The Gadfly/Shostakovich

December 30, 2011

When his father succumbed to pneumonia in 1922 a sixteen year old Shostakovich found work playing piano to accompany silent films. This was the start of a relationship with films that would last for fifty years and provide the composer with a steady income. In 1929 Shostakovich wrote his first score to a silent film called New Babylon (1929), a picture that dealt with the Prussian invasion of France in 1870. Still under Lenin’s “Art belongs to the people” policy, the score was bright, dissonant, and barbed.  In 1930 the social climate changed and the new goal was “social realism” which marked the beginning of Shostakovich’s political troubles, culminating with his denouncement in 1948 for writing formalist anti-people music. In spite of this he continued on. After the death of Stalin in 1953 the country entered a stage called ‘Thaw’ with relaxed pressure on the arts allowing the release of one of the more popular films, The Gadfly (1955). Shostakovich contributed a lot of the music which was later arranged into a 42 minute 12 movement suite by Lev Atovmian who did combining, re-orchestrating, and composing new material. There is currently no OST material available. If you wish to see the film which it is available in Russian with no subtitles, you’ll find that there is a lot of music that doesn’t appear in this suite.

The film, directed by Alexander Faintsimmer, who also directed another great soundtrack film, Lieutenant Kizhe by Prokofiev, is based on a novel by Ethel Lilian Voynich which deals with Austria occupied Italy in the 1840’s. Arthur ‘Gadfly’ Burton is the rebel and revolutionary member of the youth movement who was given his nickname an annoying stinging insect.  Gadfly, as the illegimate son of a cardinal, was dedicated to the Italian cause.

The film emphasizes the corrosive power of the Church, the necessity of binding disparate States into a strong whole and the importance to the country of self-sacrifice. Gadfly is eventually caught and shot by a firing squad. The book became required reading in Russia and over 2.5 million books were sold alone in that country. The character, Burton, was allegedly based on British agent, Russian- born Sidney Reilly, who apparently bared his soul in a relationship with the author, but most of this talk is second hand. ”Romance” track, a lovely violin solo, did become the theme song for a British television series Reilly, Ace of Spies. Could one ponder the truth or fiction?


1… Overture (2:50) very stoic, majestic, and Russian sounding has a generic sound which could fit any number of films. The melody is featured by the strings with excellent harmony from the brass. There is a hint of Tchaikovsky chords in the writing. A second melody offering military victory is quickly replaced by the original theme to end the track. This track is written in a generic way so that it could fit any number of different films. I’ve included an audio clip.  01 – gadfly main overture

2… Contra Dance (2:50) is a baroque waltz for strings delicate and tranquil. This is a complete change from the “Overture “and certainly fits the 1840 time period in the royal court. Written in the ABA you’ll find the middle section definitely has the swagger sound of Shostakovich.

3… People’s Holiday (folk feast or festival) (2:31) offers a festive piece, very Shostakovich, which features some nice clarinet work. The pace is lively like Capriccio Italian and could very well have been the template that Dimitri used for this cue although his sound is evident.

4… Prelude (interlude) (2:30) is a somewhat dark and foreboding adagio that features the lower register strings with harmonic chords from the brass which enhance the eeriness of the material.

5… Barrel Organ Waltz (2:04) was written for Organ which was used in the film but not in the suite. This is one of the sections that Lev Atovmian re-worked for the suite. The mood switches to one of a fairytale like melody offered by the strings with the hurdy-gurdy in the background.

6…Galop (1:47) offers a near break neck pace with Shostakovich bold brassy trombones in the middle section. This is a lively festive track full of fun and an excellent example of a galop. I’ve included an audio clip  05 – gadfly galop

7… Introduction and Dance (6:20) gives the listener a 19th century with the melody coming from the strings with harmony from the harp. The center section is an Italian passacaglia (variation on a ground bass) quite stately in sound. A trio of saxophones returns us to the original melody with more delicate harp. The strings softly end the track with the original melody.

8… Romance (6:19) is a yearning somewhat schmaltzy sound with a romantic violin solo. This is one track that doesn’t sound much like Shostakovich. A nice melody which has been used by ice skating couples is a little syrupy for my taste.

9… Intermezzo (5:07) is another new melody that fits the dreamy romantic part until it becomes quite dramatic in the middle section before returning to the quiet solitude of the strings offering the original melody. Another ABA format as many of these tracks are. This is a very Tchaikovsky sounding piece.

10… Nocturne (4:16) A cello with tremolo strings offers a romantic quiet moment. The cello is quite yearning along with strings which make up the middle section before the cello returns to end the delicate movement.

11… Scene (2:28) is classic Russian sounding ominous music with loud presence from the timpani. Again this could be a cue that Tchaikovsky composed. This doesn’t sound like Shostakovich but is rather generic like Russian music.

12… Finale (2:57) offers a very Shostakovich prelude military march  style with the brass offering up the film in a staccato fashion. The percussion is quite loud. The strings lead you back to the original melody you heard in the overture, the only time a theme is repeated in the suite. It ends with a rousing loud crescendo.

Available Recordings:


WARNER CLASSICS #2564 69870-2

Also includes Pirogov, Hamlet, King Lear, Five Days, Five Nights, Michurin, The Fall of Berlin, and The Golden Mountains. This is a (3) CD set from the Belgian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jose Serebrier. The tempo is painfully long in parts. The recording is a digital remaster from analog tapes.


Also includes Golden Mountains and Volochayev. The BBC Philharmonic is conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. The 24-bit/96kHz offers an extremely nice sound although the performance is not quite as good as the Melodiya.


Sections 4 and 5 are combined on this recording. The USSR Cinema Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Emin Khachaturian. The Melodiya engineers plus the 1962 vintage give this recording a slightly muddy sound but the performance from the orchestra is the finest of the sampled recordings.


Also includes Hamlet. This recording is a DDD from 1989. The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leonid Grin.

NAXOS 8.553299

Also includes Five Days, Five Nights. This is a DDD recording from 1997. The Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Theodore Kuchar. The performance definitely benefits from the digital recording allowing you to hear the clear presence of the delicate percussion nicely separated from the rest of the orchestra. You get the feeling in the performance that the Ukraine Symphony has played this material before and is very comfortable with it. Kuchar’s interpretation and conducting leaves little to be desired. He takes a slower pace often but is urgent and frantic when necessary. The sax trio on the Introduction (Prelude) track is somewhat dull and lackluster compared to the Chandos and Melodiya recordings. The smoothness of the trio is missing. Overall this is a fine budget value as is usually the case with Naxos.