Archive for the ‘Incidental’ Category

Opus 44: Salute to Spain (1936)

January 26, 2011

Salute to Spain, op. 44 (1936)
CD:  Various soloists, Camerata Silesia, The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)

Salute to Spain is another of Shostakovich’s insubstantial incidental scores, about ten minutes long, including two revolutionary songs that were incorporated alongside it into the production (arranged for chorus by Mark Fitz-Gerald on the Naxos disc).  In the context of Shostakovich’s career it’s mainly notable, and deserving of some generosity, as one of the first works he produced as a persona non grata of the Soviet state, as he worked to reestablish a very much uncertain career.

His music for the play, a rapid theatrical response to the Spanish Civil War, has very little flavor of Spain in it (save perhaps for a couple of vaguely “Spanish” chords), although there is no doubt that the USSR is doing the saluting.  Shostakovich’s contribution consists largely of brassy fanfares and suitably tragic/optimistic songs, more in line with his plain-faced cinema scores than his theater works to this point; the light puckishness of, for example, Rule, Brittania! is shelved, and I fear that the zanier style of The Bedbug is gone for good after this point in his output.

Salute to Spain‘s final funeral march does have a little bit of weight, plus a faint leering quality that seems to point back to Mahler’s first symphony, via Shostakovich’s own (then suppressed) fourth.  You can also hear in it, if you want, a trace of the grotesque bombast that the composer twists around on itself in the finale of his soon-to-be-written fifth symphony.

David Fanning’s album note draws a connection to Elena Konstantinovskaya, whose marriage-threatening affair with Shostakovich had just ended when she moved to Spain with the filmmaker Roman Karmen, adding personal misery to his professional and political trouble and perhaps creating an unhappy association with that nation.  The music remains pretty flimsy but there is something expressive in that final march, as though the occassion of theatrical tragedy gives Shostakovich an opening to express a little bit of more private darkness.


Opus 37a: The Human Comedy, excerpts (1934)

November 10, 2010

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.

Opus 32: Hamlet (1931-1932)

October 26, 2010

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.

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

October 20, 2010

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.

No opus number: Orchestration of the Overture to The Green Guild (1931) — Unavailable

October 8, 2010

Orchestration of the Overture to The Green Guild (no opus number, 1931) — Unavailable

I can’t entirely decide whether the overture to The Green Guild rates a mention — per Derek Hulme it’s an unpublished orchestration of the overture (composer not listed) to a play by Ivan Dzerzhinsky. At some point, at least for purposes other than cataloging, it seems you can grant that a composer can process some unpublished, unlisted musical material that doesn’t comprise part of his or her own output in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, here’s a mention of The Green Guild, for the sake of caution and completeness.

Opus 28: Rule, Britannia! (1931)

October 6, 2010

Rule, Britannia!, op. 28 (1931) (Reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald)
Camerata Silesia, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Fitz-Gerald (Naxos 8.572138)

After considering a couple of hour-plus productions on DVD — and, more exhaustingly, struggling with my ad hoc, open-source video extraction methodology, prone to obscure software glitches and pervasive frame rate errors — it’s a relief to handle eight minutes of incidental music on CD. Granted, I find little to say stylistically about the existing incidental numbers for Rule, Britannia!, an apparently long-lost play by Adrian Piotrovsky about communist agitation in the West, as reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald. It’s clear, practical, functional music for theater in a lighter, more jovial version of the First of May symphony’s language. “The Internationale” is unfurled (according to John Riley’s survey of Shostakovich’s film music, the onetime Soviet national anthem was a longstanding, easily emblematic go-to in the composer’s scores); in presumably dramatic numbers (“Protest”, “Raising the Banner”) the music stirs up the necessary tension on demand.

Most of what jumped at me from these tracks did so in connection with more substantial Shostakovich works. A few moments of lower, tension-building music resemble similar atmospheric sections of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk score, a work in progress in 1931; in particular a swinging figure in the clarinet recalls the scene in which Katerina and Sergei dispose of her husband’s body. (I don’t know whether the choice of instrument in this case is Shostakovich’s or Fitz-Gerald’s; if the latter I suspect he had the opera somewhere in mind.)  And the opening figure of the “Infantry March”, for those hopelessly attuned to such things, has the same shape as the brutish main motif of the tenth symphony’s second movement (if you want to fast-forward a bit, YouTube offers Gustavo Dudamel’s rock-star performance of it with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, though I’m still keeping myself from listening ahead), although the incidental track goes piping off in another direction entirely:

The play gets a spirited choral finale too — nothing too grand here, but I like the playful treatment of the word “proletariat” (eleven seconds in) and the repetitions of “red front”:

March, march!
The banners are calling us to the last fight, proletariat!
We will not believe the songs and tales of liars!
The bullets of fascists will not stop us.
Let them threaten us from everywhere.
Red front! Red front! Red front!

(English translation by Anastasia Belina, from the album’s notes.)

I don’t know where Shostakovich’s original instrumentation survives and where Fitz-Gerald’s reorchestration of the piano score kicks in, but the whole sounds clean — I like the jangly presence of the piano — and the recorded performance is briskly executed, with crisp choral work by the Camerata Silesia. I’m looking forward to going through the rest of the obscure material on this album (all recently reconstituted by Fitz-Gerald) though my guess is it’s necessary for enthusiasts only. Getting to know some of the composer’s early ballet and theater work, I find, provides a good sense of where his musical career was in his twenties; the smaller fragments of his output, however, are in themselves inessential.

Opus 25: Virgin Soil (1930) — Lost

September 30, 2010

Virgin Soil, op. 25  (1930) — Lost

The manuscript of Shostakovich’s incidental music for the play Virgin Soil, by Arkadiy Gorbenko and Nikolai Lvov, is lost.

Opus 24: The Gunshot (1929) — Unavailable

September 29, 2010

The Gunshot, op. 24 (1929) — Unavailable

Shostakovich’s incidental music for Alexander Bezymensky’s play The Gunshot (alternately translated as The Shot) is evidently extant but almost entirely unrecorded.  I may eventually have to spring for a copy of Derek Hulme’s weighty Dmitri Shostakovich Catalogue but, based on an Amazon preview, the score has been published but only one song recorded for a BBC broadcast in the mid-1990s but (referenced in this DSCH Journal album review).  Perhaps with time, and with continuing interest in even the most marginal of Shostakovich’s works, the world will hear it once more.

Opus 19: The Bedbug (excerpts) (1929)

September 22, 2010

Excerpts from The Bedbug, op. 19 (1929)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, Soloists Ensemble, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Shostakovich wrote his incidental music to The Bedbug almost simultaneously with his New Babylon score and, for several years, it marked a successful colaboration with two of the Soviet Union’s preeminent artists:  The play, a social satire on those early Stalinist years, was a new one by Vladimir Mayakovsky, staged by theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold.  The ensuing years would not treat those two well; Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930 and Meyerhold, after years of increasing criticism, was arrested on false espionage charges and executed in 1940.

I don’t know whether Shostakovich’s full set of musical selections still exists but, apparently, seven have been recorded, four by Rozhdestvensky in their original orchestral version (based on Onno van Rijen’s and Yosuke Kudo’s thorough online discographies).  I have little to add about these excerpts’ style to what I wrote about New Babylon — predictably enough, since Shostakovich composed the scores practically on top of each other, they’re made of very similar material.  The Bedbug‘s instrumentation sounds smaller and more novel (saxophones, fewer strings) and its punchier, wind-heavy sound, plus a greater tendancy to carry a recognizable tune, make it coincidentally resemble Kurt Weill’s more memorable Threepenny Opera music, which had opened in Berlin half a year earlier.

The two marches that bracket Rozhdestvensky’s set don’t make much of an impression on disc; the “Scene on the Boulevard”, leading with saxes and muted trumpets, sounds like affable but leering out-on-the-town music.  The Intermezzo is the standout, though; I’m still in the flush of hearing it for the first time yesterday but, though it’s obviously not one of his more consequential pieces, I think it’s a really fine three-and-a-half-minute specimen of his early style.  It opens with a fluid, faintly mysterious melody in the saxophone; this leads into a smoky swell in the strings, which opens up into a pirouetting wrong-note dance bit, laced with grating trumpet outbursts and trombone slides:

The selection rounds out with similar, slightly off-balance antics, a reprise of the opening tune, and a final loud razz.  The flute and flexatone, a combination used to evoke an unsettling bugle call in New Babylon, instead go for a whistling stroll together here:

I listened to the track the first time while walking up the sixteen flights of steps to my office in the morning, an apt accompaniment to the nose-thumbing tone of the music.  The minor physiological indignities of light exercise (sweating, heavy breathing in a musty, otherwise empty high-rise stairwell) pair pretty well with early Shostakovich.