Hooray for SOCIALIST SOCIETY
Dmitri Shostakovich: Odna
Irina Mataeva (soprano), Anna Kiknadze (mezzo-soprano), Dmitri Voropaev (tenor), Mark van Tongeren (throat singer)
Mark Fitz-Gerald (conductor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Apollo Voices
These days, sloppy operas and facile programmatic works are sometimes dismissed as "film music". Between the first and second world wars, though, the cinema was the essence of modernity and, both before and after sound arrived, music was central to both art and entertainment. Some late, great silent films, like Murnau's Sunrise (sub-titled A Song of Two Humans), were explicitly symphonic in form; soon after the novelty Jazz Singer, sound, music, and also silence, were part of the parallel experiments of realism and fantasy -- wonderfully in the films of Rouben Mamoulian, for example. In the Soviet Union, the modern was sacrosanct, or at least a secular fetish, and film was a major tool in the ideological education of the proletariat. Handily, it was also a rich and open art form, and artists took to it and had little difficulty weaving the party line into a range of beautiful, expressive works. The only limit was the objectivity of the censor, which often took years to kick in.
Shostakovich, who also had a problem with delayed objective criticism in the matter of Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, worked as a cinema pianist in his youth, and throughout his life was a dab hand at toeing the line while creating pure, or personally emotional, art. Right at the turning point of sound, he worked with Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kotintzev (known much later for his Soviet Hamlet and Lear films) on Odna ("Alone"), a 90-minute feature that seems today to sum up Soviet film. It is the story of a young woman, Yelena Kuzmina (the real name of the striking looking actress) who initially lives alone in a small flat in Leningrad but has a fiancé. Just qualified as a teacher, she is assigned a job in a village in the Altai mountains of Mongolia and after some resistance -- she doesn't want to leave wonderful, modern Leningrad, or her boyfriend -- she accepts that she must sacrifice her comfort to educate the peasants. In the village, she teaches the children and observes the unsocialist ways of the kulak sheep owner, who tries to murder her. The people rescue her, a brave young mother replaces the collaborating leader of the rural soviet, and she summons a plane take Yelena for medical treatment.
Because the Soviet Union was objectively ready for sound just after the silent film was completed, in 1931, the film was reworked with sound before its release. This has the odd result that the dialogue is represented in intertitles, but out-of-shot speech and some sound effects are on the sound track. Shostakovich's score also had to be reworked, apparently because it was too sarcastic in places.
The resulting film and score are still pretty rewarding. The scenes in Leningrad are brightly lit and perky, almost febrile, and Shostakovich's music is like slightly screwy operetta, with brief song-like vocals. If it resembles anything else he wrote, it is Moskva, Cheremushki, his Broadway-style sentimental satire on Moscow life of twenty five years later. Yelena's struggle with the authorities about her posting has a Kafkaesque, expressionist quality -- the female official who denounces her selfishness is seen only from the back, and her voice is heard on the sound-track . Once she arrives in the village, things become ethnographic -- there is a working shaman and a dead horse on a pole, and a throat singer in the score -- and the music catches both the anxiety of the other (Cooper and Flaherty were already in business, and King Kong, another movie with a blonde in the wilderness, was only a couple of years away) and, in an angular way, the melodrama of Yelena's confrontation with the kulak and his attempted murder of her. The reel of the film in which she is left to die and rescued is missing, although the score survives, and was performed as a found tone poem as the titles were projected on the screen. The final reel of the film consists of the triumphant arrival of the plane, to a euphoric massed choir and orchestral march that replicate the upper-case cheers in the titles for SOCIALIST SOCIETY.
The score of Odna was believed lost, and has been expertly reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald, who conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a stirring performance. The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, which is probably justified for a new work by Shostakovich, although the score is incomplete without the film.