About this work

It is now generally conceded that Shostakovich was not particularly fond of writing propagandistic music for the State and Party, a category that includes many of the 50 film scores he composed (particularly those for the 1930s films directed by Sergei Yutkevich). But perhaps the series of three films collectively known as the "Maxim Trilogy" are to some extent an exception. The three films are based on a real person who was the subject of much Soviet literature in the mid-1930s. This was the period when the Communist Party was enforcing an approach to art known as Socialist Realism; the idea was that art should be accessible to the common people and serve their interest. Since the State defined the people's interest (as the sole representatives of the people), this meant that music and film were supposed to support the aims of the Soviet system. Maxim, an ordinary worker's son from St. Petersburg, became a member of the Communist Party and a revolutionary fighter who had once been given the honor of being introduced to Party leader Vladimir Lenin. His story was a very safe subject during those years.

Shostakovich seems to have liked the strong storytelling values of the script (from which the revolutionary ideals emerge naturally), the character of Maxim himself, and the fact that the film was produced and directed by his friends Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. At any rate, Shostakovich decided to name his son (the future conductor Maxim Shostakovich) after the hero of the trilogy. Later in the composer's career he authorized Lev Atovmyan to prepare several suites of music from his theater, ballet, film, and stage music. Recalling the great popularity of the Maxim films, Atovmyan prepared an eight-movement suite from the composer's scores for them. Some performances add one or two other selections from the complete scores.

The first movement of the suite, "Prologue," is from Maxim's Return, and is a choral hymn to the greatness of the Soviet Union. It introduces a motive that is used in several parts of the trilogy. The "Attack Scene" that follows is one of the most original sections of the suite, and is one of two fugal movements. Shostakovich obviously saw the form of the fugue (in which different voices play the same theme at different times until they build a structure) as a useful musical metaphor for individuals who hold a revolutionary ideal becoming united in action.

The third movement is "The Death of the Old Worker," and it is precisely the pathetic and emotional sort of music that one expects. From this point on the suite becomes nothing if not predictable: The Waltz is rather charming; the movement called "Demonstration" is a resolute theme that sounds like a precursor of parts of the Symphony No. 12; "Fight on the Barricades" is a less inventive fugal movement; and the "Funeral March" and "Finale" are pure Socialist Realism. By now the suite has become tedious.