Dimitri Shostakovich is truly a great Russian composer and the Gadfly symphony his greatest testimony

Dimitri Shostakovich is truly a great Russian composer and the Gadfly symphony especially the `Romance` sequence his greatest testimony

The film score for The Gadfly was destined to become one of the most popular and memorable works he had ever written.  Following the release of the film in the spring of 1955, Shostakovich’s work has only ever been known in this form outside Russia.  Although remembered principally for his large-scale orchestral works and concertos, Dmitri Shostakovich’s output for the big screen was also prolific. Between 1929 and 1970 Shostakovich wrote more than thirty movie soundtracks, with the Gadfly outstanding score.

The film is a proudly boisterous affair: a swashbuckling costume drama depicting the life of a Russian hero in 1830s Italy. The setting of the film gave Shostakovich the excuse to borrow musical ideas from Italian Romantic composers such as Verdi and Bellini, but it’s the six-minute Romance for violin and orchestra that explains the score’s continued popularity today.

it’s an elegant, heart-on-your-sleeve melody, which yearns with grace and poise. Twelve sections from the score were subsequently arranged into a suite, and it’s in this setting that the film’s wider musical content is most likely to be heard today. The Romance which Shostakovich is renowned standing alone as a legitimate concert piece in its own right;

it is best remembered by millions for its use in the 1980s TV series `Reilly, Ace of Spies.` broadcast as a 12 episodic drama depicting the life of Sidney Reilly in 1985 where Reilly is potrtayed in excellence by the real James Bond Sam Neill.

The films of 1955 and 1987 base the storyline on one of the 20th Centurys almost unknown novels in the English-speaking world – a global phenomenon in translation, now neglected in its original form. The Gadfly, by Irish writer Ethel Voynich, was a sensation on the other side of the Iron Curtain – it sold over 5 million copies in the 22 languages spoken in the Soviet Union, inspiring seven musical adaptations, an opera by Prokofiev, five theatre adaptations, and five film adaptations, one of which featured a famous score by Shostakovich, the Romance providing 6 minutes of magic romantic music.

Voynich’s novel is a thrilling saga of revolutionary zeal, religious devotion, clerical betrayal, and romantic love – the philosopher Bertrand Russell called it “one of the most exciting novels I have read”.

Ethel was born in Cork to parents George Boole, an eminent mathematician, and the philosopher Mary Everest, whose uncle gave his name to the world’s highest mountain. At the age of 15, Ethel read about the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. She longed for his “melancholy beauty and distinction”, and until the day she married, dressed in black to “mourn the state of the world”.

In 1889, Ethel eventually married, the Polish radical Wilfred Michał Voynich, In London, she learned Russian from an émigré who had assassinated the head of the Tsar’s secret police, and with her husband travelled to Russia to aid the revolutionary cause.

On returning to London, she met a true gadfly, Sidney Reilly, described by his auto biographer Bruce Lockhart as “the greatest spy in history… who was said to possess eleven passports and a wife to go with each”. Reilly and Voynich travelled to Italy, where he claims to have told Ethel his life story, elements of which bear striking similarities to the Gadfly…. Arthur Burton. Reilly, a British secret agent and a model for James Bond, the original James Bond he was, then travelled to Russia, where he tried to assassinate Lenin, and was later himself assassinated in 1925 on Lenin’s orders before he died.

Ethel never acknowledged Reilly’s role, and it remains a source of controversy, but whilst they travelled to Italy together it was clear there was a strong relationship between them both.  As lovers, it seemed that she had in fact modelled the books hero Arthur Burton on Reilly.  The reason for Reilly having this liaison with Ethel, as being a spy for the British Government….. he gained information as the seeds of revolution were growing where Ethel seemed to be a satellite of the emerging Bolsheviks.

The novel gained popularity initially in Ireland and it remains the bestselling Irish novel of all time. Yet it was in the newly-created Communist states of the Soviet Union and China that the book found its most dedicated readership. Arthur, the embodiment of a Romantic tragic hero, was repeatedly voted Russia’s most popular literary figure, and cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman in space, credited its influence.

Voynich’s novel was bolstered further by a 1955  film .It sold 39 million tickets and featured Shostakovich’s score, which became celebrated in its own right as `The Gadfly Suite`.

The Gadfly found its largest audience in China – “the novel enjoyed an unrivalled place in the hearts and minds of the young participants in the Cultural Revolution”. When the novel was re-released in the late 1970s, after Mao’s death, it resonated with those whose faith in China’s ‘Cardinal’ had waned

The storey is set in Italy during the revolutionary ferment of the 1830s and ‘40s. The protagonist is a young Englishman, Arthur Burton, who moves to a Catholic seminary after the death of his mother. There he becomes devoted to his guardian and mentor Montanelli, who, unknown to him, is also his biological father. In the company of his childhood sweetheart Gemma, Arthur becomes involved in the Young Italy movement fighting Austrian imperial rule. But he unwittingly betrays his comrades, after his private confession is relayed to the police. He then discovers his family secret, and loses all faith in the church.

Arthur feigns his suicide and escapes to South America, where he endures years of torture and degradation. He returns to Italy in the guise of ‘The Gadfly’, a fearless and revered revolutionary whose true identity is masked. After his capture, he is visited by Montanelli, now a cardinal, who offers him a lifeline. But Arthur, unforgiving and uncompromising, demands that his father renounce the church. Montanelli refuses and condemns his son to death. Arthur, now a Christ-like figure, commands his own execution and forgives the firing squad. At the Corpus Christi mass, Montanelli denounces God’s sacrifice, then dies of a broken heart.

Voynich’s life story has a strange final twist. In 1955, a Soviet delegation of writers learned that the author, long presumed dead, was alive in New York. Ethel had been living in obscurity and poverty, and due to Soviet copyright laws, she was unaware of her legendary status in Russia. The following year she received enormous sums in outstanding royalties. When Ethel died in 1960, she was mourned in Russia as a national hero.

In the UK, The Gadfly remains out of print and almost unknown, yet around the world readers and writers still revere its author, The Gadfly has an abiding appeal for lovers of historical fiction, and deserves to be rediscovered in its original language.

Leave a Reply