Shostakovich's Bedbug and Haydn's "London" Symphony

Shostakovich: Suite from The Bedbug, Op. 19
Galop: Fire
Foxtrot: Scene at the Square
Wedding Scene
Closing March
Duration: 20 mins.

The Russian avant-garde that preceded Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s was a truly unique period in human history.  Rarely does an artistic climate of such diversity, originality, permissiveness, and experimentation coincide with a period of such utterly complete political revolution.  Central to this cultural milieu is the Russian Futurist movement, obsessed with all things modern, mechanistic, face-paced, urban; they self-consciously courted controversy and recognized no authority (not even that of their rather more fascistic Italian Futurist counterparts).  Among the most influential figures to this movement is playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky.  His career started with poems in the 1912 Russian Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, which is everything you might imagine it to be.  “The past is too tight. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics. [...]  Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.”  Let it not be said that these were aesthetically indecisive people.  

Director Vsevolod Meyerhold staged Mayakovsky’s play The Bedbug (Mayakovsky called it, utterly ridiculously, a “fairy comedy;” it was intended as a satire of the direction of Stalin’s Soviet Union) in Moscow in 1929.  While he initially wanted Sergei Prokofiev to write music, Prokofiev declined; thus it was decided to rely on a younger, emerging Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had never before written for the theater.  It is not clear which, but either Meyerhold or Mayakovsky told the composer that their favorite kind of music was that of fire-fighters’ bands.  This, combined with the young composer’s prodigious knowledge of Western popular music, was just the inspiration he needed to come up with incidental music of altogether striking originality.

Gerard McBurney’s synopsis of the play is as follows:

The year is 1929 itself. A once active communist, Ivan Prisypkin, has done well out of the new NEP [New Economic Policy, relatively permissive for communism] prosperity and has transformed himself into a social-climbing and corrupt little capitalist. He drops his old girlfriend (a good revolutionary girl) and sets his sights on at the daughter of a petty bourgeois lady who runs a beauty salon. To reinforce this ostentatious triumph of NEP values, Prisypkin marries his vulgar young wife in her mother’s salon. The wedding soon gets out of hand, there is a fight, and a fire starts. The firemen are called, but unfortunately not before everyone has been burned to death. In the clearing-up process, Prisypkin’s corpse is missing.

Fifty years pass and it is 1979. Prisypkin is discovered deep-frozen in a cellar and is brought back to life thanks to modern scientific techniques practiced by the Institute of Human Resurrection. Back in the land of the living, Prisypkin takes time to realize that, like Rip van Winkle, he has come back in another age. And because his head is still filled with the nonsense of the NEP era, he keeps disturbing the conventional status quo of the future communist paradise. For example, he introduces a girl to the long defunct concept of “love.”

After many adventures, the citizens of the future eventually gather at the zoo where they succeed in confining this revolting specimen of bourgeoisius vulgaris in a cage, where he is exhibited for the edification of the public alongside another useless specimen of a former life-form long since eradicated by progress, bedbugus normalis.

From the incidental music, Shostakovich extracted a multi-movement suite.  An opening March, surely inspired by the aforementioned fire-fighters’ bands, is a tour-de-force of experimental and satirical harmonies.  Shostakovich subsumes the musical depiction of the fire at the hair salon into a Galop, complete with strikingly forward-looking orchestra effects.  The Scene in the Square is a parody of a Foxtrot, almost Kurt Weill-esque with its harmonic turns and manipulations of the genre.  The Waltz is over almost before it has begun.  The Intermezzo is an outrageously sultry affair, obviously meant to depict the decadence of the NEP era culture by comparing it to Western pop cultural excesses.  The extensive Wedding Scene is ostensibly festive and celebratory its affect, while its ever-changing orchestration and glib effects reveal it to be aware of the absurdity of the situation.  A wedding singer is represented, towards the end of the movement, by a shrill, screeching clarinet.  The Closing March is rather more straightforward and tonal than its counterpart at the opening, bring the work to a close in a manner that is unambiguously humorous and high-spirited.


Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”)

Duration: 30 minutes

As the DePaul orchestras learn to interpret the idiosyncratically unique early works of Dmitri Shostakovich during September and October of this year, one might wonder what a symphony by Joseph Haydn is doing in the midst of this exploration.  How does an Austrian composer of high Viennese classicism bear any relevance to the music of a young Soviet composer, written 150 years and several cultural eons later?

The answer lies in the genre of the symphony itself.  Haydn’s symphonies are the very pinnacle of the ideology of European Enlightenment.  Musical material and the tonal system (itself a result of increased rationalization of society) is harnessed by form and development to produce stunning displays of compositional virtuosity and control of convention.  The developed bourgeois social order is, in a sense, re-affirmed every time such a work is played.  The symphony, as perfected by Haydn, is the artistic triumph of civilized society and its ideals.  Haydn would have no way of knowing that these same ideals would lead to the collapse of Western culture a century and a half later, and that the genre that he created, almost single-handedly, would bear witness and become a testament to this destruction. 

His last symphony may not have been intended to be his swansong in the genre; it was conceived, however, as the finale of a set of twelve symphonies he wrote for German impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, who premiered them in London in 1795 to stunning acclaim and massive success.  Thus, there is a sense of grandiosity and importance about it, which make it a particularly good representative of the genre at its most confident.  Few composers since have felt so at one with their time and place.

The first movement’s obligatory introduction begins with an imposing unison from the entire orchestra that at first sounds celebratory.  It is only in the third bar that we realize that the key is D minor, rather than D major.  The angst-ridden introduction proves to be a ruse; the main theme of the Allegro is in the genial major mode.  The exposition is mono-thematic, like so many Haydn sonata forms (and notably unlike those of his colleague and friend Mozart), so the first theme merely modulates to A major where the second theme sometimes appears, thus giving the work’s form a developmental character right away.  The development section itself hilariously takes as it basis the most bland and unlikely part of the main theme: four repeated notes, which are ingeniously developed before a slithery new theme in the first violins is introduced.  It is one of Haydn’s longest such sections and climaxes with suggestions of the introduction’s melancholy; all instruments go to extremes of their range.  The recapitulation mostly goes as the exposition did; but now the developed four-repeated-notes motif has achieved a place of greater importance than the main theme itself, and the entire orchestra joyfully revels in this triumph of simplicity.

The G major second movement is a set of variations so humorously deformed that it is almost hard to follow as such.  It has as its main subject a stuttering theme heard quietly in the strings – stopping, starting, hiccupping, it patiently plods its way to cadences.  The rest of the orchestra eventually becomes impatient, entering loudly on an insistent D minor.  Though the main theme returns briefly, the full ensemble continues to have its say.  It is only after the trumpets, timpani, and horns are able to state an assertively militaristic figure that the main theme is allowed to return in full.  Even this time it does not proceed uninterrupted.  The bewildered strings wander off into out-of-the way key areas before getting stuck; a flute solo only asks more questions.  The oddly subdued entrance of the timpani signals the final appears of the main theme, now celebratorily accompanied by fanfare figures in the horns.  Though the second violins get in a few more chromatic jabs, the movement ends with relative calm.

The return to D major for the Minuet involves a peasant-like tune featuring insistently and deliciously incorrect accents on beat three of the 3/4 measure.  Hemiolas in the second section and a long-delayed cadence would make it no easier to dance to.  The Trio begins, sensibly enough, in the parallel key of D minor before swerving comically to the key of B-flat via the unadorned common tones of D and F.  Other than that, the Trio is galant, gentile, and harmless; the Minuet is repeated without incident.

The tour-de-force last movement, also in D major, begins with a theme reminiscent of the Croatian folksong "Oj, Jelena, Jelena, jabuka zelena” ("Oh, Helen, Helen, green apple of mine") over a pedal D in the horns.  The very choice of melody is a triumph of Enlightenment encyclopedism -- contained within the grandest, most cosmopolitan of genres is a street melody from a far-off province.   The second violins soon add a playful countermelody that features a five-note ascending pattern.  (Strangely, it this five-note figure that the exposition seems most interesting in developing -- the main theme only appearing again, fragmentarily, as part of the closing material.)  After a jubilant tutti, a hesitant, ominous slowly descending line in the strings stands in the place one might have expected a second theme.  The exposition closes joyfully, though, and the entire thing is repeated.  The development section does very little with the opening theme, though the five-note figure makes an appearance.  Alone in a distant key area, the strings and woodwinds seem to get lost in the ominous music from the exposition; in one of the symphony’s funniest moments, though, a deceptive resolution turns out to place us unceremoniously in the home key: D major.  The recapitulation dutifully puts all of the exposition’s music in this correct key, but its final cadence is abruptly interrupted.  One of Haydn’s longest and most life-affirming codas ensues -- the folk-tune is finally played fortissimo by the whole orchestra, accompanied by earthy chords in the low register of the bassoon and horns -- a hurdy-gurdy or bagpipe, perhaps.  The composer’s final symphony ends boisterously.

So well-constructed is the form of this symphony that, more than 200 years later, it sounds perfect to us, almost natural.  Such an impression, unfortunately, does not do justice to the mastery of its composition, nor to the problems of our reception of it.  The more one is able to engage deeply, thoughtfully with every moment of the work, the more profound will one's experience be, and the more clear it will become that Haydn, truly, was a composer of great genius.