What makes a good film score?


On Wednesday 23 October, City of London Sinfonia will kick off the new #CLoSer series with a film screening of The New Babylon alongside a live performance of the score.

The music, written by Dimitri Shostakovich in 1929, is significant for a number of reasons; not only was it his first attempt at a full-score piece, it was also his first full-length score for a silent film. Yet despite its position in the early part of Shostakovich’s career (and being condemned by state officials at the time), the score retains its value in the history of film music.

Made in Soviet Russia, The New Babylon was directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg who were members of the experimental theatre collective The Factory of Eccentrics. Shostakovich and Kozintsev formed a great friendship and continued working with one another into the 1970s.

The film is set during a politically tumultuous time in Paris where class-conflict is rife and revolution is in the air. Early screenings of the film were controversial, largely due to Shostakovich’s use of satire within the score, in stark contrast to the highly politicised content of the film. Images of the bourgeoisie frolicking in cafes and bars appear grotesque when accompanied by the can-can, forming an influential narrative throughout the film.

So what makes this a good film score?

Innovative pairings of audio and visuals? Subtle aural references? Sonic clues and techniques used to build tension that would not exist in the visuals alone?

It’s hard to pinpoint why some film scores are more successful than others because there is not a standard formula for brilliance. It is the combination of screen shots and music that has to work together, whether contrasting or complimenting, meaning that the techniques of scoring music for film are adapted in each instance. A good film score will never replicate exactly what has been done before, with a few exceptions of replicating for ironic effect and parody.

Shostakovich’s score for The New Babylon is remembered for its use of can-cans, gallops and popular Offenbach melodies contrasting with the narrative’s more grave and serious themes. The score didn’t follow any formulas, although it has grown to be an influential presence in the minds of many film composers.

Commissioned by Sovkino, the Russian state film agency, the score was instructed to be “intelligible to the masses” yet Shostkovich’s innovative use of montage was criticised for being too high-brow. As silent films were usually accompanied by improvised piano parts, the score was violently rejected by orchestras and was dropped after only three showings. Only when the manuscripts were rediscovered in the 1970s by conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, has The New Babylon experienced a renewed interest in the original score.

What Shostakovich was trying to do was something new; he was working with contrast. Instead of using music to simply follow the action on screen, the score was acting as its own entity, an active participant in the narrative of the film.

As Director Kozintev commented:

“We immediately came to an agreement  with the composer that the music would be linked to the inner meaning and not to the external action, that it should develop by cutting across events, and as the antithesis of the mood of a specific scene… The tragic themes intrude on vulgar can-cans” (in Wilson 1994, 76).

Shostakovich himself expanded this further:

“I constructed a lot of the music on the principle of contrast. For example when Jean comes across Louise at the barricades he is filled with despair. The music becomes more and more cheerful, finally resolving into a giddy, almost ‘obscene’ waltz reflecting the Versailles army’s victory over the people of the Commune.”

If you’re interested in hearing Shostakovich’s controversial score alongside a film screening of The New Babylon, City of London Sinfonia will be performing it on Wednesday 23 October at the Village Underground, at 7.30pm.

16-25 year-olds can register for a £5 ticket.


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