Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Orchestral Scream; Shostakovich on TV

"The Great Citizen" was a film was made in 1939 that teams with the anxieties and tensions of a world on the edge of war. This was the first "made for television" movie produced in Soviet Russia and it was scored by Shostakovich.

The main character of this movie was based on Sergei Kirov. Kirov was assassinated only four years before the film was made in circumstances that most believed were conspiratorial. Stalin mourned in public and even helped carry the coffin, but he directly benefited from, and was most likely behind, the murder.

In the final segment of the film, which comprises the last ten minutes of the movie, we meet the Kirov character moving through a public building. He is in a hurry and checks his watch, but he is a man of the people and knows how to charm. His second interaction addresses the concerns of a woman. He pulls her away from the direction he is headed and finds a personalized solution that seems to immediately resolve her concerns.

A whistle blows.

He meets one final friend, who has an informal, clown-like look even though he wears a suit. He offers this friend a cigarette and gives him matches. The friend cannot produce a flame. Kirov walks away laughing, looking back twice:

There is no sound as the door closes; we heard the sound of the door like a shot in our minds. The scream is orchestrated. The opening phrase of the funeral march is a quotation from "Vi zhertvoyu pali (You fell as a victim)" which is a tune of national significance in Russia. Listen to a classic recording of this tune here.

Shostakovich begins to tear away from quotation after the first phrase and sets an apotheosis that resonates with the accumulated sense of processional and personal reaction in the film.

At timing [5:12] Kirov's grandmother is lead to the coffin. The music shifts back toward "Vi zhertvoyu pali," and when the tune reappears it is scored for solo bassoon. This wonderful passage creates a memorable moment in both sound and image.

After a lengthy eulogy the cue for the movie closing begins with an awkward splice just after [9:25]. The final cadence is a climactic sound that is sustained while the portrait of the smiling Kirov fades.

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