For the full picture, do not ignore the score

Dmitri Shostakovich
August 12, 2005

Non-conformist artists had to be resourceful to survive in the inhospitable climate of Stalinist Russia. But while writers could usually only eke out a meagre living through translation, composers often received quite lucrative commissions for film scores. And because music censorship was less severe in the film industry, composers could sometimes be quite experimental. Alfred Schnittke, for example, wrote as many as 66 film scores, many of which provided him with a vital creative laboratory for the development of key musical ideas.

It was Dmitri Shostakovich who chiefly set the precedent for regarding work for the cinema as a legitimate and fruitful activity for a composer, but it is no fault of John Riley that he is unable to explore in depth the composer's rich legacy in this area or to consider the history of the valued creative relationship between directors and composers in Russia, where film scores have traditionally been accorded greater respect than in the West.

This is the third in a series of "short, lively, authoritative" studies of major figures involved in Russian cinema. The author has his work cut out for him simply covering each of the film scores Shostakovich wrote within the confines of a 150-page book (which regrettably lacks an index); but it is a worthwhile enterprise because the scores have never before been made the subject of a book-length study.

It will probably come as a surprise, even to those familiar with Shostakovich's music, to learn that his prolific work list includes, alongside the 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets and numerous other works, some 37 film scores. Shostakovich was involved with the cinema throughout his career, from the early 1920s, when he obtained work playing the piano for silent movies, through to the early 1970s, shortly before his death.

Riley performs a valuable service in illuminating a "life in film" that has been largely ignored by musicologists and by film scholars who have been reluctant to take it seriously. Admittedly, many of the films Shostakovich worked on are obscure, and the scores he wrote for them are uneven in quality (like the films themselves), but it is important to recognise the central position writing for the cinema occupied among his musical activities, whether for reasons of financial or political expediency, or because of his personal commitment to the medium. And it is instructive to fill in the gaps between Shostakovich's greatest scores, which many would argue are his first and last and were the product of his collaboration with the great Soviet director Grigory Kozintsev: New Babylon (1929) and King Lear (1971).

Riley sensibly divides Shostakovich's cinematic career into six chronological chapters. In these, he discusses each film score in the context of the ever-changing political and artistic climate in which it was produced and comments on its subsequent reception history. His objectively and lucidly written summary assessments are accompanied by a filmography that gives details of available recordings, which is a useful reference source.

Rosamund Bartlett is reader in Russian, Durham University.

Dmitri Shostakovich: A life in film

Author - John Riley
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 150
Price - £35.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 1 85043 709 2 and 484 0

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