The Kennedy Center

Suite from The Gadfly

About the Work

Image for Dimitri Shostakovich Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
© Richard Freed

As a teenager, Shostakovich played the piano in a theater showing silent films (the only kind at that time) to help support his family. In that setting he would sometimes burst out in laughter or show some other sign of absorption in the action on the screen, and simply forget his obligation to accompany it with music; while that led to his dismissal, he was thoroughly hooked on the movies, and began composing music for them at the end of 1928, just two years after establishing himself as a serious presence on the musical scene with the premiere of his First Symphony, which was actually his graduation piece at the famous conservatory in his hometown (called Leningrad at that time). Most films in the silent era had some kind of musical accompaniment?either a piano or, for the more ambitious productions, a full orchestra performing in the theater during the screening. In some instances music was especially composed for this purpose; in others, something might be cobbled together from the existing repertoire. Shostakovich?s first film score was an orchestral one for a silent movie called The New Babylon, about the Paris Commune of 1871. The arrival of the soundtrack only made him more interested in continuing to write film scores, and he turned out no fewer than thirty-six of them, the last composed for The Envoys of Eternity in 1971, four years before his death. Along the way he had composed music for cinematic treatments of Shakespeare?s Hamlet and King Lear, without borrowing from his earlier "incidental music" for stage productions of those dramas. He wrote music for documentaries and out-and-out propaganda films, and for comedies as well. (The score for the movie King Lear makes prominent use of the "Jingle Bells" tune, with a totally unrelated text; for the documentary Michurin in 1948, he recycled the anthem he had composed only three years earlier for the newly formed United Nations, altering the rhythm somewhat to suit the new text.) Suites from several of these scores were arranged by the composer?s associate Lev Atoumyan, who also arranged five "Ballet Suites" drawn from Shostakovich?s dance works..

The Gadfly (in Russian, Ovod), issued in 1955 and thus contemporaneous with the premieres of Shostakovich?s Tenth Symphony and First Violin Concerto, was based on a novel of the same title by the English writer Ethel Lillian Voynich, originally published in 1897. The title is a name by which the historical figure Arthur Burton became known, because of his "sting" as a revolutionary activist in Italy in 1840, when that country was ruled by the Austrian throne. Burton, the unacknowledged son of a cardinal, remained an inspiring martyr figure to his colleagues after his capture and execution (by firing squad). Soviet officials in the post-war and post-Stalin years found Burton?s story filled with symbolism for points they wished to register. Two years after the film was issued, in fact, the same story was given operatic treatment by one of Shostakovich?s compatriots who bore the deceptively Italian name Antonio Spadavecchia.

The suite compiled and arranged by Lev Atovmyan comprises twelve numbers. No. 8, the Romance, achieved considerable popularity as the theme music for the BBC Television series Reilly, Ace of Spies, which led to its being performed and recorded on its own. It is not included, however, among the four numbers Yannick N?zet-S?guin has chosen for this week?s concerts, which are:

OVERTURE (No. 1). This is the music of the "main title," and it recurs during the film to represent its hero and the Italians? struggle for independence. Some commentators have noted that Shostakovich seems to have adapted this material six years later for use in the first movement of his Symphony No. 12, which is called "The Year 1917" and deals with a somewhat similar situation in the final days of Tsarist Russia.

FOLK FESTIVAL (No. 3), self-described in its heading, is in much the same frame as the well known Festive Overture which Shostakovich composed shortly before taking on this film assignment.

INTRODUCTION AND DANCE (No. 7) is the most substantial section of the suite. It takes the form of a passacaglia (a form Shostakovich used frequently in his concert works, the Violin Concerto No. 1 among them), framed by lyric passages for the unlikely trio of two saxophones and harp.

SCENE (No. 11). This brief number, from late in the film, portrays in broad strokes, and in specifically Russian textures and coloring (in this instance recalling the final scene of Swan Lake rather than any of Shostakovich?s own earlier works), the foredoomed d?nouement of the Italian drama.

Contrary to various claims made in the last several years, one movie for which Shostakovich did not compose music is The Battleship Potemkin, which established the international reputation of the great director Sergei Eisenstein. Shostakovich, in fact, never worked with Eisenstein, and had just turned nineteen when that cinematic masterwork (regarded by more than a few as "the greatest motion picture of all time") was first shown at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow on Christmas Eve 1925. On that occasion, still three years before the soundtrack was developed (in our own country, with the Al Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer), the Yuri Fayer conducted a live orchestra in music of Beethoven (Egmont Overture), Litolff (Robespierre Overture), Tchaikovsky (Francesca da Rimini) and other familiar pieces. The music actually composed for the film, first heard at its Berlin premiere in 1926, was the work of Edmund Meisel, and there is general agreement that it contributed substantially to the film?s huge success?not only in Berlin, but in more than five hundred subsequent performances in dozens of cities in Europe, Latin America and our own country. More than sixty years later, though, by which time both Eisenstein and Shostakovich were dead, an edition of The Battleship Potemkin was fitted out with a musical soundtrack made up of portions of commercial recordings of some of Shostakovich?s symphonies, most prominently the Eighth. Astonishingly, a new edition of the film in its original form without a soundtrack has been circulating in concert presentations in which live orchestras perform?not the music Meisel composed in association with Eisenstein, but the excerpts from Shostakovich symphonies that had been dubbed onto the after-the-fact soundtrack.