Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1933

Length: c. 18 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet (= baritone saxophone), soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle), celesta, 2 harps, theremin, strings, 2 sopranos, and baritone

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (North American premiere)

Like Shostakovich, his friend and fellow-graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, Gavriil Popov was an early and eager recruit to the task of composing for Soviet sound film. Popov's first completed film score was for a feature-length documentary, Komsomol: Patron of Electrification [Komsomol: shef elektrifikatsii, commonly known by its initials, KShE], directed by Esfir Shub and released in 1932, in time for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. Popov would go on to score some 40 films during his career, working with many of the country's most distinguished directors. He was the composer for the popular epic Chapayev, directed by the Vasiliev brothers; this became Stalin's favorite film for a time after its release in 1934.

A top film editor of the 1920s, Shub perfected the techniques of "compilation" film, notably in the masterpiece The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). KShE marked a new departure. In this pioneering documentary, one of the earliest Soviet sound films, Shub shot a contemporary chronicle of the progress of establishing electricity across the Soviet nation, a struggle spearheaded by the Komsomol (the Young Communist League). Direct sound recording and dubbed sound were combined with the symphonic music Popov scored for the film. The opening sequence - an "overture" that corresponds to the first movement of Popov's Suite - takes place in a studio where a musical performance is seen being recorded. Appropriately, the performance features a theremin, an electronic instrument invented in Russia in the 1920s. In his score, Popov offset the unusual sound of the electric theremin with human voices of soprano and tenor.

Popov's music attracted attention. Though it occupied a modest amount of time in the film, the score was viewed as a significant factor in its artistic impact. After seeing KShE, Sergei Eisenstein fired off a telegram to the composer, congratulating him on the "marvelous sound-sight victory." In 1933, Popov arranged a symphonic suite from his material. This was premiered in Leningrad in December 1933 and quickly taken up elsewhere. In January 1936, the score of the Suite was in proofs, scheduled for imminent release, when it came under suspicion after the appearance of the infamous Pravda editorial. The publication was scuttled. In a Soviet survey of contemporary film music published in 1939, Popov's music for KShE was branded "a clear example of musical formalism." It would not receive another performance until 1982, ten years after the composer's death.

- Laurel E. Fay is Scholar in Residence for Shadow of Stalin.