Musings About Music In Film

From The Archives: The Demons of St Petersburg (I demoni di San Pietroburgo)

By Karol Krok i-demoni-di-san-pietroburgo

Apart from creating some of the most enduring masterpieces of literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky led quite an interesting life - full of intrigue, tragedy and interesting turn of events. He was once condemned to death, then saved at the very last minute by a Tzar’s letter, sent to Siberia, developed a gambling addiction... It’s a biography as good as any fiction and The Demons of St Petersburg is one of several attempts to make use of the author’s rich experience. In this instance, he finds himself entangled in the dark political intrigue.

Ennio Morricone worked previously with director Giuliano Montaldo on several occasions (Control, The Gold Rimmed Glasses, to mention a few). While collaborating on this project, both gentlemen were approaching their 80’s and yet there was no sign of slowing down for either of them. And while the final product ended up being slightly awkward (the Italian-speaking Dostoevsky) and received a muted critical response, this 2008 film inspired the composer to craft one of the most ambitious and interesting scores in the latter part of his career. He assembled an hour long CD programme at the time, but that never materialised. Until now, it has been completely unreleased and if not for the KeepMoving Records this score would be probably lost in time. That product was limited to 500 copies only, however, and it soon sold out. Fortunately, the Italian label Beat Records released yet another pressing of 1000 units that is still available.

The album opens with ‘Nuovo attentato’, a rhythmic and suspenseful piece meant to be illustrate the film’s conspiracy plot. Composer makes a great use of lower register of the orchestra - the string and woodwind writing adds a certain Russian flavour to the music and the haunting harp drives us deep into mystery. This exciting track immediately sets the tone for things to follow.

The second track (‘Dolorosamente sempro’) introduces the bleak plucked balalaika theme, present throughout most of this score and adding a certain ethnic flavour that doesn’t feel cliched. In fact most of this work consists of dark and gloomy music like this, often recalling a fabulous La Sconosciuta released just a year before. Both those scores demonstrate Morricone is great at writing suspense and probably in many ways up there with masters like Herrmann. Another work The Demons of St Petersburg seems to be recalling is the Italian composer's own work for John Carpenter’s The Thing. It creates the same sense coldness and isolation.

There is a certain economy in which this music was written. Indeed, the old Russian masters would have been proud. Shostakovich created an equally effective, and deceptively simple, score for Hamlet back in 1964. Who knows to what extent Morricone consciously attempted to approximate this style, but the feel is very similar. The classical influence is also present in the string quartet driven “Dolorosamente amore I’ (‘Painful Love I’). It is a truly stunning composition, which doesn’t give the listener an easy hummable melody. It’s a love theme filled with pain and anguish.

Another crucial ingredient are solo female vocals, used economically throughout the score. Ennio is known for his use of this device in many works, often to a truly spine-tingling, but most of often soothing, effect. Here, they are used to conjure the unforgiving and desolate memories of ‘Siberia’. There is nothing comforting about Paola Cecchi’s performances in The Demons of St Petersburg. Yet again, they speak to human tragedy - an echo to a much darker time in Dostoyevsky’s life, which this film depicts in flashbacks.

The track ‘Inseguito” brings back a more lively  action-oriented music, beautifully orchestrated to rhythmic strings, woodwinds and muted brass. Very much like the opening piece, but slightly lighter in mood and easier to digest. Vintage Morricone underscore at its best.

The soprano comes back in ‘Sul fiume’  in order to perform the chilling suspense theme in unison with balalaika. The final piece (‘A mio padre’) opens with a much warmer cathartic string-led material. But, that section fades away soon enough and, yet again, makes room for brooding underscore. Somewhere halfway into this 9-minute track, we are introduced to a completely new material - the subtle choir enters the stage and, along with viola and trumpet solos, ends the score on the most spiritually transcendent fashion. A truly powerful and ethereal ending, in tone recalling the finales from Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus and Michael Collins. What's interesting, this part also seems to dedicated to Morricone's own father, rather than being connected to anything in this film.

It is a wonderful and classy score from the senior master of film music. Probably much more low-key and less eclectic many of his more famous projects, but delightfully well-crafted and highly intelligent. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, due to its ever-present darkness and contemplative tone, but it will be a true winner for lovers of Slavic broodiness. A stunning piece of work from Ennio Morricone.

The Demons of St Petersburg is out now from Beat Records