Nowy Wawilon:The New Babylon / Battle for Paris
Sat, September 17, 2005 4 pm CEST, Film Screening
Silent film with live orchestral accompaniment

The background to the plot is the suppression of the Paris Commune after France’s defeat in the war against Prussia in 1870/71. The film emphasises the gulf between the bourgeoisie and the ‘healthy’ working class.

Louise, a shop assistant in a department store called The New Babylon, meets a young soldier by the name of Jean. They fall in love but are separated after the French armies have been defeated and the workers continue their struggle under the Commune. Louise is on the side of the Commune. Jean, the son of a peasant, asks to be sent into action against the Commune and, after the workers have been defeated, he is made a member of the squad that executes Louise.

Shostakovich’s music – this was his debut as a film composer – was so complicated in parts and involved the use of such unusual instruments that it proved impossible to play during screenings of the film. It is nevertheless regarded as one of the outstanding compositions of the silent film era. The rousing, experimental music proved too much for the cinema orchestra and was far from what film audiences were used to. The premiere caused a scandal with people claiming that “the conductor is drunk”.

Shostakovich’s involvement with the medium of film began in the early days of his youth. In the cosmopolitan cultural atmosphere of Leningrad in the 1920s he was a regular visitor to the “Evenings of Modern Western Music”. He was able to listen to expressionist and neoclassical music as well as music in the jazzy entertainment style of the period written by composers such as Franz Schreker, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Krenek, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Igor Strawinsky.

Just 22 years of age when he composed the music for the avant-garde silent film The New Babylon (1929, directed by Grigory Kosintsev and Leonid Trauberg), he incorporated some aspects of what took the film (in part at least) close to Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of the ‘intellectual film’.

Film music was far from being a minor element in Dmitri Shostakovich’s artistic oeuvre and, from a biographical point of view in particular, it ought to have received due attention from record companies much earlier. However, it is only in the course of the past 20 years that they have documented the composer’s prowess in this field. The Capriccio company has brought out a 45-minute suite recorded by the Berliner Rundfunksinfonieorchester (Michail Jurowski).
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