Russian Film Festival, Part Two

Russian Film Festival, Part Two

The other Russian films that I have spent time with recently, are both adapted from Shakespeare plays.  The tragedies and comedies of William Shakespeare have garnered a lot of my attention in recent weeks.  There are dozens of well done film versions of the Bard’s works, but some very smart person turned me on to the fact that one of my favorite composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, composed film music for  Russian versions of Hamlet and King Lear.  I had no idea!  My intellectual pride was dented enough that I went straight to Amazon to find DVD copies of the two films.  

Koz HamShostakovich composed the musical score to the 1964 film of Hamlet, directed by Grigori Kozintsev.  This version was in the Russian language, taken from a translation by Boris Pasternak.  It is a very odd experience for me to watch this play, originally in Shakespeare’s English, translated into Russian, only to have me reading the subtitles in English again to know what is being said.  Not exactly the shortest route, but it gets me there.  A great Russian actor by the name of Immokenty Smoktunovsky plays Prince Hamlet in the film.  I recently have viewed a half dozen or so different movie versions of Hamlet, and the Kozintsev film truly is an important one to see.

Hamlet the play is one of the longest Shakespeare plays, written about 1600, right in the middle of Bard’s career.  It was published in a couple of different versions, and putting together all the material from each version creates a lengthy play, over four hours long.  One of my favorite film versions is the 1996 Kenneth Branagh film, an unabridged theatrical film that leaves nothing out.  Branagh plays the lead, adapted the play, and directed the movie.  My impression is that he gives us all the lines that Shakespeare wrote, but by doing so we get a bit of a hybrid version that was not ever performed precisely this way in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  Still, I like almost everything about the film, even if I have some reservation about the “Errol Flynn-esque” way that Claudius gets killed in the end.  

Most movie versions of Hamlet are a little over 2 hours long, and the Kozintsev film is about 2 hours  20 minutes.  Clearly, to edit the play down to this scale means a good deal of cutting has to happen.  A huge amount of interpretation happens in making these cuts, deciding what to emphasize and what to downplay.  The 1948 film adapted, directed by, and starring Laurence Olivier, cuts out almost all of the political action.  Olivier emphasized the personal, internal struggle of the brooding Danish Prince, and provides a very Freudian interpretation.  The Oedipal overtones of the interactions between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude are strengthened by the casting, with the 41 year old Olivier playing Hamlet opposite a 28 year old Eileen Herlie portraying Gertrude.  Hamlet is a play that directors must wrestle with, make their own, and have a strong artistic vision to even decide how to adapt it for film.

Kozintsev does some very wonderful things with his film.  Unlike Olivier, Kozintsev preserves both the personal internal struggles of Prince Hamlet as well as some of the political themes.  Some of the soliloquies are presented as voice overs, something one can do in film that couldn’t be done in a live theatrical production.  The film is created with a very strong conception, and Kozintsev presents his conception with great clarity.  There are times when the content of the play is presented visually, without the original dialogue, but with cinematic imagery.  The early scene featuring the characters waiting for the appearance of the ghost of the dead king is one example.  Grigori succeeds in preserving the scope and architecture of the play, even with a truncated script.  

The strength of the music by Shostakovich further reinforces the overall aesthetic vision that Kozintsev had for his version of Hamlet.  I have listened to a great deal of Dmitri Shostakovich’s music, but until recently had not heard his music for this film.  It is instantly recognizable to me as Shostakovich, his musical voice is readily apparent.  The music for the film was praised from the beginning.  The reviewer for the New York Times in 1964 was Bosley Crowther, who made note of the music in the following quote:

“Since the dialogue is spoken in Russian and the English subtitles are slim—just few words each time, from Shakespeare’s text, to cue the audience in—it goes without saying that the dialogue, the verbal poetry, means little in the film. It doesn’t even have a noticeable cadence to rouse the emotions through the car.

But the lack of this aural stimulation—of Shakespeare’s eloquent words—is recompensed in some measure by a splendid and stirring musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich. This has great dignity and depth, and at times an appropriate wildness or becoming levity. In the scene of Ophelia’s burial, for instance, it is light but significantly weird, carrying on with a new note of poignance the strain from Ophelia’s mad scene.”

Ophelia from Kozintsev’s Hamlet

koz king learIn 1971, Grigory Kozintsev directed a version of King Lear, again with a translation of the Shakespeare play into Russian by Boris Pasternak, and a musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich.  This was only two years before Kozintsev’s death, and four years before Shostakovich’s passing.  I always think of the pile of bodies on stage at the end of King Lear, a play four hundred years old, and smirk when people complain of how the violence on television or in video games is ruining society.  The video games, television programs, or four hundred year old Shakespeare play don’t cause people to be violent, they are merely a reflection of the dark side of human nature.  People have been harming each other all the way back to Cain and Abel.  Violence is not a new invention of the twenty-first century.  

In an interview with Ronald Hayman of The Transatlantic Review in 1973, Kozintsev had this to say about working with Shostakovich:

“I’ve been working with Shostakovich my whole life, and I think his understanding of the whole tragic and grotesque imagery in Shakespeare is perfect.  And in King Lear I didn’t use just dignifying fanfares and drumrolls.  There is also the voice of suffering.  I love the pipe music he composed for the Fool.  I think this is a real voice of Shakespeare, and I’m very grateful to Shostakovich.  When I hear Shostakovich’s music, I think I’ve heard Shakespeare’s verse.  It is possible to cut some of the verse if you have his score to substitute, and I actually did make cuts specially because of music he wrote and in many places of my script, before I begin to shoot, I know I will be using not human voices, but the voice of Shostakovich’s music.  In the storm scene, for instance, the main voice is the music.  It’s a victory of evil, the whole power of the evil of cruelty. “
The musical scores of Dmitri Shostakovich are integral parts of both the Hamlet and King Lear films directed by Kozintsev.  I have enjoyed the time I have spent with both films, and am so glad they were pointed out to me.  

Clip from Kozintsev’s King Lear

Four By Four For Four, Part IV

Four By Four For Four, Part IV

Part IV

Elliot Carter

Elliot Carter

I had difficulty narrowing down my choice for the fourth and final entry in this series on string quartets.  There is so much music written for four strings, and the majority of it seems indispensable to me.  Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Ravel, Debussy all wrote masterpieces for the genre.  Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, John Adams, Philip Glass and many other notable American composers have all contributed to the repertoire.  I almost finished this series with a work by Elliot Carter, whose five String Quartets are some of the most challenging pieces ever conceived.  The players often have independence of not just melody and harmony, but rhythm and meter as well.  In fact, in Carter’s second string quartet, he instructs the players to sit as far apart as possible, so that it appears they are playing four completely different pieces simultaneously.  I abandoned the idea of writing about Carter’s quartets, as I am not sure I even have the words to describe the experience of listening to them.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Ultimately, I chose the prolific Dmitri Shostakovich to represent part four of my series.  His 15 string quartets are a priceless contribution to the quartet repertoire.  Unlike the big public symphonies, Shostakovich’s quartets were more intimate, private works.  As such, they garnered less scrutiny from the Stalinist dictatorship.  I wouldn’t say Dmitri was completely free to compose as he liked in the quartets, but certainly had more latitude than in the orchestra works.  His String Quartet Number 8 in c minor is one of the most performed of the group.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet was composed quickly over a span of three days in July of 1960.  Dmitri had visited Dresden to write film music for Five Days, Five Nights, a film about the World War II bombing of Dresden.   On the surface, the somber tone of the composition might seem to be a reaction to the wartime devastation of that fire bombing.  In fact, the score is dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”.  In reality, the eighth is a very personal work about Shostakovich himself, who was despondent and nearly suicidal at the time.  Two major life events were depressing Shostakovich at this time.  First he received a devastating diagnosis about his health, that he suffered from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  This crippling disease of debilitating muscle weakness is often known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The second personal crisis for Dmitri was his reluctant joining of the communist party, a move made for survival, and to preserve a chance at employment in his compositional career.  Shostakovich attended meetings he had to attend, and said in public the things he was told to say, and all the while hated himself for it.

quartet 8It is relatively easy to see that the eighth quartet is all about Shostakovich himself.  The very first movement opens with the DSCH motif that is the personal signature of Shostakovich.  He included this in a number of his works, and it is worth giving a little explanation of this musical cryptogram.  Dmitri’s name in German transliteration would be spelled Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  Taking his initials from that spelling, we get the letters DSCH, or in German De, Es, Ce, Ha.  Again, in German musical notation, those letters correspond to the notes D, E flat, C and B.  Shostakovich happened upon this likely in a study of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, where a B-A-C-H motive appears in many prominent works.  Once the DSCH motif is recognized for what it is, it is like Dmitri is shouting “ME, ME, ME” all over the opening of the piece.

Shostakovich had an incredible memory, for both his compositions and any other music he ever heard.  The eighth quartet is littered with quotations from his other works.  The first movement has allusions to Shostakovich’s First and Fifth Symphonies, as well as a disguised bit of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.  The second movement includes quotes from his Dmitri’s Second Piano Trio, as well as more of the DSCH motive.  The third and fourth movements have quotes from other of his own compositions, with the fourth movement including a little “Muss es sein?” recalling Beethoven’s Opus 135 quartet.  All of these self-referential snippets woven into the fabric of the eighth quartet are about Shostakovich himself, not the wartime bombing of Dresden.

Fortunately for us and string quartet players everywhere, the depressed Shostakovich did not commit suicide after this quartet.  He went on with life, and finished seven more quartets for the repertoire.  His String Quartet Number 8 remains one of the most personal and intimate pieces he ever composed.  It was chosen to be played at his funeral years later, and more appropriate music is hard to imagine.

The hope is that my short exploration of string quartets in the last four posts might inspire someone to listen to some music they might not previously considered.  A live concert by a top quality quartet ensemble is a powerful, intimate musical experience.  It is one I highly recommend trying.  Recordings of string quartets are plentiful, and well worth your time to listen.  I hope you enjoy.

String Quartet No 8, in C Minor, Op. 110 Dmitri Shostakovich, Kronos String Quartet


A Snapshot of 1929

A Snapshot of 1929

1929 Model A Ford

1929 Model A Ford

The twentieth century in music brought in a modern world that was fragmented in many directions at once.  Thanks to recording technology, it was a musical world that was preserved for us to still hear today.  Before the twentieth century, the only ways to preserve music was to write it down as best as possible, or by keeping alive an aural tradition by teaching the next generation to sing the same songs.  With the invention of sound recording, we can actually hear all of the nuances of musical performance as it existed at that moment in time.  This was a huge evolutionary leap, and the sounds of music grew in a multitude of ways.

Let’s take the year 1929 as an example, and listen to a selection of things that could be heard at that time.  One of the first selections that comes to my mind when you mention the year 1929, is the great Duke Ellington’s time at the Cotton Club in Harlem.  This stint was early in Duke’s career, and lasted only a few years.  This is very artful music of the big band era.  Here is a recording with three tunes, “Jungle Nights in Harlem”, “Saratoga Swing”, and “Haunted Nights”

Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Orchestra, 1929

Also in jazz, the great Louis Armstrong was growing in importance as a singer, as well as a trumpeter.  1929 saw Satchmo record “When You’re Smiling” for the first of several times in his career.  The double entendre of the record for me is that Pops himself had a famous smile, and his singing always seems to inspire a grin for those who listen to him.

Louis Armstrong, “When You’re Smiling”

Stock CrashThe Stock Market Crash of 1929 had lots of people singing the blues, continuing for many years into the Great Depression.  In the Mississippi Delta, lots of blues singers were being recorded, and those records sold throughout the American South.  One of the most popular blues records that year was “That Crawlin Baby Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, “That Crawlin Baby Blues”

One of the most influential musicians of the day was the blues and folk singer Charlie Patton.  Just a few years ago, the great Bob Dylan released a song paying tribute to Patton.  Patton had to be one of the more organized musicians of his day. Instead of just wandering around the Mississippi Delta looking for places to play, he actually had scheduled gigs from place to place.  His recordings are more essential listening from the Delta.

Charlie Patton, “High Water Everywhere”

Elsewhere in the world, Arnold Schoenberg was causing a stir by throwing out tonality and writing music using his twelve-tone system.  Schoenberg was in full serial dodecaphonic mode in 1929 when he wrote the Piano Piece Opus 33a.  Arnold had turned Vienna and the rest of the classical music world on its ear by “emancipating the dissonance” and writing music that did not center around one home note.  At first listen, this may sound like chaos, but it is highly ordered music around a structure that keeps all twelve tones of the chromatic scale circulating all the time.  I love this video, because of the way it demonstrates the critical nature of using multiple colors of highlighters to analyze Schoenberg’s music.

Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Piece Op 33a

In Russia, a young Dmitri Shostakovich was a rising star in the Russian musical world.  He hadn’t yet felt the full oppressive force of the Stalinist dictatorship that would haunt his whole existence.  His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, wouldn’t get him in hot water with the Party for another 5 years.  In 1929, Dimitri was finishing his third Symphony, with a vocal finale either celebrating or satirizing the revolution.  (It’s sometimes hard to tell with Shostakovich).

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 3, Opus 20.  “The First of May”

Heading back to where we started, in New York City, the Kern and Hammerstein musical “Show Boat” was in its second year on Broadway.  This was near the birth of a whole new genre, the Broadway musical, something different than opera or light operetta.  It is an entirely different category of musical theatre that has reached millions of people.   One of the biggest hit tunes of “Show Boat” is “Ol Man River”

Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat, “Ol Man River”

Broadway_Melody_posterIn the world of motion pictures, both sound and technicolor were now available for films, ending the career of more than one silent movie star.  1929 was near the beginning of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, where the major studio system dominated the production of movies.  The Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 went to “The Broadway Melody”, the first time the award was given to a sound movie.  One of the popular tunes to come out of that movie was “You Were Meant For Me”

The Broadway Melody, “Your Were Meant For Me”

This has been just a handful of things that could be heard around the world in 1929.  The selection of examples is of course weighted to the stuff I am familiar with, but that is my privilege because it’s my blog.  Please feel free to share your favorite examples of music from 1929 by posting your comments.