Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov, Symphonic Suite No. 1

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert Russian Futurists, performed on Jan 25, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Like his friend Dmitri Shostakovich, Gavriil Popov (1904-72) was a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, where he studied composition with Vladimir Shcherbachov. Popov was an early and eager recruit to the task of composing for Soviet sound film, some of which contributed to his Symphonic Suite No. 1. His first completed film score was for a feature-length documentary, K.Sh.E. (the initials stand for Komsomol—shef elektrifikatsii; [Komsomol—Patron of Electrification]), directed by Esfir Shub and released in 1932, in time for the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Popov would go on to score some forty 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). K.Sh.E. 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, an effort 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. Although it occupies a modest amount of time, Popov’s original music injects an imaginative element: the “waltz” danced by automated light-bulb manufacturing equipment (corresponding to the fourth movement of the Suite) is a highlight. And the opening sequence, set in a recording studio where we see Popov’s “overture” being performed and recorded, is a masterstroke. Appropriately, the performance features a theremin, an electronic instrument invented in Russia in the 1920s by Lev Termen (1896-1993). In his score, Popov offset the futuristic sound of the “electric” theremin with the “human” voices of a soprano and tenor.

(In the 1930s, the theremin was mass-marketed in the U.S., ultimately unsuccessfully, as “an absolutely new, unique musical instrument anyone can play.” Its eerie tone quality would later be exploited in a number of Hollywood films—Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend among them—as well as in the Beach Boys’ hit song, Good Vibrations.)

Popov’s music for K.Sh.E. attracted attention. After seeing the film, Sergei Eisenstein fired off a telegram to the composer, congratulating him on the “marvelous sound-sight victory.” (Popov would later compose the score for Eisenstein’s ill-fated movie, Bezhin Meadow.) 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 attacking Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The publication was scuttled. In a Soviet survey of contemporary film music published in 1939, Popov’s music for K.Sh.E. was branded “a clear example of musical formalism.” It would not receive another performance until 1982, ten years after the composer’s death.