The Counterplan, op. 33 (1933; excerpts)
CD: “Shostakovich: The Film Album”, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (Decca 460 792-2)
Shostakovich recycles! I’m at risk of just posting variants on the same musical passages but the composer’s winningest musical ideas are the ones he’s likeliest to reuse. Fairly so, in this case; Chailly’s recording of Counterplan excerpts comes out of the gate with an episode that cropped up earlier in Declared Dead and The Big Lightning, but, at least before music was comprehensively recorded and distributed, there was no sense in letting good material languish in a vaudeville score and an unfinished operetta:
But the real hit of The Counterplan, the “Song of the Counterplan”, would be recycled quite a bit itself. (The lyrics were written by Boris Kornilov, who, according to John Riley, would not gain much luck from the song himself; he was purged in 1938.) The tune was a palpable hit in the Soviet Union — and Shostakovich worked hard to make it so, according to Laurel Fay, although she and Riley (both citing biographer Sofia Khentova) passingly note accusations of plagiarism as well. I confess, though, that although I’ve looked up the song at various times over the years I’ve rarely remembered how it goes for long. Who knows what it is that makes a melody memorable to a person, but whatever that quality is, the song lacks it for me. Not that it isn’t attractive when I listen to it in real time:
The song enjoyed some popularity in the U.S. too, for a while anyway. With English words it was released as “The United Nations” (referring to lower-case united nations, as in the Allied forces of World War II) and sung by Kathryn Grayson in the 1943 MGM spectacle Thousands Cheer; it was also apparently recorded by, among others, Paul Robeson, whose sympathy for the USSR famously exceeded the patriotic demands of the war years. None of these recordings seem to be easily available on the Internet, nor have I heard them.
Commerical recordings of the score, too, are limited to the eight minutes of orchestral excerpts covered by Chailly on his Film Album. The sound of the two excerpts above is characteristic, at least for the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s velvety recording; it’s the musical equivalent of a saucer of warm milk. You have to go back to a work from his teenage years, the Theme and Variations op. 3, to find music as unambiguously pretty.
In contrast, Riley rates the soundtrack as a whole as one of Shostakovich’s most interesting, blending music with mechanical sounds. Just this evening I discovered the shostakovi.ch site recently put together by a Japanese computer science student, who offers chunked-up YouTube versions of several of Shostakovich’s early film collaborations — in his evaluation, those released up to 1953 are in the public domain in Japan — so I hope to use his site to fill out my understanding of the score. (The site should also be invaluable for hearing a few more of Shostakovich’s less-available film scores later on.) I imagine I’ll find out quickly how workable it is to watch an untranslated, unsubtitled, wonkily transfered Soviet movie on the Internet. I know the plot of The Counterplan (directed by Sergei Yutkevich and Fridrikh Ermler) deals with the then-pressing, not actually real issue of industrial wreckers, so I could see a more detailed understanding of the story either adding to or detracting from my enjoyment of the film.
Hamlet, op. 32 (1931-1932)
CD: “Shostakovich: Hamlet & King Lear”, various soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (Signum SIGCD052)
When critics see a heroic play,
they declare that it does not go far enough . . .
Whereas when they see a satirical play,
they describe it as over the top.
Nikolai Akimov put this little barb in Rosencrantz’s mouth in his 1932 production of Hamlet, scored by Shostakovich; the words are spoken, tagged with short satirical signifiers of drama and comedy, respectively. (The translation in the CD booklet is by Gerard McBurney, who orchestrated five of the score’s selections in the 1990s.) Akimov’s show, a sprawling expansion / reimagining / parody of Shakespeare’s tragedy, apparently aimed well over the top and, predictably, failed with the press and public. Shostakovich’s music, although it has a touch of the spirit of anarchy that motivates New Babylon — perhaps only by association in my mind with Akimov’s fiasco — is of a piece with the slightly acidic sets of dance and march numbers he provided for other plays while he worked on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. While it has more gravity than the likes of his Rule, Britannia! score it doesn’t push far enough into the realm of either tragedy or satire to stand up entirely on its own.
Rule, Britannia! in fact contributes its infantry march, in a more misterioso guise, to this score, and Shostakovich commits other acts of musical recycling with typical alacrity. He reuses of the sunnier bits of The Golden Age‘s formidable can-can; the still-in-progress Lady Macbeth echoes more consistently throughout, in some shaded mood-setting music as well as in some strident outbursts reminiscent of the opera’s amatory scene. In fact one of its suggestive upward trombone slides punctuates the “Hamlet and the small boys walking past” cue, whatever manner of scene that was, although one hopes it wasn’t related to the spirit of the original.
One moment that borrows from Lady Macbeth‘s final act also looks forward, if I recall correctly, to Shostakovich’s music for Grigori Kozintsev’s thoroughly unrelated 1964 film version of Hamlet. The scores are wholly separate works as well, although the woodwind tremors used in the Prelude to the play-within-the-play of the 1932 score is applied to the appearance of the ghost in the later film soundtrack:
Shostakovich, never shy about looking beyond the confines of his own head for material, borrows from another composer as well in at least one instance, as his early Funeral March winks in the direction of Chopin’s famous one:
As in the above examples, Hamlet‘s collection of very short selections (none as long as four minutes) mixes in some dramatically hefty stuff with the light-music escapades. One of the better examples of the latter side of the score is Shostakovich’s setting of Ophelia’s fourth-act ditty, a lyrical number that throws a couple of musical elbows. It’s sung here by mezzo-soprano Louise Winter; I think I’ve excerpted the right words for the music:
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
In contrast, one of the score’s comparatively fewer contemplative passages is a Lullaby for a few string instruments, which looks forward to Shostakovich’s serious forays into chamber music later in the decade. (Derek Hulme notes that the Lullaby recycles material from the Alone score, op. 26, though I missed that connection.)
In the context of listening through all these works chronologically, the Hamlet score mainly illustrates for me a shift in Shostakovich’s style over the short span from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, in which the controlled chaos of the earlier works is squared off and sanded down. This must be due to a combination, though I don’t know in what proportions, of increasingly heavy-handed official criticism; changing personal tastes; and the fact that he focused most of his creative energy and innovation on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
The Big Lightning (no opus number, 1932; incomplete)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, various soloists, USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)
Shostakovich wrote just under twenty minutes of music for his planned operetta, The Big Lightning. It fits the mold of his other, more advanced failure-to-launch projects at the time: An agitprop scenario, an unpromising libretto (by one Nikolai Aseyev in this instance), and an unhappy end to the project, although in this case the result wasn’t a disastrous premiere but complete abandonment. To be fair, as Laurel Fay indicates, Shostakovich was spending a great deal of his energy at the time on getting Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk onstage.
It would be interesting to hear the operetta’s sensibility stretched to full length; the music, in a lyrical and fairly traditional light-opera mode, is as approachable as The Bolt’s but lacks the ballet’s tendency towards bloviation. Although, on the other hand, I suspect it would be wearying — Shostakovich is better at turning out tunes than he’s generally given credit for but he doesn’t hit on an especially catchy melody that often, and when he’s doing his best work his material, while likable, feels predictable over long stretches. My recollection of his much later operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki bears that out.
Seventeen minutes is, at any rate, a good-sized dose of the stuff. Gennady Rozhdestvensky prepared a concert version of the fragmentary work in the early 1980s and made the present recording soon after. It gets a lusty performance, although the strangely echoey acoustics suggest a particularly forbidding, Soviet-era music hall, or perhaps an abandoned airport hangar. This two-disc, now-deleted BMG reissue, for as much as it’s been a staple for me so far, comes with a sloppily assembled booklet, and along with botching a couple of characters’ names it doesn’t include the libretto. Thus it was, on first listening, extremely hard to gauge what’s going on — a particular kiss of death for anything comical — but for the occasional recognizable word (recognizable to a non-Russian speaker like me, anyway) like “Bolshevik”:
It occurred to me at some point to look up Valery Polyansky’s recording of the work on Chandos and, sure enough, they’ve got the full text and a free downloadable booklet to boot. (Their mp3 preview also indicates that Rozhdestvensky doesn’t miss much by excluding a short scene of a Soviet delegate calling some wrong numbers, other than the musical tone-painting of a telephone ringer.) The lilting romance of “Semyon’s Song” becomes snappier when you realize he’s boasting about the superiority of his firm’s racing automobile. The other numbers benefit more modestly from the mere awareness of what’s being sung about.
The excerpt above — a “Song of the Architect” who, as it happens, is preparing a building in his capitalist home country for the arrival of a Soviet delegation — is the high point of the suite, a blend of easy songfulness, loopy good humor (there’s the flexatone again), and a couple of sharp, sufficiently surprising turns in musical direction. Another high point is the final “Procession of the Models”, a repeat of the “Waitresses” number in Declared Dead, which, like a couple of spots in The Golden Age, achieves something like the light-footed charm of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet:
There’s nothing that I’d call essential listening here, not even for an involved but still non-insane Shostakovich fan, but it’s fun to hear.
Last week rather trailed off due to commitments of the “work / miscellaneous” kind, and this week threatens to do the same as I head to San Francisco for a long weekend. Nonetheless! I will pick up again later today with Shostakovich’s unfinished operetta, The Big Lightning, and proceed from there through a couple more works for stage and screen. Too, I’m excited to hear the San Francisco Symphony in concert for the first time this Thursday afternoon, as Pablo Heras-Casado conducts, among other works, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12. I’m very much looking forward to hearing that work in all its orchestral gigantitude live on stage for the first time, and even more to finally hearing the ensemble. Good times ahead.
Hypothetically Murdered [Declared Dead] (1931), suite op. 31a (Reconstructed and orchestrated by Gerard McBurney, 1991)
CD: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (United 88001, reissued on Signum Classics)
I’m having trouble deciding exactly how to head my post for Shostakovich’s opus 31, which I listened through for the first time on Monday. “Hypothetically Murdered” is one of the various English renderings of the title, applied by Gerard McBurney to his 1991 concert suite based on a partial piano score. Out of a bevy of other translations (“Conditionally Killed”, etc.), Laurel Fay and others make a convincing case to prefer “Declared Dead”, which to this layman’s eyes has the benefit of an idiomatic meaning in the target language. At any rate you can start to triangulate the intent of the original Russian name.
The nature of the original theater work itself is similarly inscrutable based on reading a couple of secondary sources — it was a music hall revue, including circus performers, centered on Leonid Utyosov’s popular “jazz” band and organized, apparently quite loosely, around the story of a man “declared dead” during an air raid drill. Shostakovich’s score, as pieced together by McBurney, consists of a bunch of very short numbers in the busy style of his lighter theater music and his ballets, although there’s nothing as involved as what he put into The Golden Age or The Bolt. Some cues are perfunctory, some are recycled or would be recycled; several of them are charming, if in a sort of dashed-off way.
McBurney’s small-orchestra arrangement can sound tinny, but this seems to be by design; at any rate he gets a jangly sound appropriate to the material. Theatrical instrumental choices play to this atmosphere too — an accordion, an out-of-tune upright piano, a leering clarinet line in the “Petrushka” track (although the soloist doesn’t quite achieve the vulgarity required). All of this works best in the music from Act 3, a satirical and atheistic setpiece in heaven — the music for the cherubim is cartoonishly illustrative, and a cabaret-flavored Adagio plays to the strengths of McBurney’s arrangement, even as it lands stylistically closer to one of William Bolcom’s self-conscious episodes than to Shostakovich’s characteristic sound:
That act includes a couple of notable recyclings, the first being an oddly creepy borrowing of the sexual assault sequence from Act 1 of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, applied here to a “bacchanalia” between male and female saints. McBurney reduces Shostakovich’s operatic orchestration, which still sounds markedly more heavy than what’s around it. I also have no concept of the exact satirical purpose to which the composer put the music in Declared Dead, but I can’t shake the disturbing tone of the original scene (although the “original” in 1931 hadn’t yet been completed or put on stage). The impression has dulled after a couple of repeat listenings, and it remains remarkably good music, but I still find its inclusion in a lighthearted revue somewhat horrifying.
A few minutes later, “The Archangel Gabriel’s Number” reapplies the jaunty tune, destined for the finale of the first piano concerto, that emerged in The Golden Age and the Poor Columbus finale. Here it’s nearly identical to the form in takes in the piano work of a few years later — Shostakovich seems to have pasted a minutes-long stretch of it into the concerto, although McBurney, citing the passage’s lower pitch in Declared Dead, gives the melodic line to a saxophone rather than the concerto’s solo trumpet.
It adds up to forty more minutes of music that effortlessly fulfills its theatrical function, like so much of Shostakovich’s output in the late 1920s through early 1930s.
Sergei Yutkevich’s The Golden Mountains lacks a DVD release, so the concert suite will have to do for Shostakovich’s third film score. The plot, according to John Riley, focuses on the political awakening of a young worker during a 1914 factory strike. He notes too that the composer penned a widely popular title song which he decided for whatever reason to leave out of the suite.
The orchestral music that is here ranges in style but fits within the stylistic circle described by the works of the late 1920s and early 1930s that I’ve listened to so far. The short Introduction opens the suite with a thick spreading of musical cream cheese, a fanfare close to what would become his mature light-music style, friendly to audiences and officials alike. The Waltz that follows it is easy on the ears, too, though right away it’s more notable for its unpredictable use of a Hawaiian guitar to introduce its first theme:
The waltz, per Riley, is used in the film to satirize the bourgeois industrialists, but it’s characteristically catchy and, unlike some of Shostakovich’s more snide dance numbers in The Golden Age and elsewhere, there are few signs of mockery within the music itself. Rather, once the waltz hits its full stride, it sounds like gleeful music for a trapeze act:
The eight-minute fugue that follows it, for a pipe organ eventually joined by the orchestra, is much chewier. It bears a strong family resemblance to the funereal passacaglia from Act 2 of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, especially in that Shostakovich transcribed that selection for organ sometime in the early thirties:
Both, too, take a stern-faced approach to a baroque form, more striking for their instrumental gigantism than for formal tightness.
The suite ends with an atmospheric Funeral March that leads into a bigger, louder Finale; the very end of the the third symphony is grafted on as a coda, in a coarse-grained and not particularly seamless instance of Shostakovich’s self-borrowing.
The Golden Mountains music reminds me of that for The Bedbug in its loopiness and instrumental novelty. This two-disc Rozhdestvensky reissue continues to be both pleasantly surprising and weird. (Derek Hulme lists Rozhdestvensky’s recording of the suite as complete, although it seems either to be missing an Intermezzo or to have rolled it up into another track.) One particular oddity / pleasure is the audio engineering of these Melodiya studio recordings of the late 1970s and early ’80s — their sound palette has the same, slightly unnatural quality of old color film stock, a little bit washed out in places and preternaturally intense in others, particularly in some cases of overly prominent percussion instruments. It’s all good fun; I think I enjoy this suite more for chipping at the edges of my expectations of what Shostakovich’s music sounds like than for anything directly in the music itself.
Before moving on from the opera, here’s an overview (from memory, so without much corroborating detail) of some versions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk available on DVD. These were pretty scarce for a while but happily proliferated after Shostakovich’s centennial year in 2006. The audio-only EMI album I wrote about last week is the essential recording of the work, at least long term, but it’s easier to get a good sense of the work through a filmed production.
The most preferable filmed version of the opera that I have seen is the 2006 Concertgebouw Orchestra release, with Mariss Jansons leading a powerful account of the orchestral score. The principals perform their roles ably and the videography is handsome and lively enough, although, as with all stage productions, static by film standards. The stage design and costumes didn’t make an impression on me, other than being hard-edged in a contemporary Continental-European style.
The Gran Teatre del Liceu production is similarly well-performed, with a notable bit of (operatically speaking) celebrity casting, in that Evgeny Nesterenko, part of Shostakovich’s circle of trusted performers late in the composer’s life, plays the part the old convict. This version suffers, however, from the misguided and momentum-killing interpolation of some funeral music from Shostakovich’s sixth symphony within Act 3. The shabby peasant performs a pantomime to it following his trip to the police station, ostensibly demonstrating some remorse, but this move muddies rather than enrichens the original satirical intent of the character and, even less fortunately, resembles nothing so much as the goofy, one-man interpretive dance put on by The Dude’s landlord in The Big Lebowski. Still and all, the disc’s not a bad choice.
Peter Weigl’s 1992 film version of the opera features Czech actors lip-syncing to the EMI recording, which I find jarring — you have Galina Vishnevskaya’s mature, fiery soprano voice issuing from the buxom young Markéta Hrubesová, who seems to possess a merely phonetic understanding of the words. Weigl preserves the opera’s original nineteenth-century setting, which is a plus, but he strips out the orchestral interludes and satirical third-act setpieces; what remains is an R-rated reenactment of the story’s most lurid elements in which the heroine, to borrow some phrasing from Peter Cook, every day gets more violent, and every day gets more nude. But the biggest mark against the film is that it’s so stagey — Weigl’s use of so many long, medium-distance shots makes for a dull and flabby film, all the more disappointing since Shostakovich’s quick jumps in musical style seem ready-made for the editing room.
I’ll use the 1966 film version of Katerina Ismailova as my main reference point when I get to his revised version of the opera from the 1960s. But, in brief, despite some cuts of the orchestra-only music and, much more noticeably, its heavily bowdlerized libretto and score, the Soviet movie is well worth seeing for Vishnevskaya’s performance, in which she both sings on the soundtrack and acts opposite a number of lip-syncing actors, more than holding her own in screen presence. Shapiro’s direction makes some efforts to bring film effects into the production — for instance, in Boris’ Act 2 reverie his youthful, merrymaking self is superimposed next to him onscreen — but there’s nothing too interesting there by purely cinematic standards.
Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 Siberian Lady Macbeth is worth half a mention, too, as a Polish adaptation of the original Nikolai Leskov story. The soundtrack does borrow some of Shostakovich’s musical material, most notably the doomy music that opens Act 2, but in a musty and colorless arrangement. The differences in plot are worth noting — Wajda preserves the supernatural elements, Katerina’s desire for a child, and her murder of her nephew — but for those I’d recommend reading Leskov’s novella itself.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 4
CD: “Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Galina Vishnevskaya, Nicolai Gedda, Dimiter Petkov; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI 7 49955 2; more recently reissued)
In the wood, right in a grove, there is a lake,
Almost round, and very deep.
And the water in it is black,
Black like my conscience.
And when the wind blows in the wood,
On the lake waves rise up,
Huge waves, and then it’s frightening.
In autumn there are always waves on the lake,
And the water’s black and the waves huge.
Huge, black waves.
(Translations, again from the EMI album’s notes, are by Joan Pemberton Smith. The musical excerpt covers the first four lines of the text above.)
Late in Act 4’s single half-hour scene, Katerina Ismailova numbly delivers this aria, relating the force of her guilt. It’s a finely nuanced piece of vocal writing, set over a low orchestral pause with tremorous woodwind figures for the waves that depict her pangs of conscience. Too, it’s a shift in her character. Some of the horror expressed in the orchestral music earlier, particularly the passacaglia that follows Boris’ murder, could be ascribed to Katerina’s awareness of the gravity of her crimes, but that works as an abstract and mostly unrealized understanding at best; the appearance of the ghost in Scene 5 offers the most concrete opportunity for an attack of conscience but Katerina is more terrified at being confronted, and bickers with her deceased father-in-law as she did when he was alive.
The narrative arc of the opera makes a corresponding shift: The final act comes across not as a musical satire with undercurrents of tragedy, but as a tragedy laced with a few satirical details. This turn in the story and in the musical style — directly expressive and simpler to follow — keeps the opera’s tone fresh, and prevents exhaustion with Shostakovich’s furiously kaleidoscopic style from setting in as it does in The Nose and The Golden Age. The move into overt tragedy is apparent from the act’s opening chorus, sung as a group of convicts being marched to Siberia (Katerina and Sergey among them) make camp for the night by a river. An old convict delivers the first lines of the prisoners’ song, which is then picked up by the full chorus as they lament the difficult road and describe “the echoes of groans of the dying” along it:
Despite its bleakness the music is oddly warmer than most of what’s come before, as Shostakovich directly expresses the prisoners’ hardship — certainly resonant with the difficult years in which he composed the work — rather than keeping a chilly, ironic distance from the events onstage.
This tone continues as Katerina, bribing a guard to gain access to the male prisoners’ camp, seeks out Sergey for comfort, only to hear him accuse her of ruining his life. Her brief, affecting song suggests a glimmer of light in the darkness around her, made more heartbreaking by the inevitable betrayal that will follow it:
Seryozha! My dearest!
Even the pain in my legs has gone,
And the tiredness, and the anguish…
Once I’m with you,
The shift in tone isn’t complete; the plot machinations deploy the same blackly humorous musical style as in earlier acts. After rebuffing his wife, Sergey pursues another female prisoner, Sonyetka, with the same affected lyricism that he earlier used on Katerina. Sonyetka offers her affections in exchange for his wife’s wool stockings, and Sergey cruelly gets Katerina to give them to her under the pretense of needing them to protect his own injured legs from his manacles. He further humiliates her by carrying off Sonyetka in full view of the women’s camp. The scene builds to a head as the female convicts taunt Katerina — a final instance of ugly crowd behavior — and a male sentry leers at Sergey and Sonyetka’s tryst. Katerina finally stops trying to break past them to get to Sergey and freezes in despair:
Shostakovich is capable of writing subtle, touching, quietly devastating music, as in the earlier excerpts of Katerina’s solo vocals, but for his emotional climaxes he prefers to pull out the stops. (In this recording he is aided tremendously by Rostropovich and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who aspire here to near-Maynard Ferguson levels of trumpet wailing.) It’s not so much psychologically penetrating as psychologically battering but the style works well for him.
In fairness, the outburst above is immediately followed, in marked contrast, by Katerina’s song about the lake. Sonyetka then strolls by after her dalliance with Sergey in order to taunt Katerina, who pushes her into the river and jumping after her in a climactic murder-suicide. The opera lets out a final musical exclamation before the prisoners are marched offstage, reprising their opening chorus.
The Richard Taruskin quotation that I mentioned in the Act 2 post, here gleaned from a Google Books search of his essay collection Defining Russia Musically, is less extreme than I characterized it earlier this week:
So ineluctably has the opera come to symbolize pertinacious resistance to inhumanity that it is virtually impossible now to see it as an embodiment of that very inhumanity. . . . And yet it remains a profoundly inhumane work of art. Its technique of dehumanizing victims is the perennial method of those who would perpetrate and justify genocide, whether of kulaks in the Ukraine, Jews in Greater Germany, or aborigines in Tasmania.
It’s a defensible statement but not, I think, a correct one. Dehumanizing a story’s victims, or any villains left alive at the end, is a perennial method throughout much art, and while it arguably makes for worse narrative more often than not, the precise use to which the author puts it has a lot to do with how morally ugly it is. Lady Macbeth, in echoing the USSR’s dekulakization campaign, does tap into a disturbing vein of Soviet politics, but it surely doesn’t function as propaganda. Propaganda has no use for late crises of conscience in its protagonists, or for that matter the frenetic, dark-edged circus atmosphere surrounding the actions it would be promoting as right and good. Further, Preis’ and Shostakovich’s libretto doesn’t agitate recognizably for any action or worldview — no class or character other than Katerina is actually shown to be good, and the authors don’t try to establish their central character as anything other than sympathetically human. Whether Katerina’s guilt and her final, despairing act of violence redeem her at all is a matter of audience reaction — Shostakovich leaves room for ambiguity here, another decidedly non-propagandistic quality.
The opera’s tragic turn in Act 4 doesn’t wipe out the effect of its incipiently tragic but still gleeful depiction of violence earlier, although this applies not just to the murdered landowners but also to the violence against Katerina and Sergey, against the cook and the atheist schoolteacher. As problematic as the dispatching of Boris and Zinovy is, isolating that strand of the opera distorts its overall impact. Lady Macbeth too reflexively channels the official political mood of Shostakovich’s time and leans a little too heavily on stock Soviet villains, but not fatally so. For me this is highlighted but not really worsened by the composer’s youthfully abstract and excessive illustrations of violence — only with a little more age and bitter experience would he begin to compose music from a stance of moral authority. Except for the portrayal of Katerina’s final betrayal and humilation, Taruskin is correct that the opera is not a humane work. But it is very human in its emotional intensity, and it scathingly satires those who abuse their power over others, and those who sadistically look on as they do so; its problems shouldn’t be ignored (no artwork’s should) but its value as commentary, as storytelling, and as viscerally exciting music surpasses its flaws. All told it is an edgy, extraordinary musical drama.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 3
CD: “Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Galina Vishnevskaya, Nicolai Gedda, Dimiter Petkov; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI 7 49955 2; more recently reissued)
The end of Scene 6 and the interlude that follows aren’t the best musical event in the opera but they are my favorite, as well as a demonstration of what’s great about Rostropovich’s interpretation of the score. The interlude on its own — and it is often enough performed outside of the opera, in a concert suite with the other interludes — sounds rather jolly and lighthearted, despite its typically gnarly development. Within the context of the story, though, its antics have an acidic bite: On Katerina and Sergey’s wedding day a shabby peasant, to this point a leering presence in the background of the crowd scenes (he eggs on Aksinya’s assault and Sergey’s whipping alike), drunkenly breaks into Katerina’s wine cellar looking for her high-quality alcohol but finds the hidden, decaying body of her husband instead. The interlude, in the opera’s original formulation at least, depicts his unsteady run to the police station.
In her autobiography Galina: A Russian Story, Vishnevskaya describes the scene, and the composer’s words to her about it. I’m surprised I haven’t seen the paragraph cited in any concert programs to highlight the acridity of the interlude’s high spirits:
How rich is that single, two-minute magical scene of the disheveled peasant who reels from complaints about his unhappy fate and a desire to get dead drunk, to his chance discovery of a terrible crime — a murder — to his headlong dash to the police. Dmitri Dmitriyevich used to say, “The bastard ran to the police, overjoyed that he could inform on her. A hymn to informers . . . That’s a hymn to all informers!”
Even in context, with catastrophic music building up to the interlude and the shabby peasant’s words (“The corpse of Zinovy Borisovich! Ay, ay, police!”) stretching over its opening bars, more often than not it still sounds boisterously bright, with its place in the story providing its teeth. That interpretation works well, and it may be the more sophisticated one — But I just love Rostropovich’s snarling energy, scouring away any doubt about the music’s satirical intent and perfectly capturing the peasant’s malicious exaltation. This scene makes concrete for me something that I hear in Shostakovich’s similar, dark-comedy music in more abstract works, written before Lady Macbeth and especially after: The most damage to the world is done not by an evil few at the top but by the masses of small-minded, mediocre people underneath them — nearly all of us included among them, in one way or another — whose ridiculousness makes them that much more menacing.
(All these thoughts and words don’t get across how much of a gut-level hit that track is for me. It’s just blood-boiling, rock-out-to-it stuff; if I’m listening to the opera on disc I have trouble not just hitting repeat on that one over and over.)
Act 3’s three short scenes all depict the malevolence of crowds and the machinery of justice, such as it is, being operated out of jealousy and petty thuggery. Following the “hymn” is a police station scene in which a sergeant and his men lament their boredom and unselfconsciously declare their own corruption. The scene is entirely Preis’ and Shostakovich’s invention; their policemen, the sergeant especially, bear an obvious resemblance to those in The Nose, although their lines don’t have the crackle of those Gogol wrote for his district constable. Lady Macbeth‘s police amuse themselves temporarily by roughing up an atheist schoolteacher, but only really light up when the shabby peasant arrives with news of Zinovy’s body, as they’ve been bitter not to have been invited to Katerina and Sergey’s wedding. Joan Pemberton Smith renders their words (following the peasant’s exchange with the sergeant) in verse in the album notes:
Quicker, quicker, quicker, quicker,
We might get free food and liquor.
Stuff ourselves until we’re sick,
So we’ll hurry, hurry quick!
Paralleling the peasant’s scene, the policemen’s enthusiasm takes the form of a barbed interlude. This one is a mellower pastiche of comic episodes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bedbug suite, although the policemen’s menacing three-note motto pops up throughout. (Initially, in the excerpt above, it’s stated by the solo trumpet and timpani.)
Scene 8 depicts Katerina’s wedding feast: She realizes her husband’s body has been discovered and tries to escape with Sergey while she is toasted by her progressively more intoxicated guests. (A drunk priest, something of a Soviet stock character, presides; he was similarly drunk when he delivered Boris’ last rites in Act 2.) The crowd serves as an unconcerned backdrop for Katerina’s panic in the foreground, and there is something sly in Shostakovich’s choral writing, aesthetically close to the patriotic finales of the second and third symphonies but here applied to a group of tipsy party-goers:
…Although this anthemic choral style soon enough gives way to illustrative slurring:
The police reach the estate before the newlyweds can make their escape, and the key themes from the earlier interludes are reprised more darkly. The policemen’s motif accompanies them as they beat down the gate (note also their ominous announcement of the word “politsiya”, or “police”):
And, to close the act after Sergey tries and fails to wrest his way out of the policemen’s custody, Shostakovich reuses the informer’s theme, this time in a minor key and an explicitly sinister light:
The policemen play a multivalent role in this story. In a literal sense, they parody of the nineteenth-century Czarist police — their fixation on bribes in particular points to the bureaucracy of the Russian Empire, as immortally satirized by Gogol. Shostakovich’s depiction of their abuse of power obliquely represents the USSR’s own thugs too, though, whose power over cultural and civil life was rising in the early 1930s. I don’t know how immediate the peasant’s role as informer would have seemed to audiences in 1932 — the composer’s words to Vishnevskaya above were spoken some decades hence — but the secret police’s actions would culminate in the Great Purge within a few years. The general tactic here is one that applies less centrally to the police in The Nose, and one which was used in Shostakovich’s later vocal works as well as by other artists: Wrongful actions by the state and society are ascribed (accurately) to the past, with assurances (sometimes implicit, sometimes ironically explicit) that such problems no longer plague the progressive, more utopian present.
Much is made of this in interpreting Lady Macbeth, not to mention the rest of Shostakovich’s output, and rightly so. But it’s also shallow, and dispiritingly common, to read the work too narrowly as an allegory of the Stalin years. I’ve seen the opera onstage three times — at the Met in 1999, at the National Theater in Prague in 2001, and in Baltimore in 2003 — and each time the production was set, if abstractly, in twentieth-century Russia. The Baltimore Opera Company’s staging (which originated in Dresden, although I haven’t found further details of it yet in a cursory search) made this most explicit, down to putting a Stalin lookalike in the police sergeant role. In terms of artistry this starts to feel stale and obvious. But more importantly it cuts against the universality of the work. The libretto itself, albeit jokingly, points to the ancientness of policemen in the sergeant’s opening words in Act 7 — “The police were formed, so we are told / When the Pharoahs ruled in days of old” — and in so doing draws a line from the distant past through the near past, and implicitly into the present and future.
The couple of recent productions of the opera I’ve seen on DVD are better on this count, but in general — and I think more strongly in the abstract domain of Shostakovich’s purely instrumental works — concert notes, album liners, reviewers and listeners too easily focus on his music as an allegory of his contemporary censors and critics. (Much of this can be sourced to Solomon Volkov’s fraudulent-until-proven-authentic Shostakovich memoir, Testimony, but that’s its own matter.) This casts the music too much as a sort of musty museum piece, though, a souvenir of an artistic battle supposedly already waged and won. It’s still lovely and dramatic artwork if you read it just as a commentary on Shostakovich’s own time and personal experience, sure. But its relevance doesn’t come from what it has to say about Stalin; it comes from what it has to say about all of us.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, op. 29 (1930-1932), Act 2
CD: “Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, Galina Vishnevskaya, Nicolai Gedda, Dimiter Petkov; Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (EMI 7 49955 2; more recently reissued)
The musical highlight of Lady Macbeth‘s second act is the interlude between its two scenes, which cuts in as a priest begins a requiem for Katerina’s just-murdered father-in-law. Even in a career full of orchestral excesses it rates as Shostakovich’s most awesomely over-the-top moment:
Act 2 continues in the same lurid mode as Act 1, with more emphasis this time on the second half of the sex-and-violence bill. As Scene 4 opens, Boris discovers Sergey leaving Katerina’s room through a window and whips him in front of the household staff, then locks him in a storeroom. Katerina poisons him and frees her lover as he dies. In Scene 5, set once more in Katerina’s room, she is visited by Boris’ ghost — the sole supernatural event that links her to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and a seemingly perfunctory holdover from Leskov’s story — before Zinovy intrudes on her and Sergey and they strangle him to death. Shostakovich’s musical style maintains its dark, knife-edged satire; in particular, Sergey’s beating parallels his earlier abuse of Aksinya, with the workers looking on and laughing and the violence depicted onstage for a somewhat uncomfortable length of time. (The EMI ablum helpfully mixes in whipcrack sound effects.) It probably speaks to my own cultural environment that I feel comparatively blase about the killings in the story — a This American Life episode about the relatives of murder victims that I listened to recently makes the point early on that we consume an awful lot of recreational depictions of murder — but for me the pitch remains somewhere in the neighborhood of a Coen brothers movie. Richard Taruskin, pushing too far in the other extreme, once called the opera a justification of genocide due to the plot’s unsettling closeness to the USSR’s policy at the time towards wealthy rural landowners; I hope to unpack that some more later (probably around Act 4) but for now suffice it to say that Lady Macbeth’s criminal goings-on, while not unproblematic, reminds me less of propaganda than of Peter Stormare putting a leg through a wood chipper in Fargo.
Another way in which Shostakovich’s opera is very much of its time is that all of its villains are caricatures. And, indeed, most of its characters are villains; Katerina, its only emotionally rounded figure, seems like a human walking around within a cartoon. Being familiar with the opera in isolation, I first found this perplexing, than as an idiosyncracy of its satirical tone. But, with reference to Shostakovich’s previous film collaborations and ballet scenarios — especially Alone, which shares with Lady Macbeth a conservative approach to storytelling — the caricatured antagonists pop out as a common feature of Soviet storytelling at the time. I don’t know to what extent it was a quasi-official necessity versus a stylistic hallmark of the time. It certainly prevents the tragic side of Shostakovich’s tragicomedy from reaching the depths of other, more dramatically nuanced operas of the 20th century — although I used to think Lady Macbeth did pretty well on that score until I saw Janácek’s Jenůfa and Britten’s Peter Grimes.
It works well within Shostakovich’s satirical frame, though. Boris functions as the opera’s foremost heavy, a comical yet tyrannical head of household. The character can play either as a legitimately powerful figure or as an old man puffed up with his self-regard; Dimiter Petkov, in keeping with the present album’s weightiness, gives him a robust presence. Boris’ song on his night patrol early in Scene 4 is the high point of his characterization, as he lecherously talks himself into turning his sexual attention to his absent son’s wife. Shostakovich sets this leering reverie to a series of misshapen waltz gestures:
Zinovy, in contrast, is every bit the spineless, querulous, impotent husband; when he bursts in on Katerina and Sergey the scene initially plays like a bedroom farce, though per Shostakovich’s M.O. the gleeful comedy veers soon enough into more dangerous territory. Here (beginning with Zinovy’s repeated “We’ve heard it all! We’ve heard it all!”) the pair sing their accusations against each other over each other in a duet that strikes me (perhaps just because I’m an opera naif) as cleverly backward-looking, along the tradition of operatic duets where it’s impossible to follow either character’s words. Werner Krenn sings Zinovy’s part with appropriate timidity, in contrast to Vishnevskaya’s viperous delivery of Katerina’s insults:
Katerina calls to Sergey at the end of the above excerpt, and soon enough the husband has been strangled in an alarmed swirl of music.
Sergey himself isn’t precisely a villain and gets a little bit more shading than the others, though he is ultimately a satire of a self-serving manipulator, who in handling Katerina alternates between coarseness and an assumed tone of wounded romanticism. A short aria early in Scene 5 paints this perfectly, in a piece of character work like something out of Shostakovich’s literary satirical heroes Gogol and Mikhail Zoshchenko, but darker at the edges. Sergey pleads with Katerina that he’s “a sensitive person, you know,” and pushes her to make him her lawful husband:
Katerina Lvovna, Katenka,
I’m not like other men,
Who don’t care about anything,
So long as they’ve got a woman’s soft body
I’m a sensitive person, you know,
I can feel what love is.
Oh why did I fall in love with you,
And burn with passion just for you?
Can it really be an honour for you,
An eminent merchant’s wife,
To be my mistress?
Oh Katya, what I’d give to become
Your husband in God’s eyes!
Despite the thinness of the characters, Shostakovich’s music does find some tragedy in the murders, if not sympathy for the victims themselves. To return to the Scene 4 interlude — a solemn, gigantically scored passacaglia, the longest stretch of unaccompanied orchestral music within the work — it adds gravity to the fact of Boris’ death.
To some extent this reinforces the composer’s sympathy for Katerina; it is the event being marked as tragic, I think, as opposed to her own morals or actions being musically judged. In another way, the music again seems to distance itself from the story and pull back to a longer view: The destruction of this petty villain is a tragedy in motion, and that darkness seems to be a wider context within which Shostakovich places the opera’s frenetic, nearly nihilistic, not entirely gleeful comedy.
(Updated to add the final excerpt and the text to Sergey’s song to Katerina, and to make the Taruskin quotation indirect.)