Book Reviews 24

The New Collected Works, Volumes 122 & 123; New Babylon, Alone

William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central

Franz Lemaire – Le Destin russe et la musique

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The New Collected Works, Volumes 122 & 123; 
New Babylon, Alone

In the 1980s we were excited by the prospect of a 42-volume edition of Shostakovich’s scores, incomplete as it was. But now there is to be the 150-volume DSCH edition though it is not clear whether it will get even bigger as more previously unknown works are discovered.

One of the old edition’s skimpiest sections was devoted to the film scores: just two volumes to cover three dozen works, so the new edition’s plan to publish the complete scores promises some choice discoveries. Of course the problems outlined in the last edition of the Journal still pertain but it’s good to see that the first two film scores are out, and that they are two of his most important: New Babylon (volume 122) and Alone (volume 123).

The volumes (a standard 30 x 22 cm) are hardbound in dark blue with gold lettering in both Roman and Cyrillic. The setting is clear and the paper is heavy enough to almost completely stop show-through. The commentaries, often perfunctory in the old edition, are much fuller, using the most up-to-date archival research to outline the histories of the works (particularly tortuous in these cases) and explain the editorial decisions. They are in Russian and English and the translation is generally good though they prefer the neologistic transliteration ‘phonogram’ to the proper term, soundtrack.
By several lengths the score to the film New Babylon must be the most complex of Shostakovich’s works to edit: it seems that everyone who touches it arrives at different – sometimes radically different – conclusions. Indeed, the suite edited by Rozhdestvensky (Sovetskii Kompozitor 4191) differs from his own recording of it, while the Sikorski edition used by James Judd in his recording introduces several problems of its own. There are two reasons for these discrepancies between different performances and recordings. Firstly, the film was substantially re-edited once Shostakovich had completed the score, necessitating a rapid and not entirely successful piece of surgery on his part. Secondly, there is a mass of manuscript material to be sifted through – an enormous task made worse by the fact that it is not entirely clear how each of these relate to the different versions of the film.

The simplest approach is to ignore the film and treat it as nearly as possible as ‘absolute music’. This is quite easy and the result would be musically quite satisfying. Anyone embarking on a studio recording of the music without the film could quite happily use this score.

However, when the film is brought into the equation other problems emerge. As has already been said, there is the question of which version to use. The material that Kozintsev and Trauberg cut out was found and a putative (though often convincing) reconstruction made. Trauberg denounced this version so we might take it as illegitimate, except that it may be closer to the version that Shostakovich saw and for which he planned his score. Then there is the question of at what speed to project the film, and therefore what tempi to use for the music. Silent films can be shown at various speeds (and projectionists could even vary the speed within the performance) but by 1928/9, when New Babylon was made, the world was converging on a constant 24 frames per second as the preferred speed for sound films and it can be effective for silents as well.

The most commonly used version for live performance is the short ‘Trauberg approved’ one with a synchronisation derived basically from performances in the 1980s, mounted by the British Film Institute using material from Boosey and Hawkes and a varying projector speed, and later broadcast on BBC television. But this edition won’t do for that. The film opens with a credit sequence of around 48 seconds, before two scene-setting intertitles flash up: WAR!… and Death to the Prussians! In the BFI version the music and images begin immediately so that these title cards appear around bar 54. The DSCH edition quotes the title cards above the music and these two appear right at the beginning so that the credit sequence would have to be run in silence to achieve that synchronisation but of course that would change the relationship between the music and the images thereafter. Moreover, when the film was re-edited Shostakovich removed some of the music, shifting the relative positions of some of the intertitles and he forgot, or was unable to compensate for it. This may account for some intertitles in the film that do not appear in the score at all.

New Babylon runs to 543 pages of score (including appendices) plus editorial notes (eleven pages each in English and Russian). Of the three appendices, two are mildly interesting and one potentially fascinating. Firstly there is an eighteen-bar fragment that Shostakovich cut from reel one, probably in response to the re-edit. Secondly a thirteen-bar variant of the Old French Song that Tchaikovsky had also adapted for his Children’s Album and which is played by the old man on the barricades in reel six. This is either a draft version or a typical example of the practicalities of film-score writing, where small variants are needed from time to time to accommodate minor changes in the editing room.

However, the third fragment, which was to follow directly on from the end of the score as we know it, throws up a couple of intriguing questions. In the final scene as it exists, Jean is one of a group of soldiers detailed to execute the communards, including his girlfriend Louise. The original script of New Babylon had a short, final scene in which an officer tells Jean that he will get used to such assignments. Up to now, there has been no evidence that this scene was actually filmed. Since Shostakovich planned his score by watching the film with a stopwatch, this musical fragment implies that at that first viewing, it may either have existed or he was told that it would be shot and added later. But as it breaks off inconclusively at bar 126, perhaps he quickly learned that it would no longer be needed and simply stopped writing it. One other oddity is Shostakovich’s decision to introduce tubular bells and a tam-tam in this act only. Perhaps he thought it would be a coup de theatre, or perhaps he considered revising the other acts to give them a bigger role: two percussionists and a timpanist are adequate throughout.

The general editor of the New Collected Works is Manashir Yakubov though individual works may have different editors. Since some of the score to Alone was lost, parts of it were painstakingly transcribed from the film soundtrack by conductors Mark Fitz-Gerald and Nic Raine and composer and friend of Shostakovich Kryzstof Meyer. Alone was published in the old Collected Works volume 41 but while it was very extensive, closer examination revealed that it was very unsatisfactory: anyone seeing the film would soon realise that it was incomplete and the pieces were in the wrong order and confusingly numbered, apart from any detailed variation between the score and the soundtrack. The New Collected Works has gone back to both the manuscripts and the film to produce a published version of what we hear.

The NCW Alone runs to 310 pages of score, plus eleven fragments (nineteen pages), either additional to or variants of the main score. Some of these appeared in the old Collected Works Volume 41 as part of the score proper, but others are completely fresh. The editorial commentary runs to over twelve pages each in Russian and English. It also has full-page colour reproductions of four recently discovered pages from Shostakovich’s manuscript, supplemented with a detailed commentary and the music itself is then typeset to facilitate study. In short, an exemplary presentation.

The editorial matter in both volumes is often revelatory. We learn more about the reception that New Babylon received including some of the good reviews, while we now know that, despite the claims of lead actress Elena Kuzmina, Alone was planned as a sound film with Shostakovich as a controversial, but ultimately approved member of the team from the start. However, the mystery of the missing reel still needs investigation and the advice to omit the music in accompanied performances of the film should be ignored.

Of course the question in editing these scores is whether they are intended to reflect what Shostakovich wrote or to be tools for live presentations: not always the same thing with film music. In the case of New Babylon this is definitely an attempt – and very worthwhile – to get to a justifiable version of what Shostakovich wrote. So, while the music is broadly speaking a corrected version of the Boosey one used by the BFI (there are some variants to get into or out of scenes more smoothly), the positioning of the intertitles is a problem. These are derived from Shostakovich’s manuscripts but performers would need to look again and be willing to ignore the placement sometimes. However, Alone triumphantly achieves both ends: being a piece of traditional music editing as well as a viable performing score[1].

Both of these handsome volumes are available in editions of just 500, so anyone interested would be advised not to hesitate. Hopefully, both will encourage people to look at performing these scores, and perhaps tempt people to venture further into his film work. However, DSCH would be advised to take note of the actual films in future editions of the scores.

[1] Mark Fitz-Gerald will be conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in just such a performance of Alone at London’s Barbican Centre on Friday February 10th 2006.

John Riley

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Europe Central
by William T. Vollmann
New York: Viking, 2005.
ISBN: 0-670-03392-8

William Vollmann (b. 1959), one of the most prolific and controversial of American fiction writers and journalists, has published over a dozen books since 1987, including a massive seven-volume study of violence throughout history, Rising Up and Rising Down. He is most famous for his provocative journalism and his yet uncompleted series of massive novels on American history, Seven Dreams, which include The Ice Shirt, Fathers and Crows, The Rifles, and Argall.

Europe Central, Vollmann’s sprawling 811-page novel of the devastation wrought by the German and Soviet dictatorships to central Europe, won the National Book Award for Fiction on 16 November 2005. The narrative is set up as a Prologue (“View from a Ruined Romanian Fort (1945),” followed by eighteen paired stories of greatly varying lengths, usually but not always with one story centered on Germany and one centered on the U.S.S.R. The historical character who receives the most extended treatment across several stories is Dmitri Shostakovich. Many of the two hundred and more pages devoted to him are concerned with his affair with Elena Konstantinovskaya (1914-1975), Shostakovich’s lover from 1934 to 1935, whom Vollmann has turned into Shostakovich’s lifelong passion. Konstantinovskaya, about whom little is known, appears only very briefly in Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994: 103, 106, 110, 121) and Laurel E. Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life (2000: 79-80, 62, 177, 371-72), and Vollmann took all his material on Konstantinovskaya, as he readily admits, from the late Sofia Mikhailovna Khentova’s Udivitel’nyi Shostakovich (1993: 114-37, 150-59, 168-70, 245-46). Unfortunately, the results are often disappointing. In “Opus 40”, the story in which he presents the Cello Sonata as a record of Shostakovich’s lovemaking with Elena, and has the erotic music paraphrased by a jealous apparatchik, who cannot resist Elena himself, Vollmann admits that he is drawing on the forty-two letters to Elena that appear in Khentova’s book. In his essay, “An Imaginary Love Triangle: Shostakovich, Karmen, Konstantinovskaya” (807-08), which follows the large section on “Sources” (753-806), Vollmann writes “that it is unlikely that Shostakovich never got over Elena, as it has been imagined in this book” (808). He adds, “Moreover, Elena was blonde, not dark-haired, and I have no grounds whatsoever for believing her to have been a bisexual cigarette smoker” (808).

Considering that some stories in Europe Central are provocative and memorable, particularly “The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale,” a supernatural story about Nadezhda Krupskaya and Fanya Kaplan, and “Operation Citadel,” a surreal description of German soldiers attacking Kursk, it is unfortunate that the Shostakovich material, which takes up so much of the novel, is a failure overall. Not only does the love affair with Elena seem strained, but without the obsessive love affair, Vollmann does not have much to add to the portrait of Shostakovich that emerges from his main sources on Shostakovich: Solomon Volkov’s Testimony, Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, and the late Isaak Glikman’s Story of a Friendship (2001).

Many readers will be curious as to how Europe Central fits into the ‘Shostakovich Debate,’ a debate that Vollmann does not mention at all. Vollmann is clearly one of the revisionists, and his method of tabulating the direct references in “Sources” to writings on Shostakovich is revealing. There are 25 direct references to Volkov’s Testimony, 24 to Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Rem-embered, 15 to Isaak Glikman’s Letters to a Friend, 13 to Sofia Khentova’s Udivitel’nyi Shostakovich, 13 to Victor Ilyich Seroff’s Dmitri Shostakovich (1943; written in conjunction with Shostakovich’s aunt), 7 to Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life, 5 to Gavriel Glikman’s “Schostakowitsch (1906-1975), wie ich ihn kannte” in Hilmar Schmalenberg’s Schostakowitsch in Deutschland, 4 to Detlev Gojowy’s Schostakowitsch (1983), 3 to Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich (1990), and 3 to Richard Taruskin’s Defining Russia Musically (1977), plus a few others. From Fay, Vollmann takes the dating of opus 40, but he does not use her view of Shostakovich.

Vollmann agrees with the revisionist view that Shostakovich hated Communism and that his music is filled with secret references (674). His Shostakovich is tormented by both love and politics. The Shostakovich stories stand as an elaboration of Lev Lebedinsky’s statement in Wilson’s biography that Shostakovich never had much luck with women (Vollman 682, Wilson 353).

Vollmann calls Shostakovich “a great hero – a tragic hero, naturally” (808). However, in the novel Shostakovich has many regrets in later life and thinks of himself as a “worm” (678), “bastard” (690), “degenerate” (695), and “criminal type” (712). He drinks too much (677, 720) and despite the fact that he likes pretty girls, he grows sexually impotent (676). He tells himself over and over in his later years, “Elena, you’re lucky that you didn’t marry me” (662).

Probably Vollmann was boxed into a corner by his choice of devoting over two hundred pages to Shostakovich. Clearly indebted to Volkov and Wilson, Vollmann had to find the means to make his “own” Shostakovich come alive. He developed some ill-advised strategies to do so. We encounter graphic sexual descriptions, annoying shifts of narration between style indirect libre and first person, as well as between omniscient and limited viewpoints. The verbal tic of the incomplete sentences used by Shostakovich soon becomes tiresome. That said, and through the use of the love triangle of Shostakovich, Konstantinovskaya and Karmen, Vollmann develops a complex narrative of Dickensian proportions, which is often quite thrilling.

In conclusion, Europe Central is unlikely to appeal to Shostakovich specialists, but it does serve to popularize and promote Shostakovich‘s work.

Peter G. Christensen, Cardinal Stritch University

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Franz Lemaire, Le Destin russe et la musique (Russian Destiny and music)
In French
Fayard, Paris
736 pages
ISBN : 2213624577

Lemaire’s illustrious series of thematic studies continues with what is essentially a revised and expanded edition of his La musique du XXe siècle en Russie et dans les anciennes Républiques soviétiques (20th century Music in Russia and in the former Soviet Republics). Its subtitle ‘A century of History from the revolution to our days’ alludes to its strong focus on the myriad politico-artistic characteristics that exemplify the development of post-Tsarist Russia, and it plots, with a meticulousness never straying into pedantry, the lifespan of this potent, yet tragic episode in musical history. Needless to say, the life and times of Shostakovich feature prominently, and although the premise of the book is not at all to unearth startling new revelations concerning the composer’s life, the contextual approach does allow for an unusual study-type to predominate. An English-language translation of this, and Lemaire’s other books (including The Jewish Destiny and music (Fayard, 2001) would constitute an invaluable project, although to my knowledge no such project is envisaged.

Alan Mercer