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.