The Human Comedy, excerpts, op. 37a (1934)
CD: “Dmitry Shostakovich: Music for Theatre”, St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra, Edward Serov (Northern Flowers NF/PMA 9905)
This set of excerpts from Shostakovich’s Human Comedy incidental music opens with a “View of Paris” that aims for the same cinematic majesty that crops up in his scores for the films Counterplan and The Tale of the Priest and his Servant, Blockhead. The main melody does have a panoramic breadth, though its moderately wide intervals and vaguely bluesy flavor remind me of the American light-music composer Ferde Grofé, and I think of the Mississippi rather than the Seine:
I think the solo instrument in that clip, one minute into the track, is the baritone saxhorn called for in the score (per Derek Hulme), although recognizing individual brass instruments on record isn’t my strong suit.
Shostakovich wrote twenty-odd selections for the play, adapted by Pavel Sukhotin from Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine. The full score is out there but these five numbers are as much of the original orchestral version as has been recorded in one place so far. It’s pretty forgettable stuff. Next up in Edward Serov’s set (a 1984 Melodiya recording reissued by Northern Flowers) is a police office scene, a gruffly satirical dance cast from a by now very familiar mold. A delicate, pizzicato Gavotte follows, then a reprise of the opening material that ends with some minor-key dramatics. The suite is rounded out with one of Shostakovich’s less inspired marches.
It’s a little bit frustrating to listen through another minor, incidental score, all the more so after the respite of 1933’s 24 Preludes and piano concerto, more personal works written to support the composer’s career as a pianist. At the same time, it would be unfair to compare such pieces without qualification to Shostakovich’s more serious, more considered works. In practical terms he was trying to make a living; musically speaking he was aiming to provide an accompaniment to a play and I can imagine the score, subordinated to the action onstage, serving its purpose well. Its most striking aspect to me is how much professional-quality music Shostakovich was capable of writing in a short span. Too, the stylistic hallmarks (idiosyncrasies, tics, cliches) of his more familiar, better early works are all here in some form, and hearing them applied less thoughtfully with a narrower use in mind offers another angle on his musical imagination. Don’t run out and listen to The Human Comedy on its own merits, or feel that your Shostakovich appreciation is incomplete without it. But hearing some of this type of music provides a fuller understanding of the composer’s style and the scope of his body of work.