Posts Tagged ‘Gerard McBurney’

Opus 46: Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin (1937)

February 28, 2011

Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin, op. 46 (1937)
Orchestration for bass and chamber orchestra by the composer, undated, except “Stanzas”, orchestrated by Gerard McBurney
CD:  Dimitri Kharitonov (bass), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (United 88001, reissued on Signum Classics)

Once again storm clouds have gathered quietly over me.Envious fate again threatens me with misfortune.Will I retain my contempt for destiny? Will I bring to bear against itThe resolve and endurance of my proud youth?

— Alexander Pushkin, from “Premonition” (translated by Laurence R. Richter)

I hadn’t previously listened to Shostakovich’s four Pushkin romances, and I’ve mainly seen them referenced as a sort of decoder ring for the composer’s Symphony No. 5, which he wrote a few months later, since the first song, “Rebirth”, contains thematic material that Shostakovich uses in the symphony’s finale.  That particular analytic move suggests something of the absurdity of hunting for explicit, anti-Stalinist programs in Shostakovich’s instrumental works — so much thought has been spent on verifying whether the fifth symphony is a dissident statement that the tendency when presented with a work with explicit textual content (in this case, a text very much about the artist’s relationship to his critics and, given Pushkin’s conflicts with Czarist censors, the state) is to gloss over the program of the song itself in favor of an alleged hidden program in the more famous, more abstract work.  I do think the content and context of the romances can inform the symphony, although the symphony stands easily on its own, but they are more contextually interesting as a germinal example of what became Shostakovich’s mature style, as he tried to remake his musical personality in a form that wouldn’t be suppressed by the USSR’s increasingly authoritarian cultural minders.

That musical style is considerably more spare and pared down than anything he’d sustained in his earlier music.  The starkly orchestrated version recorded by the CBSO reinforces this with a dour, string-and-harp sound, only subtly rounded out by a clarinet, an unusual voice for Shostakovich’s chamber style.  (The orchestration of the first three songs is undated; if he completed it much later in life that could tie the work’s sparsity to that of his later chamber and voice works.  The fourth was orchestrated seamlessly by Gerard McBurney.)  The songs’ comparatively bare texture and deliberate pace mark a concentrated shift away from Shostakovich’s kinetic early style.  The vocal lines are lyrical, if not tuneful (they bear no resemblance to his abandoned operetta efforts); they most closely resemble the sound of the songs on Japanese poems, opus 21, although the soundscape of the Pushkin romances is far less cloudy.

The first song, “Rebirth”, which threatens to be consumed by its relationship to the fifth symphony, sets a poem complaining about, and hoping against, censorship.  Its whisper-soft opening sets the somber tone of the whole work:

A barbarian artist uses his indolent brush
To blacken out a genius’s picture
And his own illicit drawing
He traces senselessly over it.

(Once again I’m using Laurence R. Richter’s prose translations of the poems in Shostakovich’s Complete Song Texts.)

The song’s first four notes, setting most of the syllables for “a barbarian artist”, do in fact become the brash, fanfare-like motif that opens the fifth symphony’s last movement, but here it immediately bends back on itself, a meditative and worried effect.  The poem goes on to predict (or hope for) vindication in the future, as the artist-barbarian’s black paint flakes away from the work beneath it, and by analogy from the author’s psyche as well:

Thus disappear the delusions
From my tormented soul,
And there arise within it visions
Of my innocent primal days.

Shostakovich’s strings and harp, in accompanying these verses rise into a tentatively peaceful, oscillating figure (the following excerpt includes the lines “Thus disappear the delusions / From my tormented soul):

This sound echoes strongly in the fifth symphony too, just before its final coda.  But the repetition of a four-note, rising-and-falling fragment occurs in later songs within this work, too, and the effect — sometimes warily quiet, sometimes agitated and obsessive — becomes a frequent one throughout much of Shostakovich’s later work.
The second song, “Jealousy”, bears the strongest resemblance to the Japanese songs; it’s a musical illustration of a short romantic scenario between two unhappy lovers whose through-running anxiety, as in the earlier set of songs, feels external to the poem’s own text.  In “Premonition” (see this post’s opening quotation) the composer takes Pushkin’s words about impending trouble and claims, in artfully unconvincing music, to “await the storm with indifference”; I don’t know what misfortunes Pushkin had in mind when he wrote his poem but in Shostakovich’s agitated setting the biographical connection to his turbulent political situation at the beginning of 1937 is unavoidable.

The last romance, “Stanzas”, sets the longest poem of the four and, running five minutes long, somewhat dominates the other songs as well.  In it the poet describes a few episodes in which he considers his upcoming death, before finding some equanimity:

Let, then, around my tomb’s entrance
Young life play on.
And let indifferent nature
Shine on in eternal beauty.

Shostakovich’s setting, especially in a long, instrumental dying-out at the end, suggests that equanimity is something more wished for than achieved.  Once again he frequently repeats a downward- and upward-stepping figure, here to a starkly churning effect that again sounds different from any music he had written to this point:

You have to look all the way back to the Krylov fables, opus 4 to find an earlier song in any way about an artist’s dealing with unjust criticism, and that work’s “The Ass and the Nightengale”, with the bright self-confidence of the precocious teenager who wrote it, contrasts strongly with the Pushkin romances.  These songs instead form a prototype for many of Shostakovich’s later song cycles, with its themes of artists’ difficulties, sentimental views of young love, and inescapable death.  I don’t think these songs were muched performed at the time they were written, or too frequently after, but they also demonstrate a way that Shostakovich comes to express his angst and criticism through the protective filter of a past poet’s words.  The text, after all, is the poet’s, not the composer’s — and, with the centennial of Pushkin’s death in 1937 being officially celebrated by the Soviet government, the idea of setting the poet’s works could hardly draw much complaint.  Too, the poet is speaking about the past, not the present, which gives the composer some leeway to illustrate universal troubles under the guise that such dark days are gone.

I believe that Shostakovich, in this work, is questioning himself in parallel to the speaker in “Premonition”:  “The resolve and endurance of [his] proud youth” is in the process of being compromised, at least in terms of musical style, but Shostakovich continues to write expressive music that is personally meaningful to him, which was by no means a necessary path to take.  The Pushkin romances make a fine, brooding piece of music in their own right, and in the context of his career they are worthier as a first example of his way forward — composing music of quality and meaning within the stylistic parameters forced on him by the state — than as a mere addendum to the triumphant symphony that follows it.


News of Orango’s Premiere

November 19, 2010

An update on Orango, Shostakovich’s unfinished satirical opera about an ape-human hybrid:  The L.A. Times ran an article yesterday announcing that its prologue, completed by Gerard McBurney, will be premiered in December 2011 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a semi-staged concert produced by Peter Sellars.  Quite a high-profile introduction for the long-forgotten project.

The comments in the article by McBurney and Shostakovich scholar David Fanning (who damns Shostakovich’s manuscript pretty hard with faint praise) reinforce my expectation that the new music is going to sound much like Declared Dead and the composer’s other, also frequently ill-starred theatrical works of the early 1930s:  hastily drawn, a little bit chaotic, musically thin.  I do hope to make it to the show, though, schedule permitting — “sounds like Shostakovich” is enough for me, at the end of the day, and even mediocre music can make for gripping entertainment in concert in a way that recordings never quite can.

I’m intrigued, too, by what Sellars will bring to the project.  I know his work almost entirely through his collaborations with John Adams (also from a video production of Weill and Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins and from hearing him speak at length when he visited a seminar I was in in college) and I wonder how his characteristic humanism will play against the young Shostakovich’s music, whose satire (despite the towering exception of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) often lacks earnestness and whose overt political gestures are merely skin-deep.  I’m interested to see and hear what the artists will put together out of it; collectively they will have spent a lot more effort to bring the opera to the stage than did Shostakovich himself.

No opus number: Orango (early 1930s; incomplete) — UNAVAILABLE

November 11, 2010

Orango, sans opus (early 1930s; incomplete) — Unavailable

It’s unrecorded, but then the piano sketches for Shostakovich’s planned satirical opera, Orango, only resurfaced in 2004.  Gerard McBurney, who arranged Declared Dead among other Shostakovich works, has since orchestrated the existing eleven numbers.

This article on G. Schirmer’s site is the best source about the nature of the work that I’ve found so far, and includes a comprehensive outline of the planned work’s story.  This past October’s issue of the journal Tempo also ran an item about Orango by McBurney, though in my non-scholarly haste I haven’t found the full text of the article yet.

It is rather mind-blowing to me that Shostakovich had started work on a previously unknown opera about an ape-human hybrid — the first news that I read of it sounded more than a little rumorous, like the old canard about Shostakovich having shrapnel embedded in his brain that made him hear music when he tilted his head.  But the opera’s premise, by the writer’s Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, parodies the actually-stranger-than-fiction hybridization experiments of Ilya Ivanov and fits a believable agitprop profile:  Orango, created by a French biologist who impregnated his ape mother with human sperm, tracks down his creator in France as a young man, becomes an anti-Communist journalist, and rises in the bourgeois press as his non-human features become more and more pronounced.  The project seems to have died much the same way The Big Lightning did, falling behind schedule and then petering out.  (Ultimately, too, Ivanov was arrested and died in exile, and Starchakov was arrested and shot in 1936.)  Shostakovich did complete a draft for piano of a forty-minute prologue, though, which was to be followed by three acts.

The Schirmer overview notes that the prologue incorporates music from The Bolt and Declared Dead, so I expect the newly found work fits right in with them, not to mention with Poor Columbus, The Big Lightning, Rule, Britannia!, and Hamlet, all of them stage works from the same few years that similarly inhabit the stylistic shadow of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Some Chicago Symphony program notes from this spring state that McBurney’s completion “will be premiered in Lost Angeles in 2011-12”.  I can’t find any other information or press release about that anticipated performance online but I hope it does happen; L.A. is close enough to PDX for a pilgrimage.  I don’t want to run on speculatively about the music sight unseen (or “sound unheard”?), or without reading the couple of scholarly articles on the subject that are out there already, but I have modest expectations for Orango, given its unfinished state, the noted instances of recycling, and the example of the many seemingly similar works above.  (I also hope that the work mostly steps around the landmines of overt racism strewn throughout its premise.)  But even incomplete or fragmentary ideas are ideas I’d like to hear, and the planned plot is just to wild to pass on.  To very loosely paraphrase Bart Simpson:  Finished, shminished; I want my monkey-man opera.

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.