Book Reviews 47 /

Joan Titus, The Early Film Music of Dmitry Shostakovich
Oxford University Press, 2016
Hardback, xv+253 pages
£32.99 / $50.00
ISBN: 9780199315147

In her review of John Riley’s pioneering Shostakovich: A Life in Film (DSCH 22), Fiona Ford writes, “In an ideal world […] this book would have undoubtedly been more extensive, with copious music examples and accompanying DVD(s) containing illustrative film clips.” With its numerous musical examples and tables, and its companion website (, Joan Titus’s book is certainly a step in that direction.

Building on and referring to her own past work on Shostakovich’s early film scores, Titus aims to examine how he “situated himself as a composer for film and negotiated the politics of a newly redefined state film industry,” and also to “[pose] questions about the relationship between musical narration, audience and composer, Soviet cinema, and concert and/or stage music” (p. 3). She does this through six case studies from Shostakovich’s early film scores: New Babylon (1928-29), Alone (1931), Golden Mountains (1931), Counterplan (1932), Youth of Maxim (1934-35), and Girlfriends (1934-36). Historically, these scores overlap the Cultural Revolution (1928-31) and the development of Socialist Realist aesthetics. They are thus situated in a changing political scene “that placed new emphasis on the Soviet, and worked in tandem with technologies and aesthetics for sound-on-film” (p. 178).

Each film occupies a separate chapter and is informed by various primary and secondary resources in both Russian and English, such as music manuscripts and sketches; film and music archive material, including studio documents and reports, scenarios, diaries, and letters; as well as film-and-music scholarship. Each chapter contains short (sometimes alltoo-cursory) context and background information; a brief synopsis; a history of production, including negotiations between the film team/composer, reflections on the industry, technology, and cultural policies; and the reception of the film and its music as reflected in contemporaneous publications. The main component remains the actual analysis of the score, which uses musical narration as a trope in order to examine Shostakovich’s strategies, original contributions, and borrowings.

Arguing that connecting with the past was a way in which composers and directors coped with the challenges of finding a musical language that would satisfy the demands of Soviet cinema, Titus repeatedly refers to “codes” as a strategy that “allowed for continuity with film and other musical cultures” (p. 2). She bases her commentary on Boris Asafyev’s concepts of intonatsiya (“embodiment of a musical concept”) and symphonism (“the art of the development of music unfolding in time, as opposed to a prescribed and rigid schema”), suggesting that these concepts had been known to and employed by Shostakovich, film directors and sound designers.

In the “Music and Code” section of the introductory chapter, Titus explains that by using “code” and “code complex” throughout the book, she is simultaneously evoking a multiplicity of traditions with emphasis on Russian musical thought: shared codes (or an “intonational reserve”) acting as “a kind of a contract between listeners and creators, as a ‘dictionary’ of the era” (p. 5). Confused? You might well be after reading this heavily written, albeit short, section, which is also where the theoretical and methodological backbone of the entire book is introduced—alas, all too compactly. Whilst one sympathises with the author in her attempts to put across these complex notions, there is a real danger for readers to become frustrated by the labyrinth of concepts, by the lack of concrete examples to bring these abstract ideas into life, by the less than ideally elegant writing, and by the continuous references in the endnotes to other studies, and in particular to the author’s own Ph.D. dissertation (Ohio State University, 2006). The temptation to skip to the next chapter without fully grasping the methodological foundation of the book is hard to resist.

Referring to Shostakovich’s writings, Titus addresses the composer’s own categorisation of his film scores and identifies two different sound-design and compositional strategies. The first is where the score is “composed and designed in a way that appeared fragmentary” yet still maintained cohesion and symphonism in the way that music and image created the story: Alone, Counterplan, and Youth of Maxim are placed in this category. In this connection, one wonders whether Titus is not occasionally somewhat over-imaginative in her demonstrations of “unity”; is this an imperative at all in the realm of applied music? The other three scores belong firmly in the “symphonic” category. It transpires that a symphonic score meant different things to different people. Although Titus, referring to writings of Shostakovich and film directors, differentiates between their approaches to this notion, she does not acknowledge the more worldly marketing goals that those using such resonant terms may have had.

The study of continuity versus fragmentation, as well as the use of “codes” as a way of unifying the score, overshadows other goals that the author sets up in her introduction: namely “to situate each score in their [sic] political contexts and in the repertory of Shostakovich’s music” (p. 9). This was indeed the goal that she set herself, and largely accomplished, in her dissertation. By comparison, the book has two extra case studies, which take the reader up to the pivotal year of 1936. But this addition comes at a cost: there is a severe lack of politico-cultural context and clear theoretical definitions, particularly in regard to film studies. Comparison with other film composers of the time, most importantly Prokofiev and his collaborations with Eisenstein (as explored by Kevin Bartig in his Composing for the Red Screen), is also absent, as well as a more detailed account of Shostakovich’s own recycling of his music.

The 42 pages of endnotes make reading this book (at least in its paper-form) a frustrating experience, especially given that these notes contain information that could easily have been included in the main text. The brief index does not contain names from the endnotes, and some of the important referenced material is absent from the bibliography (e.g., Hélène Bernatchez, Schostakowitsch und die Fabrik des Exzentrischen Schauspielers (Munich: M-Press, 2005), reviewed in DSCH 26, which appears on p. 201, n. 62). One way to restore these omissions would have been to leave out the tenuously relevant section of the concluding chapter—“Musing on Youtube Shostakovich”—in which the author demonstrates how narrative qualities of Shostakovich’s music (almost entirely concert repertoire and works composed outside the historical frame of this volume) have inspired home video-makers and musicians in non-classical genres. Not that Youtube is a bad thing, of course. In fact, all of the films mentioned in this book can be watched in full on Youtube (at least by anyone able to enter their titles in Cyrillic), which would certainly be preferable to the very few and extremely short dips available on the book’s companion website.

It is hard to disagree that Shostakovich’s film music deserves more scholarly
attention. Apart from separate articles in collective volumes and a few Ph.D. dissertations (some cited in the bibliography or discoverable in the footnotes), John Riley’s book has been the only published attempt to cover the composer’s entire film music output, which spanned some 45 years. In one of her endnotes, Titus explains that her book is the first volume of a trilogy that will address the entire corpus (p. 234, n. 1). Given that she already leaves a few scores out of her study of the early film music (such as Love and Hate and the incomplete The Tale of the Priest and his Servant, Blockhead), however, it seems that we will have to be content with a series of interesting case studies rather than a comprehensive overview. No problem with that, necessarily. But to get the greatest benefit from Titus’s extensive research and absorbing analyses, one should read this volume alongside other books and studies, including her own dissertation.

Michelle Assay