Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
  Classical Music Home > Music News

The Sound of Silents – Mark Fitz-Gerald talks to Jeremy Siepmann

November 1, 2011

Mark Fitz-Gerald

Like many another outstanding conductor, Mark Fitz-Gerald has one foot in the opera house. Unlike almost all the rest, he has the other in the cinema. Not the cinema we know today, but a relic of a fast-receding past, the silent cinema. He doesn’t turn his nose up at the music of the ‘talkies’—far from it—but it’s the earlier films that have preoccupied him most. And as with so many lifelong enthusiasms, it all came about almost by chance. Until 1981, silent cinema was no part of his game plan. And then?

‘In 1981, I attended the Montepulciano Music Festival in Italy for the fifth time. That year there were two orchestras featured. One was the Basel Sinfonietta, then in its first year, the other was the RIAS Jugendorchester, and I was very privileged to be able to conduct a concert in which both orchestras were combined (the work was Shostakovich’s First Symphony). Within weeks I was invited to conduct the orchestra’s first official concert in Basel, and not long after that I was appointed director of the RIAS orchestra in Berlin. And it was there that I encountered an excellent film music producer, through whom I gained access to some rather unusual material, which we later performed and recorded. Within a few years, the Basel Sinfonietta had already won a terrific reputation, not least for its determination to become an alternative orchestra, performing repertoire which other orchestras weren’t. They asked me to do various things, one of which was to put on a silent film with live music. The film, as it happened, was New Babylon, with music by Shostakovich—probably the most difficult and complicated silent film score ever conceived. This was really being thrown in at the deep end! Anyway, it was partly to celebrate the 30th birthday of the Sinfonietta that we mounted the project again this year. So that was my first experience of silent film. And the practical problems became ever more apparent: finding the right film, of the right length; the right score, which would marry up with that film; adjusting to the vagaries of the film projectors of that time, the amount of electricity coming to the building, new oil being put into the projector etc. All of which could spring some horrendous surprises!’

Film scores were still a relatively new medium at that time. Did Shostakovich have a profound understanding of it from the start? ‘New Babylon is the first (indeed the only) silent film score that he wrote. He had a lot of experience playing the piano for silent films, in fact in the early years he supported his family in this way. I seem to remember that he actually got some kind of a degree for it. Anyway, he found it appalling what the orchestras were doing at that time, rehashing the classics in the most unsatisfactory manner, and he set himself to writing a real symphonic score. This created great benefit, but also great problems, because if you’ve got a symphonic score playing continuously, although you can catch up between the reels, the various cues are so tight and precise, and so tied to the events in the film, that if you get out of sync in any way, there’s no opportunity to recover, except every 15 min when the reels are changed. And that was part of the problem with the first performances. Although the score for New Babylon is written more or less like two symphonies, one after the other, when Shostakovich came to write his second film, Odna, which had been planned as a silent film, though sound was added later (it was at about that time that sound came in), he wrote it more like a ballet—that’s to say, a lot of separate, set numbers, with gaps in between, so that if one happened to be accompanying in the cinema, with a live orchestra, there would have been a chance to recover oneself. His focus here was on the perfection of small forms. As it turns out, it all worked marvelously well. It’s a little-known fact that Shostakovich wrote more music for film than for any other medium. You can trace his whole biography, more or less, through his work in the cinema. In the early period, let’s say from 1929 to 1936, he was very much for the post-revolutionary things that were going on in Russia. But although early on he seemed largely supportive of the regime, he was by no means uncritical, so he could insert a certain amount of irony into the music to communicate his reservations—albeit humorously and cleverly veiled. When it became more obvious to the authorities what he was up to he had to shut up very quickly, almost in fear of his life. And that started the second period of his works, where he was forced to write music for films which are really outright propaganda for the regime. Such was his genius, though, that he could churn out works almost in the style of Borodin and other composers of the mid to late romantic Russian style, which he knew would appeal to the authorities. Nevertheless, there was often a hidden context behind it. As he approached the end of his life, after he was forced to join the Communist Party, his health deteriorated, and he realised he had nothing to lose. Increasingly, he wrote what he really felt was appropriate. His music became very dark. He also started to lose the use of his right hand, and learned to write with his left, and his music became much more concise, every note used for a much more concise expression. This is particularly notable in his last two films, Hamlet and King Lear. It’s notable that the last notes he wrote for any film, the last notes of King Lear, are simply for one solo E-flat clarinet—just a small handful of notes, in a long extended phrase, but my goodness what that music sums up!’

And what most distinguishes Shostakovich’s film music from that, say, of the best Hollywood composers? ‘What distinguishes not just his film music but all his music, for me, is his total objectivity and lack of sentimentality, his readiness to criticise anything he thought needed putting in order. I think Maxim, his son, said that despite all the terrible events he lived through, he never saw his father cry, except on one occasion. After 1936, he had to create a kind of mask for his music, so that the people in charge would hear in the music what they wanted to hear. But though he never explained in any detail what he meant, he said “anyone with ears can hear what I really meant.” And what many could hear is that behind the mask there was something far more subversive and sinister. One example of his bizarre use of music in film occurs in one of the most extreme propaganda films ever made, The Fall of Berlin, which more or less makes out that Stalin won the Second World War single-handed, and has him landing in a plane in front of the Brandenburg gate and emerging in a white suit, almost like an angel delivering the whole world from the tyranny of the Nazis. And for the scene which portrays Hitler’s wedding to Eva Braun, Shostakovich chose the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream—which could hardly be more ironic! Can you imagine anything that would more have aggravated the Fuhrer?!’

That conjunction of the Russian and the German triggered a question I’d been meaning to ask Fitz-Gerald in any case. Did he, I wondered, feel that Russian composers of that time, with their undevelopmental tradition, were better suited to the episodic nature of film music than composers in the broader Germanic tradition? ‘That’s an interesting question. One of the greatest film music composers, much criticised for being over Hollywoody, was the Austrian-born Erich Korngold, the man who basically invented the whole Hollywood sound. Like most of his colleagues who were forced to leave Germany before the Second World War, he created the most fantastic sound world—and in just about everything he stood for, especially in that special sound world, he was virtually the complete opposite of Shostakovich. His music was opulent, extremely indulgent, very heroic, never critical of anybody, and often downright sentimental. And that more or less sums up most of the Germanic tradition of film music at that time. The only German composer who shared anything with Shostakovich was actually Gustav Mahler, whose music was introduced to the Soviets in 1932, twenty-odd years after his death, by one of Shostakovich’s colleagues. Mahler was not well-known at that time in the Soviet Union, and getting to know his music was something of a revelation for Shostakovich, who could see in Mahler a similar objectivity and irony which though it might on the surface appear sentimental was actually very critical, or observing, let’s say, of what was going on around him.’

Two great, indeed colossal names, of which, in Fitz-Gerald’s view, Shostakovich was by no means the lesser: ‘For me, he was possibly the greatest musical genius of the 20th century. I think of his ability to say in only a few notes exactly what the authorities wanted to hear while underneath, and with such power and ease, saying something completely different, even some things which were totally private, probably known only to himself. When I was having to reconstruct the music of Odna, for example, it took me a month or two to reconstruct by ear just three minutes of the music from the very crude soundtrack into full score. Yet with everything already so clear on his head, it probably took Shostakovich a very short time, to think it so quickly, and to write it down at the moment of inspiration—almost like he was a 20th century Mozart. The actual business of writing on the paper was almost a nuisance. He couldn’t get it down quickly enough. And when you think that Mozart had about 10 or 12 staves to work with, Shostakovich’s scores would often have 20 or 30 staves—and far more complex music. The conciseness, and the effectiveness of his thought and intellect are just devastatingly impressive.’

In his search for hitherto forgotten or neglected Shostakovich film scores, Fitz-Gerald has not been alone. ‘I’m very grateful to my colleagues John Riley and Peter Bromley for bringing to my attention much rare material, including Shostakovich’s later films, whose quality and significance I hadn’t fully appreciated until I really started delving into them seriously. John has been very helpful in finding many DVDs of old Soviet films, in some of which, if you’re lucky, you can find music not only by Shostakovich but by Khachaturian and Popov and all sorts of other interesting compositional figures.’

Shostakovich’s dramatic and incidental music, it should be noted, was not confined to the cinema, silent or otherwise. He was active on all fronts. ‘That’s right. In fact at the time that he was writing New Babylon he was also doing a lot of work with the Leningrad youth Theatre. One of the works which is particularly prominent, which was written at the same time as New Babylon, is the music to the play The Bed Bug, which has never been completely recorded—partly because nobody has completely restored the score. But it’s closely related to New Babylon and we’re hoping that we’re going to put that in order before too long and achieve our goal of having a complete recording made. Two other films which Peter and John and I are looking at are the very famous film of The Gadfly, and The Golden Mountains, neither of which has ever had a complete recording in its original scoring. So we’re also looking to restoring those at some stage.’

And what about film scores by other composers? Who else has attracted Fitz-Gerald’s attention? ‘As a good antidote to intensive Shostakovich, it’s always wonderful to do some Korngold—his complete antithesis, as I’ve said. It’s also a great pleasure (and something that I regularly do) to conduct music for silent films by Carl Davis, of which I do a good number every year. One of his great gifts as a composer is his ability to illustrate and enhance so much detail in a film without overwhelming it or disturbing its continuity. Sometimes with a score by Korngold or Steiner or Bernard Herrmann, you’re almost led away from watching the screen, because they don’t accompany the film, they almost dominate it. Korngold approaches a film score as though it’s a major opera, every figure having a leitmotif, which is beautifully developed throughout the film.

‘A recent silent film score discovery I’m very excited about is Carmen, by Ernesto Halffter. A great and fine great score which we’re very glad to have restored. He composed it at the age of 21, in 1928, and conducted the first performance himself, but the circumstances were rather unsatisfactory. He didn’t have a big enough orchestra, and the parts seem to have been copied at great speed, which caused many inaccuracies. We’ve now put the whole thing in order, and I hope very much that listeners to our new Naxos disc will agree with me that this is a very exciting find indeed. The most stunning track of all is the last number, the death of Carmen. It’s absolutely overwhelming music. Bizet’s is a great opera but it sounds quite tame in comparison with Halffter. This is really gritty, passionate music.’

For Fitz-Gerald, life (hence also conducting) is a continuous voyage of discovery, fuelled by the joy of curiosity. He is always ready to be surprised. May his listeners be similarly inspired.

More world première recordings of Film Music Classics by Mark Fitz-Gerald

Basel Sinfonietta Biography & Discography

Mark Fitz-Gerald Biography & Discography

Dmitry Shostakovich Biography & Discography

Film Music Classics series on


Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group