October (1928)

‘Rhythm, rhythm and pure rhythm above all’: How Edmund Meisel scored Eisenstein’s October

This is a guest post for Silent London by John Leman Riley, a writer and editor, specialising in Eastern European culture, and film sound.

Film theory is usually visually driven, and the Soviet kind – with its emphasis on editing – especially so. And since the theorisers were often directors, they are better known than the men (and, inevitably, they were almost always men) who argued about the music. So much so that the best-known Soviet film-sound-theory text is 1928’s A Statement by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov (“on Sound” is often added to translations to clarify the subject). With its dream of asynchronous, anti-realistic sound, it was an idealistic text, and its ideas would never be fully followed through.

But beyond that is a huge bibliography of articles, pamphlets and books about the aesthetics of film music, and the competing technologies being developed for synchronised sound. The critical tracts were often written by properly trained musicians with practical experience in the cinema but their writings are rarely translated, and remain largely unknown outside Russia.

Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein

What were these competing theories about film music? Nowadays, we tend to look at the degree to which the music reflects and reinforces the images but, as A Statement argues, it could counter them. And there was a third option: the music could go its own way, fitting the film where it touched. This approach was taken by a Kiev cinema whose 60-piece orchestra simply played Tchaikovsky symphonies regardless of what was on screen, which must have made for some bizarre audiovisual moments! How successful these approaches were depended to some degree on whether the film was being accompanied by a composed score, a selection from albums or improvisation (what composer-critic Leonid Sabaneyev – a regular film-music critic – called “tasteless vamping”).

But today we’re discussing October, so we’ll go back to Eisenstein. His writings are polymathic: I opened a random page to find references to and quotes from Gounod, Bach, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dickens’ Hard Times, Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and The Little House at Kolomna, and Dumas père in a discussion of structure, movement and the visualisation of non-visual phenomena. Unsurprising then, that he put some thought to film music (or rather, as A Statement showed, film sound). Indeed, the audiovisual was a topic with which he had long been obsessed.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Unfortunately, his early experiences with film composers were not encouraging: for whatever reason, little or no thought was given to the music, or it was approached in the most conventional manner. Battleship Potemkin’s Bolshoi Theatre premiere was accompanied by a melange of popular classics after Sabaneyev, who had been asked to compile or write a score, exclaimed: “How am I supposed to illustrate maggots in sound? It’s something quite unworthy of music!” Showing October to a literal-minded music director, brought the suggestion that the peacock symbolising Provisional Government leader Kerensky could be accompanied by something from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (though the opera, about an inept Tsar, could be seen as quite appropriate!) And when he saw the dead horse lifted up by the opening of Palace Bridge, the music director cried out excitedly: “A horse in the air! A horse in the air! Let’s use The Ride of the Valkyries!”

Of course, whatever the solution, a tiny minority of Soviet citizens would experience the makers’ intentions: only prestigious cinemas had orchestras for the full effect, and sound cinemas were unknown outside the cities for many years: even by 1933, of the 32,000 projectors in the USSR, only around 200 were sonorised. Hence, films continued to be made either in sound and silent versions or as some sort of hybrid that could cover both bases. In any case, Soviet cinema audiences were not drawn to the propaganda classics: they preferred Pickford and Fairbanks, Chaplin, Lloyd and Harry Piel.

But as much as a celebration at home, October was intended to encourage international Revolution (the battle between Trotsky’s ‘International Revolution’ and Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’ had not yet been resolved to Trotsky’s eventual fatal disadvantage). Hence a deal was struck with Berlin’s Prometheus Film. A decision had to be made about the music.

Edmund Meisel
Edmund Meisel

(Re)-enter Edmund Meisel, who was born in Vienna but moved to Berlin as a child. His biography is spottily recorded, but he finally found a footing in Erwin Piscator’s theatre. This led to film work and the commission to score Potemkin for its German release.

Eisenstein’s relationship with Meisel was nowhere near as clear as the later one with Prokofiev: the director claimed it “later soured” because of a “certain liaison” with Meisel’s wife. And he was keen to mention his own contributions to the music, from suggesting particular gestures, for example the repeated rising phrases, to formulating the general approach. So, Nevsky (with Prokofiev) “concluded what Meisel and I had been working on in the score for Potemkin, all those years ago (not to mention [my own] even earlier quests on the same line in the Proletkult Theatre.)” And when scoring Potemkin, Meisel had carried out Eisenstein’s “basic instructions […] not, unfortunately, in every detail, but in the main successfully.” That basic requirement was a counterpoint to the film’s visual rhythms: “rhythm, rhythm and pure rhythm above all” though, pace the Statement, not simply a “rhythmic coincidence between sound and picture”. He occasionally undermined Meisel: Eisenstein said that plumbers were at work while he was scoring October and he integrated their hammering into the music, which “fully justified my complaints!” He also blamed Meisel for messing up the London screening of Potemkin by running the projector too slowly.

Years later, Eisenstein approvingly quoted Kurt London’s praise for the collaboration, qualifying it with the thought that rhythm became a “style” that didn’t fit Meisel’s later films. He also omitted to point out that London thought Meisel the more advanced of the two. Meisel died in 1930, before their intended collaboration on The General Line, so was unable either to prove Eisenstein wrong or indeed to rebut the posthumous assessment.

Whatever, Meisel was re-engaged for October.

Eisenstein had already included lots of “sound-images” in the film: machine-guns being trundled over flag-stones; swaying, tinkling chandeliers; a montage of striking clocks. But he also attempted to set off metaphorical aural associations by cutting close-ups of harps and balalaikas into the Second Congress of Soviets’ belated and useless calls for calm; an effect that Eisenstein admitted could have been effectively rendered by the most basic of synchronised tracks.

October (1928)
October (1928)

But it was a chaotic post-production period. Eisenstein was under such pressure that he was taking drugs to keep going and eventually had a near breakdown, and missed the 7 November deadline. This was in part because Trotsky’s fall from grace had already begun and Eisenstein had to cut him from the film – allegedly, under Stalin’s personal guidance – removing a significant amount of footage. Though Eisenstein was still struggling to complete the editing, Meisel visited Moscow and, after discussing the project, sent his outline ideas.

Working without having seen the finished film, Meisel’s path to writing the score was tortuous and included various missed deadlines, changes of plan, mis-hits and blind alleys.

He maintained the mood and forward momentum by composing large blocks of music and ignoring cutaways that might imply new music – which also meant he didn’t have to worry about minor changes to the montage. To further insure against unforeseen changes, he used the common techniques of instructing the players to repeat a phrase as many times as necessary until the next section was due to start, and book-ending sections with drum-rolls, etc., which could be extended and contracted as necessary. This would enable the orchestra to stay in synch with the film. But he also intended specific moments of synchronisation: we hear those tinkling chandeliers and the horse hits the water with a cymbal roll. On the other hand, reflecting intellectual montage, Eisenstein discussed echoing the famous reconstruction of the Tsar’s statue (achieved by running the film backwards) by reversing the music, though it isn’t like that. This melange of old and new ideas also included quotes of popular music, notably, the Marseillaise.

October (1928)

After passing censorship, October eventually premiered in Berlin on 2 April 1928, but while critics had hailed Potemkin, the reviews of October were overwhelmingly bad, focusing on the film’s repetitiveness and Meisel’s relentless music. One critic claimed it inspired the audience at one cinema to revolt (against the performance), confusingly adding that the film was actually very popular! Another’s response was so personal that Meisel sued for professional damage, leading to a countersuit for defamation, a pair of cases that dragged on for two years. But there were some positive responses and Prometheus ensured that the film continued to run in at least one cinema for several weeks.

In 1934 October The Film Society presented its British premiere at the Tivoli on the Strand (demolished and now a Caffé Nero). But it was equally difficult. The print that arrived was much longer than the German one (itself different from the Moscow one) and so differently constructed that a fortune was spent in reordering Meisel’s score, and the conductor (prolific film composer and dedicatee of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antarctica, Ernest Irving) had two assistants to try to keep things on track. Even so, the end was so badly out of synch that he had to repeat the last chord 11 times to finish with the film.

October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna
October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna

After all that, it’s unsurprising that the musical materials that have come down to us are contradictory. There have been various attempts at restoration, but with different music sets and different prints, it’s sometimes been a bit like aligning two different lengths of rubber: it’s possible to get the ends to match, but what happens in the middle? And, despite being central to the canon, some of Eisenstein’s films have been treated fairly shoddily: Potemkin had the wrong quote on the opening intertitle for about 80 years (and often still does!).

Restoring October was then a massive challenge that was finally met using material from various archives before the music could be re-edited to fit. The final result was premiered in 2012 at the Berlin Film Festival, with Frank Strobel conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

By John Leman Riley



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