Opus 36: The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead (1934; incomplete)

The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead, op. 36 (1934; incomplete)
CD:  The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Balda; Suite from “Lady Macbeth”; Various soloists, Moscow State Chamber Choir, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling (Deutsche Grammophon 289 477 6112 9)

Only about two minutes remain of Shostakovich’s intended collaboration with the animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, a feature-length cartoon based on Alexander Pushkin’s adapted folk tale “The Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Blockhead”:

(That Vimeo link comes via a short but informative thread on the Giuviv Russian Film Blog.)

Shostakovich aside, I find the visual style of that bazaar scene mesmerizing.  I’ve always vaguely preferred animation to “live action” film, though I’m not very well informed on the genre — more of a gourmand than a gourmet — and I hadn’t previously heard of Tsekanovsky, or for that matter seen much Russian animation at all.  A quick search for available DVDs doesn’t turn up much (although his later, smaller-scoped The Silly Little Mouse is a semi-secret bonus on absolut MEDIEN’s Alone disc) but I’ll have to keep looking.  I wish Balda had been completed but, sadly, it fared as poorly as many of Shostakovich’s other cooperative projects of the early 1930s:  Work progressed slowly, the state-backed studio soured on Tsekanovsky’s style, and the film was canned; for good measure, almost all of the completed footage (save the bazaar scene) was destroyed during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s.

The work’s promise is also shown off well by Thomas Sanderling’s cracking studio recording of the score with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, in an hourlong, two-part version completed by Vadim Bibergan.  It’s an album I picked up a couple of years ago, in the midst of the glut of releases timed to Shostakovich’s centennial year.  I never listened to it enough to justify the purchase but I found a lot to like in it, nothing more than the imitative animal noises that open the bazaar scene:

Sanderling’s cut is cleaner than the original film soundtrack (a plus) and more traditionally choral (a minus), but energetic enough to do the original concept justice.  It’s not Stravinsky’s Petrushka but Shostakovich colors his score with a winningly folksy hue; most of the score’s high points are here.  Notable, too, is the music for the mechanical toy seller (about 1:35 in the video), a forerunner of the clicking-and-popping percussion effect that Shostakovich would use in a few years in his fourth symphony, and then many years later in the finales of his second cello concerto and fifteenth symphony:

The film’s plot, not advanced by that early marketplace scene, concerns the lowly Blockhead (or Balda, as it’s often given in English, taking the Russian word), who agrees to work for a priest for a year in exchange for knocking him on the head three times, then performs some seemingly impossible tasks (mostly involving outsmarting some devils) as the priest unsuccessfully tries to weasel out of his payment.  The satire of the Russian Orthodox Church ranges from cheekily irreverent to plainly anticlerical — this element is very much advanced by that early marketplace scene, as vendors hawk religious wares alongside foodstuffs and erotic paintings — but a lighthearted tone prevails.  As in The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, nineteenth-century Russian literature provides better and more workable source material than contemporary agitprop scenarios.

Stylistically, Shostakovich isn’t up to anything new here, with dance numbers and more restless, Lady Macbeth-derived scenes that could be swapped out with any of the incidental scores that he had composed in the past few years.  For stretches, the music settles into skillful-but-unsurprising, Bolt-like dance sequences that sap the score’s momentum and interest.  Some of this — it’s not clear how much from the album notes — is probably due to Bibergan stretching the available musical material to cover the entire story.  All in all, though, it’s one of Shostakovich’s better functional scores, with lively numbers and some nifty instrumental effects.  Shostakovich — or I presume it’s Shostakovich — accompanies “Balda’s Song” with a balalaika, echoing a similar musical episode in The Nose, and “The Priest’s Daughter’s Dream” is a mysterious, somnolent slow dance initially carried by saxophone and guitar:

Slightly earlier, the “Balda’s First Job” track unleashes some of the warm, cinematic sweep of the scant Counterplan excerpts that I listened to, further establishing Shostakovich’s mature film music style:

It’s a sharp enough score and I think Balda would have made a very good movie.  With Tsekanovsky’s animation following Shostakovich’s composition (as noted by John Riley), not vice versa, the work pushes towards a sort of film-opera, a more even synthesis of image and music than Shostakovich ever achieved.  Where it lacks novelty it sounds more incomplete to me than perfunctory.  Maybe my opinion is too colored by the circumstances of the work but so be it.  It’s an intriguing might-have-been.

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