon.

During this period they met the 20 year old Shostakovich then handling the music for the FEKS’ production of The Devil’s Wheel (1926). The two would-be film directors commissioned him to write the music for New Babylon giving him a mere 9 weeks to come up with the score. After Kozintsev and Trauberg dramatically rewrote the screenplay Shostakovich who’d already worked day and night producing the original had only 6 days to rewrite the symphonic sections and three to prepare the musicians’ parts! In the event the score was too complex for a small pit band to perform and the film itself was projected too fast. This meant the music became out of synch so in general the film was not a success and both it and its music were more or less forgotten for half a century. We are indeed fortunate that both survived so we can hear what is certainly an outstandingly brilliant, witty, poignant and altogether wonderfully inventive score. It is immediately obvious that Shostakovich was already a creative genius whose abilities and style were already formed by that early age.

There is much from the first note that any Shostakovich fan will recognise from any amount of his later music. In reel one he immediately manages to create the atmosphere of chaos in The New Babylon department store, that is holding a sale with bargains aplenty, with the clever use of a xylophone. Later on the plight of workers in the sweatshop of a textile factory with its incessant sewing machines is suggested by employing violas and side drum. We also hear the flexatone. This is an extremely rarely heard percussion instrument - also known as a vibraslap, which you can check out on YouTube. It consists of a flat piece of metal with two suspended pieces either side with small balls attached which hit the flat piece when the handle is shaken. The tone is altered by pushing yet another piece of metal attached to the top of the flat section with a thumb thus bending it. There is ample evidence here of Shostakovich’s love of slapstick and music-hall adding to the descriptive nature of the music. It perfectly brings the events to mind, whether or not you are watching the film at the same time. He manages to embody the spirit and sounds of Paris with clever use of the can-can and burlesque-sounding tunes. This carries on to the second reel until more ominous sounds signal the approach of Prussian troops towards the capital.

Reel three describes the guarding of Paris by the French army. The sound of fatalism and resignation accompanies the calm before the storm. The music becomes more and more agitated as the Prussians get ever closer. Around nine minutes into this section listen out for what must surely have been the inspiration for John Williams’ music for the film “Jaws” with the two repeated notes on the strings. Reel four tells of the establishment of the barricades and with them the commune itself. The music shares the telling of this with a description of a rehearsal for an Offenbach operetta. In amongst it all one can easily identify ideas later put to use in Shostakovich’s fifth symphony.

With the second CD we arrive at reel five which describes the proletariat working for the commune. The bourgeoisie have decamped to Versailles to ensure they are safe. Shostakovich has the cabaret artists performing the Marseillaise, counter-posing this with strains of the Can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld. Reel six and the leaders of the commune stare defeat in the face though the workers continue to fight. This is against a background of revolutionary songs whilst the bourgeoisie in Versailles await the commune’s defeat as if it were an entertainment put on for their benefit. A waltz tune parodying the Marseillaise underlines this sentiment. Louise, the film’s heroine loots the New Babylon store for anything useful. Her lover Jean contemplates the commune’s betrayal by the powers-that-be who would clearly prefer a German victory over a proletarian one and who applaud as the fighters are being crushed. A tender interlude in a lull in the fighting is shown through a rendering on piano of Old French Song by Tchaikovsky by one of the Communard Councillors. He is shot by a sniper and the fighting resumes. Shostakovich manages to describe these entire goings-on in under 15 minutes of music. It contrasts mounting tension with the frivolous behaviour of the ruling class.

Reel six ends with another waltz. Reel seven with its title To the firing squad and its ironic subtitle ‘There is peace and order in Paris’ tells of the final crushing of the Commune. This is followed by the return of the opening scene’s light-hearted mood. Reel eight has the Communards being forced to dig their own graves while the rain lashes down. Jean has to dig Louise’s who mocks him for being weak then forgives him. The censored version ends with a final defiant note from the Communards. The music includes strains of the Internationale before ending in what seems to be an abrupt unresolved chord. Then we are treated to the first ever recording of the original ending. It’s four minutes of music in which that chord is completed and which has Jean being photographed for the “Album of Heroes”. It makes for an ironically bitter twist. A sergeant tells a totally demoralised Jean not to worry as he’ll get used to such setbacks. Was this a hint by the film-makers and Shostakovich at a feeling of betrayal of the Russian revolution by its leaders at this juncture when the new found artistic freedom was already under threat? The unresolved chord had suggested that the setback was merely a temporary one whereas the actual ending is much more pessimistic.

Whilst the music is perfect as a way of describing the film’s story I still feel that it is a wonderfully atmospheric work in its own right away from the screen. As I said at the outset it shows how incredibly mature and developed Shostakovich’s music was even as early in his career as this. I am sure he was as satisfied with his music years later as he was at the time of writing it. It is a great addition to any collector of his music and is superbly played on this disc. The booklet is very informative and has helped me no end in writing this review since I’ve never seen the film. I’ll be looking out for any showing of it now if it ever gets an outing. One strange thing however is what sounds at times like a murmuring in the background - could it have been the conductor doing a Glenn Gould I wonder ... answers on a postcard please.
Steve Arloff

see also review by Nick Barnard
(November 2011 Recording of the Month)

It is a great addition to any collector of his music and is superbly played on this disc