Opus 31a: Hypothetically Murdered [Declared Dead] (1931), Suite

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.

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3 Responses to “Opus 31a: Hypothetically Murdered [Declared Dead] (1931), Suite”

  1. Clive Wilson Says:

    What does ‘presumed dead’ mean? It only makes sense in the phrase ‘missing, presumed dead’. Anyway, its a dud translation of uslovno ubityy.

    The term ‘uslovnyy protivnik’ is standard in military jargon for the “hypothetical adversary” during military exercises. From what remains of the plot of the stage show, it appears that the action takes place during a Citizens’ Defence Corps air-raid practice. One of the characters, apparently played by Utyusov himself, decides not to take part, as he would rather go and see his girlfriend. The CDC reckon that he should be playing the part of someone uslovno ubityy by the uslovnyy protivnik, i.e. who has been hypothetically killed by the hypothetical adversary. But he refuses to play dead and runs off, with the CDC in pursuit.

    So ‘hypothetically killed’ or maybe ‘playing dead’ is the correct translation. Your blog would be a lot better if you ignored everything said by the tendentious, tedious, and inaccurate Laurel Fay.

  2. Jane Sullivan Says:

    The “Archangel Gabriel’s number” seems to be very similar to the children’s singing game “Poor Jenny is a-weeping” that we used to play when I was at primary school in the 1950s, and which seems to date from the 1880s. (see I & P Opie, “The Singing Game”, pp.325-9)

  3. Nate Says:

    That’s an interesting note about Poor Jenny — I didn’t know the tune before. If Shostakovich was familiar with it, it would certainly fit his M.O. to adapt it.

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