Credit needs to be given at the outset to Jim Lochner and his FilmScore ClickTrack piece “9 On The 9th” from November 2010. On that day he selected nine favourite foreign film scores and at number one of his list was Mikhail Ziv’s score to Ballad of A Soldier. Both Grigori Chukhrai’s 1959 film and Mikhail Ziv as a film composer were entirely new to me, but after doing a bit of research and following the links Jim provided find Ziv’s music, I am now writing this review echoing his original high recommendation.
Ballad of A Soldier is a 1959 award-winning Soviet film set during World War II – but is not really a war film. At its heart, it is a film of two love stories – 1) a story of the blossoming attraction between a soldier returning from the front and a stowaway he meets on a train on his journey home and 2) the love between a mother and her son (the soldier). Our accidental hero, rather than accepting a commendation for destroying some German tanks, asks for leave so that he can return home to see his mother (and fix the roof of her house). The film then follows his journey and the people he encounters along the way (including the pretty girl who he finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to). Russian composer Mikhail Ziv composes a score that ignores the usual war movie film score staples of being brass-heavy and full of marches. Ballad of A Soldier‘s score is one that is thematic and contains poignant and emotional music – in keeping with the director’s emphasis on the human stories of how war affects the ordinary person (as well as focusing on the foolishness of war).
All that is available of Ziv’s score is a 20-minute suite of music played by the Russian State Symphony Cinema Orchestra, conducted by Sergei Skripka. But this suite is ample to conclude that the music is film scoring of high quality. The film was made at a time when there was a gap between the end of Stalin’s grip on the country (and its cinema) and the beginning of the Cold War in the 1960s. In this gap, there was a relaxation in the restrictions film-makers had been under and there was more freedom to make films that featured characters based on real people and reflected more accurately the Soviet spirit in the face of the upheavals of the Second World War. The suite format means that Ziv’s musical ideas have been brought together to fashion cues that have a structure and flow – something that is sometimes missing from original film score cues. This suite structure is reflected in the formal-sounding statement of several themes that “book-end” the suite (“Prologue” and “Epilogue”): this is quite different from the film itself where both the beginning and end of the film are quite low-key in terms of the music.
The music is very emotionally charged, focusing as it does, on the various love stories. The suite opens quietly in the strings with a theme that becomes stronger as the cue progresses acquiring a certain masculine quality to it (“Prologue”). The theme then receives a bold brassy statement to end the cue. As a balance to this, a delicate flute melody that is full of romance and innocence (“Meditation”). In addition, “Shura and Alesha” features one of the emotional highlights of the suite, where we hear a flute melody framed by tremolo strings, progressing to a musical dialogue between woodwind and horn with strings swelling to an emotional highpoint. However, the emotional high is tempered by the reappearance of the solo flute melody from the beginning of the track. The romance is not seen to its natural conclusion in the music and this reflects the relationship of the couple in the film: not even a kiss is exchanged between the pair.
The suite of music tends to follow the general story arc of the film. Therefore, the middle part of the suite – “The Road” – has a strong driving rhythm (emphasised by pizzicato strings) as the soldier continues on his journey home. The track is subdivided into smaller sections, each one having a slightly different tone, perhaps to reflect the people he meets along the way. “Single Combat With Tanks” adds a bit of starkness to the score and represents the soldier’s encounter with the German tanks at the beginning of the film. Forceful brass fanfares, dissonant brass fragments and suspenseful tremolo strings all combine to create a sense of the battlefield with its fear and confusion. But in the midst of all this cacophony the appearance of a solo brass fanfare/theme cutting through the dissonance (sounding almost like a reveille), signals that the soldier is getting the upper hand of the situation.
The climax of the film (and another musical highlight), where mother and son finally meet (though only briefly), is recreated in the first half of the “Epilogue”. Bold orchestral statements of the theme first heard in the “Prologue” are heard again. An emotional resolution is almost at hand in the form of soaring strings and brass statements of this theme. But just as resolution seems certain fragmented brass statements from “Single Combat With Tanks” suddenly intrude and the longed-for conclusion is snatched away and what we hear for the rest of the track is a restatement of the thematic material, but this time in low strings with a sad brass accompaniment. The final crescendo doesn’t quite reach the expected heights, sounding almost like a muted salute to the millions of ordinary people who paid the price of war.
Opinions on Mikhail Ziv’s score for Ballad of A Soldier range from being “poignant” and conveying “mood without being obtrusive or maudlin” through to being “horribly sentimental”. At the 1960 Cannes Film Festival the film won a special prize for “high humanism and outstanding quality” when up against films from the likes of Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel and Fellini as well as epics such as Ben-Hur. On the basis of this 20 minute suite, Ziv’s score is an excellent example of film scoring and, I think, contributes a lot to the success of the film (as well as cinematography of Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva). I would highly recommend Ziv’s music to any film music lover. If you haven’t yet taken the plunge into digital download purchasing this should be your first digital download purchase. As far as I can see, the suite can only been found at ClassicalArchives.com. I look forward to the day when Ziv’s entire score is released.
Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.
- Prologue (3:16)
- Single Combat With Tanks (2:49)
- Meditation (2:46)
- The Road (2:36)
- Shura and Alesha (4:21)
- Epilogue (4:55)
Running Time: 20:45