Sunday, July 4, 2010

Movie Night with Shostakovich; The Girlfriends (1934) Part One

Dmitri Shostakovich began writing music for films in 1929, and "Podrugi" was the seventh movie for which he contributed music. The title is ususally translated as "Girlfriends," but something like "Buddies" or "Childhood friends" might give a better sense of the intention.

This film was constructed in two large sections that mirror one another. It was intended to display personal sacrifices during the Russian Civil War and also to show that life was hard before communism. Shostakovich scores the first part of the movie with a string quartet, adding trumpet and piano. In the balancing second half of the movie he adds organ, theramin, and several passages for full orchestra to close the work triumphantly. It is easy to imagine the cues for orchestra as being a protest of ironies because he heart of the music is written for string quartet.

The music during the opening credits is from the second movement of Shostakovich’s first string quartet. Because of film timings the music begins with the restatement of the opening theme. The viola spins a tune in A minor, followed by one variation.

1914 Prologue: The opening shot is from inside the “Russo-American Association of Rubber Manufacturers” looking out at the town we will soon visit.

During the first scene we meet Zoya (the girl with the cow-lick braid) and Senka (a boy) who are eating sunflower seeds until they get into an argument after Senka moves in for a kiss. Zoya’s grandmother scold her. Then mothers all over town announce that it is supper-time.

Scene 2: [5:27] A processional, mostly of children, on their way to work as rubber manufacturers. Fortuitously, the music cue begins just after a dog barks. Shostakovich sets this scene in Bb minor, tuneful but taught but always on the edge of turbulence.

As the procession nears the gate the local militia orders the gates closed. His gestures speak of secrecy: there is no need to whisper [6:33]. The music, which has grown wild, suddenly pauses. Senka, who is fearless, pushes through to find out what is going on.

Advice: Beware of anyone who rolls his moustache on both sides before answering [7:05] "There is a strike," says the militia "and the factory is closed."

The music unhinges for the quick retreat home ending unbalanced on D-flat minor.

Scene 3 [7:29] At home, Zoya's grandmother is chanting. She uses a reciting tone of C and cadences her first phrase on D. The next phrase includes a colorful scoop from B-flat up to E-flat returning to C before being interrupted by the girls.

There is a short prayer scene. They pray for a resolution of the strike and for Zoya's mother to come home, but the girls are still in a playful mood.

As they wait for news a tense pulsing drone with music in A minor. At [0:47] a muted trumpet enters the texture and the A drone is reinterpreted into F-sharp minor. The texture thickens, then as the muted trumpet enters a second time [1:46] it is accompanied by the piano, presumably being played by Shostakovich himself.

The news that Asya's mother is not well and is in the hospital is filled with half-truths that are communicated clearly in the acting and the music.

After pulsating to a point of pain the musical cue closes quickly with octave F-sharps laid over the drone A [3:03]

The next scene [5:20] features the three girls talking strategy. What can they do to help earn money for their families? They come up with an idea: they will sing for tips at the local bar.

As we see the entrance to the "Keys to Happiness" bar [6:45] Shostakovich finds B-flat minor again, connecting us back through tonality to the processional music we heard earlier. Waiting, and the delivery of bad news can be heard as a leading-tone to the more public scenes that surround it.

One almost cannot help but like the crew inside; they are a weird burlesque. At [8:11] we get the first glimpse of Silych, who, though he looks odd, will eventually help the girls out. The use of bird-call signals [8:17] and responses is a theme that is further developed as the movie progresses.

At [1:51] the girls and Senka appear and ask to sing. At [3:51] they begin a performance of "The Poppy Song." It is clearly not well received. As they get bounced [6:21] some background cues come into play, including a jazzy clarinet line at [6:40], and some great ejection tremolos [7:15]. Silych comes outside to entertain at the crew at [8:10]: he will lend a helping hand and some good advice as this movie continues.

After some fun where Silych has the kids form a train, one of the most lovely passages of the movie takes place [0:58]. It is a riverbank scene at twilight. Silych has taught the kids a new song to sing at the bar: "Zamuchen tiazheloi nevolei (Tormented by a Lack of Freedom)." Fishing nets hang from tree branches and boats pass in both directions. At [2:40] a fanfare in C major is heard in the distance.

The fanfare brings to mind the story of Igor, son of Silych, who was hanged for being a "revolutionary" aboard a battleship. The setting sun through a fishing net [3:40] puts a symbolic visual close to the story.

At [4:19] a musical cue of pulsing sound in A-flat major closes this scene.

We return to the "Keys to Happiness" bar [5:39] as the music from the prior scene shifts to A-flat minor. At [6:42] the kids sing again, this time it is the tune that Silych taught them on the riverbank. Success at last....

Part Two of this movie is also on this blog: See July 3.


  1. The anthem they sing in that one touching scene, "Tormented by a lack of Freedom" comes back again, in a highly ironic setting, as a slow dirge in the final movement of Shostakovich's 8th Quartet, surrounded and interrupted by the repeated, scary motif of three "knocks on the door." His original audience would no doubt have appreciated the irony, after the Great Terror...


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