Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 11
The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin
Directed by Larry Weinstein.
Music by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Produced by Rhombus Media Inc., Toronto, Canada.
Cast: Valery Gergiev, The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Orchestra of Mariinksy Theatre.
The alert prospective viewer of Larry Weinstein’s new Shostakovich documentary will find valuable clues about the film’s scope, content, and interpretive agenda in the title itself: The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin. While most of the speakers became acquainted with Shostakovich in the second half of his life (1941 onwards), the chronology of events discussed begins earlier, with the fateful year 1936, in which Stalin intervened personally in Shostakovich’s creative biography by targetting Lady Macbeth for public censure and vilification. The film ends with the death of the dictator, for which strains of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony function as funeral music. The war in question is not the relatively short-lived if catastrophic period of hostilities between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but the longer series of multiple campaigns of murder, torture, deportation, and terror waged by Stalin and the Soviet State against all classes of Soviet society. The ambitious task of the film is, therefore, to dramatize the viewpoint that the six numbered symphonies (Nos. 4-9) written during the Stalinist terror constitute a heroic sustained resistance to Stalin, a personal war waged with music as the weapon.
To achieve this end, the filmmakers wove together orchestral excerpts from the six symphonies, rare newsreel footage, several dozen short statements with subtitles from Shostakovich’s colleagues, friends, and family, and a first-person narrative resembling that of Testimony in both tone and numerous locutions. The truly disturbing film clips and reminiscences of human suffering provide ghastly testimony to the atrocities of the period. When counterpointed against Valery Gergiev’s notably ferocious renderings of selected passages, the conclusion seems inescapable: such music must have been inspired by and also reflect the horrors of Stalinism witnessed by the composer.
That there must be some correlation between the music and the immediate historical events has never been in doubt, not even in Stalin’s Russia. But neither have many of Shostakovich’s admirers been content to reduce the significance of his music to its effectiveness as a brazen public protest against the specific evil of Stalinism.
Whether by design or by default, Weinstein’s film has several saving graces that counteract the real threat of oversimplification inherent in a “strong” interpretive project concerned with a complex creative individual, which simultaneously aspires to some level of historical authenticity. While there are no outright contradictions, the diversity of the speakers’ backgrounds, relationships to the composer, and means of expression create a highly nuanced polyphony of opinions, which is infinitely preferable to a lockstep, scripted, more “Stalinist” mode of anti-Stalinist denunciation. The translations are largely accurate albeit truncated and sometimes lacking in nuance. The real annoyance here is the rendering of the Russian speakers’ respectful “Dmitri Dmitrievich” into the more patronizing Western-style “Dmitri.” Most of the speakers will be known to readers of Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. The most astute perceptions about the character of Shostakovich and the music are delivered by Marina Sabinina and Abraam Gozenpud, two of the few musicologists, since Sollertinsky, who were spared Shostakovich’s general derision, two whom he actually befriended. Those interested in the composer’s biography and opinions will find no new revelations. Experts will be dismayed to hear Veniamin Basner’s anecdote of an alleged KGB interview, a story of doubtful authenticity, and Dmitri Tolstoy’s account of the Seventh Symphony’s Leningrad premiere, which omits any mention of the roles played by the Soviet air force (airlifting of additional musicians) and the Red Army (a special assault on the German artillery timed to coincide with the performance). It is remarkable to hear a mature Tikhon Khrennikov question what he considers to be exaggerations about the extent of Shostakovich’s travails. His statement is immediately followed by predictable responses from Isaak Glikman and Vladimir Rubin, recalling a familiar technique of broadcast investigative journalism.
One strand in the web of words, immediately distinguished because it is read by an actor, should be processed more cautiously. It is that of the first-person narrator, obviously intended to function as a vessel for the composer’s own ideas, emotions, views, and reminiscences. Anyone familiar at all with the unmistakable high tenor range, mannerisms, and rapid tempo of Shostakovich’s actual speaking voice, present to a degree even in the film’s brief snippets from public orations (even more so in his daughter’s uncanny on-camera impersonation), will find the narrator’s lugubrious and ponderous intonations more characteristic of some cinematic ideal of a Russian hero, than of Shostakovich’s actual persona. Viewers already familiar with Testimony will recognize substantial correspondences between book and narration in expressive mode, opinions, and turns of phrase. Whatever one’s personal and professional assessment of Volkov’s publication may be, this alone need not diminish one’s view of the film’s merits.
On the other hand, scholar and aficionado alike must recognize this central narrative for what it is: a scripted paraphrase of a translation of a journalist’s revision of notes made from interviews with Shostakovich (the most generous reading of Testimony) conducted late in the composer’s life. As such it is at least five steps removed from the direct speech of all the other speakers.
Much praise must go to the technical ingenuity and artistry of the film’s editing. The extraordinary care and detail devoted to the pacing and ordering of events and to the coordination of music, speech, and image are largely responsible for the film’s general effectiveness. Especially successful are the crosscuttings between piano and orchestra; for example, when Shostakovich’s playing of passages from the Seventh Symphony is taken up by Gergiev and the orchestra, acquiring in the act new aural characteristics and meanings. Elsewhere, one speaker or another will turn to the piano or begin to hum or whistle, with the tune again taken up by the orchestra to show Shostakovich’s transformations. In these brief sequences one may well gain insight into Shostakovich’s uncanny ability of encapsulating the essence of a cultural soundscape or historical era in a mere handful of notes.
At century’s end, one hopes that no one with any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the art and life of Dmitri Shostakovich would be so naïve as to accept any single viewpoint, from any era, as beyond reproach. This said, Weinstein’s remarkably daring—even “Shostakovian”—juxtaposition of rare sights, sounds, and reminiscences of musician survivors of Stalinism merits the wide audience it is certain to receive.
The DSCH Journal adds: The War Symphonies is not currently available for private home viewing, and outside the United States is sold only to broadcasters. Within the United States the documentary is sold on VHS videotape (NTSC only), with public performance rights for institutions, by Bullfrog Films, Box 149, Oley PA 19547; 1-800-543-3764; www.bullfrogfilms.com.
Addendum: Since this review was first published, Bullfrog Films have made the VHS tape available to individuals and small groups; contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Addendum: Philips have released this documentary on DVD; see review in DSCH 24.
TV broadcasters / distributors include – Austria – ZDF; Belgium – BRT / IDTV; Canada – A&E / Bravo; Caribbean – Bravo; Czech Republic – Czech TV; Denmark. Finland – YLE-1; France, Germany – ZDF; Greece – ET1; Ireland – RTE; Japan – MICO; Luxembourg – IDTV; Mexico – A&E; Netherlands – AVRO / IDTV; Norway – YLE-1; Portugal – RTP; Spain – Canal+; Sweden – YLE-1; Switzerland – ZDF; USA – A&E.
- Le Nombre d’Or – International Widescreen Festival, Amsterdam, 1998 Special July Prize
- Golden Prague, Czech Republic 1998: Golden Prague (Grand Prize) – Excellence In Music Programming
- Festival International Du Film L’Art, Canada, 1998 July Award
- Golden Gate Awards, USA, 1998 Certificate of Merit Winner – Television, The Arts
- Gemini Awards, Canada, 1998: Gemini – Best Performing Arts Program or Series, or Arts Documentary; Nominations: Best Direction, Picture Editing and Best Sound in a Performing Arts Program or Series, or Arts Documentary
- Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels (FIPA), France, 1997 Selected for Competition
- Festival International du Film Sur L’Art. Montreal 1997 Selected for Competition – Creative Crossroads
Larry Weinstein Filmography
- HONG KONG SYMPHONY: Heaven-Earth-Mankind, 1997
- THE WAR SYMPHONIES: Shostakovich Against Stalin,1997
- SOLIDARITY SONG: The Hans Eisler Story, 1996
- SEPTEMBER SONGS: The Music of Kurt Weill, 1994
- SHADOWS AND LIGHT: Joaquin Rodrigo at 90 CONCIERTO DE ARANJIJEZ, 1993
- CONCERTO!, 1993
- MY WAR YEARS: ARNOLD SCHOENBERG, 1992
- WHEN THE FIRE BURNS: The Life & Music of Manuel de Falla, 1991
- MASTER PETER’S PUPPET SHOW / NIGHTS IN THE GARDENS OF SPAIN, 1991
- FOR THE WHALES, 1989
- THE RADICAL ROMANTIC, 1989
- RAVEL, 1988
- ETERNAL EARTH. 1987
- A MOVING PICTURE, 1987
- ALL THAT BACH, 1985 – Nominated for a 1988 Primetime Emmy
- MAKING OVERTURES – The Story of a Community Orchestra, 1984. (Nominated for a 1986 Academy Award)