Cinematic Orchestra

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In Sergei Eisentstein's 1925 silent film "Battleship Potemkin," how is the music or score used to convey sentiment or illuminate action? 

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A film widely praised over the decades both for its director, Sergei Eisenstein’s, innovative techniques and for its power as a work of political propaganda, “Battleship Potemkin” was also important for its use of music, the film’s “score,” which was actually composed after the film’s release to Russian audiences.  The original composer, Edmund Meisel, was a German whose score for “Battleship Potemkin” was composed on the occasion of the film’s premier in Germany.  Subsequently, new compositions would be written by Nicolaj Kryukov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and others, each commemorating a notable date in the film’s history, for example, its 50th anniversary.  Because of this history of “Battleship Potemkin’s” musical score, any analysis of the use of music for effect during the film’s progression has to take this somewhat unique situation into account.  In addition, the music accompanying “Battleship Potemkin” is traditionally performed live during screenings of the film, as opposed to being embedded into the film, as is the norm.

Those caveats aside, musical compositions to accompany screenings of “Battleship Potemkin” are clearly, unsurprisingly, used for full effect.  As noted, “Battleship Potemkin” is a political film intended to generate popular support for the nascent communist government that had taken control of Russia following the 1917 revolutions.  While the Bolshevik party reigned supreme in Moscow, it continued to face armed opposition into the early 1920s, and ensuring support for the Bolsheviks was a high priority, especially after the death of V.I. Lenin in 1924.  While Eisentein’s images are powerful, especially his most famous scene, the baby carriage’s descent down the staircase amid shooting and chaos definitely loses some of its power absent orchestral arrangements designed to heighten the tension of the moment.  Additionally, Eisenstein’s use of montages, one of his most notable innovations, demanded a score commensurate with the action and cinematography employed in the film’s production.

Meisel’s score is carefully arranged to emphasize the points Eisenstein is making in each scene, ranging from the use of percussion to express the frustration and resentment when the ship’s crew is served maggot-infested meat, the music used to convey a sense of the waves, a theme specific to the aforementioned meat’s preparation, the growing rebelliousness among the crew, and the revolt against the czarist officers responsible for the crew’s plight.  Meisel composed individual scores for individual scenes, all designed to heighten tension or illuminate sentiments, but he also repeated certain themes for emphasis, especially the music that accompanies the funeral and that recurs later to connect subsequent scenes with the mood of the funeral.  The “baby carriage” scene on the Odessa steps, the film’s climactic passage, once again employs music to emphasize the dramatic shift in tone that has occurred as czarist troops fire on peaceful civilians.

“Battleship Potemkin” remains a highly-revered film for its production values and effectiveness as a work of political agitprop.  As is often the case in film, its dramatic weight is only fully attained, however, when matched with scores that illuminate the action.

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