Two Fables after Krylov, op. 4 (1922)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works” (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)
Galina Borisova, soprano; Chamber Choir of the Moscow Conservatory; USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra; Gennady Rozhdestvensky
The singer finished. The Donkey, staring blankly at the ground, head lowered,
Said, “Not bad! I have to admit,
I wasn’t bored while I listened to you. It’s just a pity
That you’re not acquainted with our Rooster.
You could really polish up your skills
If you studied with him a little.”
Having heard this critique, the poor Nightingale
Took wing and flew off far, far away.
May God spare us too such judges.
— Ivan Krylov, “The Donkey and the Nightingale” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)
Here is Shostakovich’s first cut at satire, and another full step towards his mature musical personality. I find it difficult to think of these two settings outside the context of his later career, particularly the second one, “The Donkey and the Nightingale”, the end of whose text is excerpted above: Shostakovich returned to satire in his songs throughout his life, as well as to theme of artists’ relationships with their detractors. Also, the humorous parable takes on a grim cast in light of the increasingly menacing cultural repression to come in the following decades. As a particuarly heavy historical irony, the work’s dedicatee — Mikhail Kvadri, a Moscow Conservatory composition student and friend of Shostakovich’s — would be arrested and allegedly executed in 1929.
A word about the words: A book I’ve found vital in closely listening to Shostakovich’s vocal music, all the more so in the present case because the BMG/Melodiya reissue I’m working from doesn’t contain librettos, is Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts, by Laurence R. Richter. He provides the Russian text for each song and renders it in three progressive levels for English speakers who don’t know Russian: phonetic transcription, word-by-word gloss, and idiomatic prose translation. The book is intended for singers, but as a listener I’ve found it useful for tracking in detail how Shostakovich sets individual words; getting a sense of the Russian translations of non-Russian texts, rather than the English originals or direct English translations of the source; and, when albums don’t provide the texts, being able to read the words at all. (Richter doesn’t include the texts for Shostakovich’s vocal symphonies, choral works, or songs from his film scores, but it’s still a handy source.) As of this writing, I believe the book is out of print (Leyerle Publications’ website is ambiguous about its availability); I found a copy in stock several months ago at the Juilliard Bookstore but their site is currently in redesign limbo. My local library has a copy, which is how I found out about it, and borrowing a copy from your library of choice remains another option if you want to really geek out over Shostakovich’s songs.
Musically, the two songs stay lighthearted (in line with the whimsical texts) and mostly lyrical, as in Shostakovich’s still earlier works. His style feels more limber here, for instance in his more characterful use of solo instrumental textures, because he’s maturing or because dramatizing the words draws some more varied gestures out of him. The wry humor, too, adds depth. In the first song, “The Dragonfly and the Ant” — Krylov’s species-switching take on the Aesopian grasshopper-and-ant fable — Shostakovich effectively sets the conversation between the two insects, with the vocal line higher and more tuneful for the dragonfly’s words (on this album, soprano Galina Borisova sounds a bit shrill to me in those passages, possibly by design) and lower and more monotonous for the ant’s. At the end, when the ant rejects the dragonfly — she dismissively tells the hungry supplicant, who spent all summer singing, to go dance — Shostakovich punctuates the story with a wry, jokey dance figure, whose creaky strings and final thump on the timpani, mild though they are, seem to point the way towards the more pointed instrumental effects he would use in his early satirical works, such as his opera The Nose.
Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the second fable features a boys’ or children’s choir rather than a solo vocalist, which caught me off guard. Shostakovich announces the donkey with a wide-intervalled “braying” theme and a mild instrumental clatter — another of the song’s ironies in retrospect is that his music for the philistine is less abrasive than his own style would become within a few years. The donkey asks the nightingale to sing, and most of the song is taken up with the bird’s rapturous performance, rendered as a lush melody accompanied by chirruping woodwinds and harp. The birdsong concludes with sweet, wordless humming, before the ass’ theme breaks in again:
The donkey delivers his backhanded criticism, the nightingale flies off, Krylov delivers the punchline (the words in the following excerpt), and Shostakovich drops the curtain with an orchestral flourish:
Shostakovich’s musical setting seems knowing enough to suggest that he already had some experience of cloddish would-be tastemakers, but the song’s bright conclusion sounds poignant to me, considering the bitterness of the composer’s adult treatments of similar subjects in response to much more dangerous criticism. No Soviet artist of his generation would be spared such judges.