Music Of Shostakovich Brings Fresh Drama To Silent Film ‘Potemkin’


Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin,’ depicting mutiny aboard a vessel of the Imperial Russian Navy, received the film-in-concert treatment at the Seattle Symphony under the direction of German guest conductor Frank Strobel. He assembled a score from five Shostakovich symphonies for the project. (Wikimedia)

SEATTLE — In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein made cinematic history with the release of Battleship Potemkin, his feature debut. Dmitri Shostakovich, still a precocious teenager, was hard at work on his First Symphony, which also caused a sensation when it was premiered the next year by the Leningrad Philharmonic.

But Shostakovich had yet to write the symphonies from which Frank Strobel has retrofitted a score to Eisenstein’s revolutionary film. Still, it proves to be such an effective accompaniment that you’d be forgiven for assuming the composer was an indispensable part of the creative team.

Making his Seattle Symphony debut (April 20 and 22), Strobel led the orchestra in a live performance of the music as the film, which reimagines a historical revolt in Odessa against the Russian Imperial Navy, was being projected on a large screen overhead. (The program included the note that “the Seattle Symphony stands with the brave people of Ukraine in their fight for self-determination.) 

Music from Shostavich’s Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Symphonies was performed live to Eisenstein’s film. (Seattle Symphony photo)

The whole exercise provoked thoughts about the nature of program music. How can a particular musical sequence — the Adagio that opens the Symphony No. 11, with its ghostly layers of strings and harps depicting a snowy morning at the Palace Square in St. Petersburg — seem so perfectly suited to a different context? At the same time, how does the emotional character and color of a specific musical idea reshape the way we see a cinematic image?

Conductor Frank Strobel specializes in film-music projects. (Maximilian Bühn via Wiki)

Frank Strobel is chief conductor of the WDR Funkhausorchester and artistic director of the European FilmPhilharmonic. As a guest conductor, he works in film-music projects and with symphonic repertoire at orchestras such as the Filarmonica della Scala, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), and the Wiener Symphoniker.

Strobel’s own concert series connect him closely with the Alte Oper Frankfurt and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich. Bringing film music into the concert hall is Strobel’s specialty; he crafted his Potemkin score in 2009.

Writing film scores was of course a significant part of Shostakovich’s output, beginning with The New Babylon in 1929. That project launched his ongoing collaboration with Grigori Kozintsev, which lasted until late in the composer’s career. But Shostakovich never partnered with Eisenstein.

It’s not the first time a collaboration between Shostakovich and Eisenstein has been posthumously imagined. The concept of cobbling extracts from his symphonies into a score was first tried out by a pair of Soviet musicologists in 1975 (the year of the composer’s death) for a special edition marking the film’s 50th anniversary. The Swiss conductor Armin Brunner undertook a similar experiment in 1992.

Sergei Eisenstein believed in updating his soundtracks every 20 years. (Wiki)

A range of contemporary artists has since outfitted the film with new music, from the Pet Shop Boys and Michael Nyman to Edison Studio. For his part, Eisenstein maintained that his film could be kept freshly relevant for later generations by providing it with a new soundtrack every 20 years. 

Curiously, a bespoke score was never commissioned for the Moscow premiere — the premiere was unveiled at the Bolshoi on Dec. 24, 1925 — even though the film was intended as a major public tribute honoring the 20th anniversary of the first (failed) Russian revolution of 1905. The Soviet showings opted for organ accompaniment or orchestras playing familiar music by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

Battleship Potemkin excited particular interest in Weimar Republic Germany (where it was initially banned, as happened widely around the world, including in the U.S.). For the Berlin premiere in 1926, a fresh score for a small ensemble was supplied by Edmund Meisel, which met with Eisenstein’s approval but was lost for decades before being reconstructed in the 1990s.

The fascinating history of Battleship Potemkin has always involved some sort of shuffling back and forth between different time periods. To arrange his Shostakovich score, Strobel worked with the restoration of the film introduced in Berlin in 2005. Predictably, Eisenstein’s original version had been censored by Soviet authorities soon after its premiere — including cuts to the ultra-famous Odessa Steps chapter and the removal of an introduction by Leon Trotsky.

Eisenstein himself notoriously manipulated the historical facts of the 1905 mutiny in Odessa Harbor caused by the abusive treatment of the crew of a flagship of the Imperial Russian Navy. (There was, for example, no massacre on the Odessa Steps.) Yet his cinematic re-interpretation is so persuasive that it became an essential primer on the sinister potential of propaganda.

Strobel found a strategy to mirror Eisenstein’s formidable technique by creating a collage from five different Shostakovich symphonies — Nos. 4, 5, 8, 10, and 11. That strategy allowed for a flexibility of moods and even a few clever moments of diegetic music (for example, to externalize a trumpet fanfare). At the same time, Strobel could shape a sustained buildup by drawing at length on a particular movement.

Eisenstein’s depiction of a fictitious massaccre at Odessa Harbor was quickly censored by Soviet authorities. (Wiki)

The symphonic logic of the original context was obviously sacrificed for a different kind of immediacy. This was above all apparent with the Symphony No. 11 from 1957, which Strobel used extensively. Shostakovich’s own official response to the Soviet memory of the events of 1905, the Eleventh conveys a dark, even tragic character at odds with the prescribed optimism of Eisenstein’s film.

It seemed too far a stretch to try to “ironize” the musical impressions that accompany, and are so forcefully accompanied by, Eisenstein’s stark, uncompromising images of violence and determination. Indeed, the explosive onslaught of juggernaut marches blasted aside the film’s own subversive layer of homoeroticism. Strobel did allow for a rare moment of bizarre comedy with the Fifth Symphony’s scherzo, used as the soundtrack for a scene in which the Odessans, instantly won over to the cause, rally to provide the rebels with an abundance of livestock (the mutiny having been triggered by the officers’ insistence on serving rotten meat).

Overall, the conjunction of cinematic and musical imagery exerted a relentless, indeed exhausting, emotional power that brought to mind Plato’s theory of the propagandistic potential of music. Maintaining a remarkable degree of synchronization, Strobel inspired full-throttle playing from the Seattle Symphony, with special kudos to the expanded percussion and brass. The numerous deafening climaxes had an intensity that would be hard to generate in a “mere” concert performance.

(Although it is not the Strobel version, the internet archive does include a video of Eisenstein’s film with some music by Shostakovich and Nikolai Kryukov.)