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Film, Music Review Print

An Idle Mind..., or How We Came to Examine All the Film Scores of Shostakovich

April 10, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:

Coping with crisisThey say an idle mind is the devil's workshop. Far be it from me to dispute that. But let's not get carried away, as I said the other day, to my other half. After all, I routinely trim the hedge, and although I hate shopping (having spent most of my professional life in purchasing), I get all the groceries. Just because we are under a stay-at-home, does that mean I should also vacuum? (Well, OK, now I am doing that too.)

Still, there's been some time left over – and our national ordeal is just beginning….

Our wonderful classical music and dance editor, Maggie Pate, represents Oxford University Press throughout North America – we feel fortunate to have her as part of our CVNC team. Several years ago, she unloaded on me a remarkable collection of musicological musings focused on Russian Music Since 1917. Thomas Beecham famously said that musicologists read music but can't hear it; and as a grad of UNC, where American musicology made a valiant stand under the leadership of the late Glen Haydon (before ultimately yielding to the people who actually make music – performers), I know better than to do total immersion in this arcane form of intellectual discipline. But boredom set in on day three of confinement…, so I've been reading it, and I've learned a lot.

For example, did you know that the Soviets rewrote repertory classics to make them more attractive to the Dear Leader? Glinka's great national opera, A Life for the Tsar (considered the first of the great Russian scores), was edited to have the protagonist give his life for the country instead of its monarch. (You may see and hear the Sovietized version here, in a handsome Bolshoi performance from 1979, conducted by Mark Ermler.*)

There's a fascinating study of programming at the two important Russian philharmonic orchestras – Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Moscow. (Older readers will recall a truly unforgettable appearance in Raleigh of the LPO during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, in the fall of 1962.) Those anti-church Russkis even played sacred music, like Bach's Mass in B minor and the requiems of Berlioz and Verdi – and they seem to have performed them without textual emendations, too.

Shostakovich, of course, dominated music in Russia during the Soviet era. He was clearly miles ahead of the other living composers, some of whose music turns up from time to time, even here; in general, the Sovietskis preferred the dead ones, and even expats like Rachmaninoff, who had escaped as soon as he could, wound up being embraced when they departed the land of the living. Tchaikovsky emerged as the all-time Champ of Russian Music when all was said and done – despite his homosexuality. Go figure. (Totalitarians will fudge anything and everything if it suits their purpose, Dear Leader….)

(For some reason, these earlier Russians seem, today, a whole lot more pleasant than Putin, don't they?)

We know Shosty for his quartets, his piano music, his concerti, his symphonies, and even his operas, one of which was actually produced in Charleston by Spoleto USA way back in 1982. But there are many, many film scores, and they are increasingly commanding attention – although, to tell the truth, some of them seem to have been written merely to put food on the family table…. Nonetheless, they merit a look, and just last week, for example, CVNA published a review of a recent recording of some of this music, available now on Naxos.**

So with all this in mind, and with way too much time on my hands, I decided to compile a list of the Shosty film scores, which follows below.

Note that one animated flick was largely destroyed in a Nazi bombing run – only a fragment survives, according to the Y-T poster: "Since Halloween is almost upon us, I figured I'd upload this very unsettling Soviet animation from the 1930s: The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda, a lost Soviet animated feature film-opera with music by Shostakovich. Only the first two minutes exist. The rest of the film was destroyed in WWII due to Nazi bombing in Leningrad, and quite frankly I'm glad this is a lost film because … this is terrifying."

And one was actually a German flick – and with Paul Robeson's voice! It seems not to be online but it may be ordered from the usual places or from Europe, when the pandemic ends (but not before because European postal service has basically shut down due to COVID-19).

But literally all the others are.

The tabulation below includes the film name and the date with the IMDB reference embedded beneath the title and – wonder of wonders – the YouTube link to the original film shown in the clear. (Corrections and/or additions are welcome!) As noted, only one is missing. Alas these are not generally subtitled, but in some instances there are précis in IMDB, and there are links to plot summaries of many (but not all) here. Otherwise, in most cases one can get the drift well enough from the dramatic context. And if that weren't enough, what else are you going to do with all that time you have on your hands, to fend off the devil? Vacuum? Heaven forbid. Enjoy!

PS As noted here, YouTube videos may be downloaded to blank DVDs using AVC software, available free online.

*The cast includes Eugene Nesterenko (Ivan Susanin), Bela Rudenko (Antonida), Eugene Shapin (Bogdan Sobinin), and Raisa Kotova (Vanya).

**Note that one of the works on the Naxos CD isn't actually a movie score – it's incidental music for a play. The other work is.

Editor's note (5/2/20): Many of these films are listed in Wiki, where often there are plot summaries provided. These have been incorporated in the list that follows.