The New Babylon

CD Review: The New Babylon

Five years before Dmitri Shostakovich scandalized the operatic world and ran afoul of Stalin and the Soviet government with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, the legendary composer began his cinematic career with the 1929 silent film THE NEW BABYLON. Once the opera was denounced in Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, commissions dried up and the composer’s film work suffered with the propagandist films he was forced to accept. But while his first film may not be particularly well known, its score is the mark of a mature genius (written when he was only 23), as evident on an excellent new recording from Naxos.

The film tells the tragic story of two lovers separated by the barricades during the 1871 Paris Commune uprising. The eight reels of the film were composed in separate “acts,” and so Shostakovich devotes a movement to each reel. With lengthier rather than the traditional shorter cues associated with sound films, the score plays out more as a film music “symphony” (much like Gottfried Huppertz’s METROPOLIS).

Even in such an early work, Shostakovich displays his trademark cynicism, irony, and wit, as well as complete command of the orchestra. Written in the shadow of his Third Symphony, the satiric opera The Nose, and the ballet The Golden Age, the music bristles with melody, dissonance and harmonic invention.

The New Babylon Film Score
“Reel 1: General Sale/War: Death To The Prussians”
“Reel 2: Head over Heels/Paris”

The score is brash and bold, as only someone of Shostakovich’s youth (and genius) could compose. The composer had not yet come under fire (or under Stalin’s thumb) and he tweaks his nose at the military and musical establishments. Shostakovich offers up pointed musical comment on the military by interpolating “La Marseillaise” with biting harmony and dissonance.

As in much of Shostakovich’s work, woodwinds and brass compete for dominance, trading barbed musical insults back and forth. One of the delights of this release is the restoration of solo strings (instead of the normal full orchestral complement), as the composer originally intended. With only one string instrument to a part, the performance has a crispness and transparency that is lacking in other recordings of music from the score.

Mark Fitz-Gerald has always been a staunch supporter of Shostakovich’s film music and here he conducts the chamber ensemble, the basel sinfonietta, with his typical energy and assuredness, capturing every biting nuance from the score. The score, which Shostakovich thought was lost his entire life, found new life in suites when the discovered shortly following his death in 1975. The CD adds some 200 bars of music cut from the film and comprises the first complete recording of the score.

I’d love to see the film, but it has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. to my knowledge. Until that happens, Naxos’ pristine recording of Shostakovich’s first film score is a welcome addition to the growing library of film music restoration. While Shostakovich has never received the proper acknowledgement for his film work, THE NEW BABYLON gives further evidence of Shostakovich’s talent and suggests that perhaps it’s time to reassess the Soviet giant’s contribution to film. Naxos’ recording showcases Shostakovich’s music to its fullest with an early example of film music at its best, silent or otherwise.

  1. Thanks for the review. I love Shostakovich but am often skeptical of much of his “Glory to Stalin” work. Even when its good, I can’t get over the propaganda aspect, even though I can’t speak Russian!

    Gadfly has always been one of my favorites of his film scores and I have always been curious to see that film as well.

    1. I understand the sentiment, Roger. But if we overlooked his “Glory to Stalin” work, that leaves out about 20 years worth of music. And I think that’s what makes him such a fascinating composer. How did he create under such ruthless conditions? I doubt we’ll ever know the whole story.

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