Opus 19: The Bedbug (excerpts) (1929)

Excerpts from The Bedbug, op. 19 (1929)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, Soloists Ensemble, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Shostakovich wrote his incidental music to The Bedbug almost simultaneously with his New Babylon score and, for several years, it marked a successful colaboration with two of the Soviet Union’s preeminent artists:  The play, a social satire on those early Stalinist years, was a new one by Vladimir Mayakovsky, staged by theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold.  The ensuing years would not treat those two well; Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930 and Meyerhold, after years of increasing criticism, was arrested on false espionage charges and executed in 1940.

I don’t know whether Shostakovich’s full set of musical selections still exists but, apparently, seven have been recorded, four by Rozhdestvensky in their original orchestral version (based on Onno van Rijen’s and Yosuke Kudo’s thorough online discographies).  I have little to add about these excerpts’ style to what I wrote about New Babylon — predictably enough, since Shostakovich composed the scores practically on top of each other, they’re made of very similar material.  The Bedbug‘s instrumentation sounds smaller and more novel (saxophones, fewer strings) and its punchier, wind-heavy sound, plus a greater tendancy to carry a recognizable tune, make it coincidentally resemble Kurt Weill’s more memorable Threepenny Opera music, which had opened in Berlin half a year earlier.

The two marches that bracket Rozhdestvensky’s set don’t make much of an impression on disc; the “Scene on the Boulevard”, leading with saxes and muted trumpets, sounds like affable but leering out-on-the-town music.  The Intermezzo is the standout, though; I’m still in the flush of hearing it for the first time yesterday but, though it’s obviously not one of his more consequential pieces, I think it’s a really fine three-and-a-half-minute specimen of his early style.  It opens with a fluid, faintly mysterious melody in the saxophone; this leads into a smoky swell in the strings, which opens up into a pirouetting wrong-note dance bit, laced with grating trumpet outbursts and trombone slides:

The selection rounds out with similar, slightly off-balance antics, a reprise of the opening tune, and a final loud razz.  The flute and flexatone, a combination used to evoke an unsettling bugle call in New Babylon, instead go for a whistling stroll together here:

I listened to the track the first time while walking up the sixteen flights of steps to my office in the morning, an apt accompaniment to the nose-thumbing tone of the music.  The minor physiological indignities of light exercise (sweating, heavy breathing in a musty, otherwise empty high-rise stairwell) pair pretty well with early Shostakovich.

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