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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: Gadfly Suite (The) / Five Days-Five Nights Suite
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Suites from the Music to the Films
The Gadfly, Op. 97a
Five Days - Five Nights, Op. 111a
Once upon a time all that was known of Shostakovich in the
West was the public face of a handful of symphonies and the private mind of
the string quartets - an autobiography of rhetoric and bombast, bleakness and
satire, bitterness and disillusionment. Since his death, however, out of the
memories and manuscripts of a faded, oppressed past, other dimensions have surfaced:
the romantic, self-borrowing, ideological tunesmith of popular theatre and patriotic
cinema … the banner-waving follower of revolutionary pathos and epic pomposity
… the functional purveyor of easy-on-the-ear, money-spinning trivia for Party
and proletariat … Kremlin court-jester. "Chekhov used to say that he wrote
everything but denunciations … I agree with him. I have a very un-aristocratic
point of view." For Shostakovich there was never a tension between "serious"
and "popular". Whatever the outward impression he was no Jekyll-and-Hyde.
All expressions, all styles, were simply different facets of the same tonal
coin, different windows onto the same personality, bound by a common language,
cross-referenced by a recurrent seasoning of irony and innuendo, of sly, subversive
aside. Beneath the surface formula, within the associative sound and imagery
of a distinctive orchestration - from lean to full-bodied, from quirky ensemble
to traditional solo, from subtle evocations of countryside and spintual Mahlerian
dreamscapes to battlefields and Stalin portraiture - many a shared cryptic,
Schumannesque subplot lurks. No matter whet context or commission, Shostakovich
never lost the capacity to make his notes mightier than his masters. To those
who got the subliminal message there was always a joke or a pain, an insult
or a protest to share.
Between 1929 (New Babylon) and 1970 (King Lear),
working principally (but not only) for Lenfilm (1935-47) and Mosfilm (from 1947),
Shostakovich - much more of a film professional than he was prepared to admit
- completed nearly 40 soundtracks, including cartoons. "Cinema music is
often regarded as a mere illustration, supplementary to the screen. In my opinion,
it should be treated as an integral part of an artistic whole" (Literaturnaya
Gazeta, 10 April 1939). He believed that the function of a film score was
"not to illustrate the action but to add an entirely new dimension, often
running in counterpoint to the visuals or even undercutting them … [his] keen
dramatic sense, and his mercurial skill in juxtaposing frivolity with despair
- often using one to suggest the other - served him particularly well …"
(Philip Kemp, 1993). Obsessed by the moving image, it was his nightly work as
a "picture palace" pianist in Leningrad towards the end of the silent
era that first schooled him in the medium (1923-25). Repetitively hacking mood
music / "human-passion" improvisations for not very much money, he
recalled later, made him conscious that "most musicians working in the
cinema consider it a mire which will swallow [them] up, stifle their talent,
turn them into inspired machines, and leave a deep and indelible mark."
Nevertheless, he gained from the experience. "Just like writing for the
ballet [echoing Glazunov's advice], film scores kept my musical reflexes alert
and my craftsmanship lithe and adroit … when I've finished a film, I'm keen
to start work on a symphony or a string quartet" (letter to his friend
Ivan Sollertinsky). "My film music [had] a beneficial effect on my other
compositions" (1955 interview). "The formal structures of [the] symphonies
increasingly came to resemble a series of scenes, [the] counterpoint assuming
characteristics of film editing." (Detlef Gojowy, 1983)
Directed by Alexander Feinzimmer (responsible over twenty years
earlier for Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije), The Gadfly (Ovod)
was first shown on 12 April 1955. Based on a period swashbuckler (1897) by Ethel
Lilian Voynich, a minor English novelist (1864-1960), the story is set in 19th
century Austrian-occupied Italy and tells of a freedom-fighter (the illegitimate
son of a cardinal). Known as the "Gadfly" because his "sting"
so maddens the authorities, he goes through various adventures before eventually
meeting a hero's death by firing squad. Inspiring one of Shostakovich's most
attractive scores, the twelve movements ("fragments") of the suite,
Op. 97a (compiled by Lev Atoumian), reflect not only the heroism and lyric quality
of Gabrilovitch's screenplay but also the clever archaic, romantic and popular
pastiche of Shostakovich's musical underlining. Anticipations of symphonies
to come, allusions to Rossini and Tchaikovsky, are plentiful. But the rightly
famous Romance for violin and orchestra (a descendent of the Meditation from
Thais) is in a luscious, heady, lover's world of its own. Like the Nocturne
(solo cello), its timing, climax and cadence touches poetic genius.
Inescapably Shostakovich depicted 1941-45 (Russia's "Great
Patriotic War") not just in "war" symphonies, but also in "war"
films. Written during the summer of 1960 and first shown on 23 November 1961,
Five Days-Five Nights (Pyat' dney - pyat' nochey) was a Soviet
/ East German production directed by Lev Oskarevich Arnstam, a life-long friend
who had himself been a pianist in the silent days. For his scenario he took
"the shattered city of Dresden", offering "a poignant vision
… with pity for war's victims (of whatever nationality) and hope for the future,
expressed in a passionate orchestral climax built around a theme from Beethoven's
Choral Symphony" (Kemp). Operation Thunderclap - 796 night raid
RAF Lancasters, 1,478 tons of high explosive bombs 1,182 tons of incendiaries,
311 day offensive US B17s - laid waste the undefended beauty of baroque Dresden
on 13 / 14 February 1945. In less than twenty-four hours an estimated 35,000
- 135,000 people, many of them refugees lost, gave their lives. Still one of
the most morally contentious "city busting" incidents of the Second
World War, even Churchill could not hold back his shock: "the destruction
of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing".
Dmitry and Ludmilla Sollertinsky (1979) tell how Shostakovich worked on the
music in the place itself, "now rising again from the ruins, all of which
stirred old feelings seemingly locked in his past. It is not without cause,"
they add, "that he dedicated the Eighth Quartet, composed at the same time
as the music for the film, to the memory of the victims of Nazism and war."
The five movement concert suite (Atoumian) - involving a larger orchestra than
The Gadfly, including harp, piano and a strengthened brass section -
was originally aired in a Moscow Radio broadcast (7 January 1962), given by
the USSR State Cinema Symphony Orchestra under Emin Khachaturian (later to record
The Gadfly). Soviet film always had status and media exposure, and Shostakovich
was one of its brightest stars. His light was never to go out.
© 1996 Ate Orga
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