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Hypothetically murdered, Op 31a

reconstruction and orchestration

Hypothetically Murdered, Shostakovich's Op 31, opened the Music Hall's new season in the autumn of 1931. Among the talents the show brought together were not only Shostakovich, Utiosov and Dunaevsky, but also the well known choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov (for whom Shostakovich wrote his ballets The Bolt and The Limpid Stream) as well as the director Nikolai Petrov, the popular actors Coralli and Claudia Shulzenklo, and one of the great Leningrad stars of the day, the performing dog, Alpha (a German Shepherd, who, to judge by the poster, danced in a tutu). This was a deliberately starry line-up and was, it seems, an attempt on the part of the theatre's management to get the public to take the Music Hall more seriously.

In one sense the ruse worked. The public came to the show and enjoyed it. But the critics, especially the more left-wing critics, were scathing. They objected to the conjunction of slapstick and the presentation of seriously political issues. They also noted that Alpha had barked loudly from beginning to end of the evening. After its initial run, the show was not revived. At some point, probably during the Siege of Leningrad, the full-score, parts and libretto disappeared. All that survive now are some posters and photographs of the show and, in the Shostakovich papers, a folder with around 40 pages of detailed piano sketches, complete with instrumental indications in the margin.

From this we can get some idea of what the show was about. Apparently the Tea-Jazz Ensemble was on stage, taking part in the action and probably playing its own repertoire. Shostakovich's contribution was the music for the pit-orchestra, conducted by Dunaevsky. Most of Shostakovich's surviving sketches are either big dance-numbers or smaller scene-changes and transitions. There are also a handful of vocal and choral pieces and a spectacularly extended melodeclamation for the actor Coralli and orchestra. Coralli half-sang, half-recited this piece (a parody political speech on the subject of industrial sabotage) while sitting on a huge pile of broken-down locomotives; a photograph of this survives.

The story of the show, provided by the comedy-writers Evgeny Ryss and Vsevolod Voevodin, was certainly a ludicrous combination of satire and agitprop. The actions takes place during a Citizen's Defence Corps air-raid practice (like a sort of Soviet Dad's Army). One of the characters, apparently played by Utiosov himself, decides not to participate as he would rather go and see his girlfriend. The Citizen's Defence Corps reckon that he should be one of those playing the part of someone hypothetically murdered by the hypothetical enemy (a hypothetical casualty of war, as it were). But he refuses to lie down and play dead, hypothetically or otherwise, and instead runs off with the Corps in hot pursuit and leaving chaos in his wake.

Apparently the show began with a silent film showing Utiosov being chased through the streets of Leningrad by Alpha (perhaps this was what the orchestra gallop was used to accompany; or perhaps there was music here that is now missing). The film suddenly ended and the real-life Utiosov ran on to the stage pursued by the real-life Alpha, and saved himself by climbing up a ladder in the middle of the stage, while Alpha stood at the bottom and barked. To judge by the titles in Shostakovich's hand, the rest of Act 1 seems to have been set in the countryside outside Leningrad and to have involved extensive military manoeuvres, a scene in a field hospital and even an underwater dance (presumably of russalki or water-nymphs).

Act II was evidently set inside the city and much of the action took place in a restaurant. Photographs show us that there was a chorus of dancing waiters and waitresses, all dressed in white-tie and tails and wearing gas-masks.

The last act seems to have been an atheist cabaret set somewhere in heaven, with dancing angels and saucy cherubim. Most of the surviving choral music in the work came at this point and was for the angels, who kept breaking out into ridiculous chants of "Holy! Holy! Holy!". There was also an appearance by Mephistopheles who sang part of the Song of the Golden Calf from Gounod's Faust (with wrong harmonies) as well as a Bacchanalia for two well-known saints, John of Kronstadt (a late 19th century figure) and Paraskeva Piatnitsa, an early Christian martyr.

The Orchestral Suite Op 31a consists of all the complete surviving orchestral numbers from the folder of piano sketches. In reconstructing and reorchestrating them, I was guided by the other theatre music Shostakovich was writing at the time, and by the lists of instruments he scribbled in the margins of his sketches. However in some cases, and this is one of the principal reasons why this piece is so interesting, episodes and even whole movements were reused by the composer in other later works, enabling me to work out more precisely what the composer must have wanted.

The fact that Shostakovich reused so much of the material clearly shows that he himself thought that this music was worth saving. It certainly wasn't just something he knocked off without paying attention. For example, as Mark Elder was the first to spot, the composer actually incorporated the Act 3 Bacchanalia in its entirety into one of his greatest works, Lady Macbeth, where it becomes the Rape of Aksinia in Act 1. So to reconstruct that piece in this version, all I had to do was to reduce the luxurious orchestration of the operatic passage to the smaller forces of Hypothetically Murdered.

Part of Waitresses also appears in Lady Macbeth, in the celebrated love-scene from Act 1, and almost the whole of Waitresses and the Transition to the Kitchen reappear, with slight changes, in the unfinished comic opera The Big Lightning. The Archangel Gabriel's number is famously quoted in the First Piano Concerto; in this original version, however, the tune lies too low for the trumpet and I have given it to the saxophone. The beginning and end of March from Act 1 were reused as the March of Fortinbras in a production of Hamlet that was the next thing that Shostakovich worked on after Hypothetically Murdered. I only needed to find new orchestral garb for a few bars in the middle.

For the rest I had to rely on my intuition. I hope that I have caught the spirit, if not the letter of Shostakovich's intentions.

from notes by Gerard McBurney © 2004


Shostakovich: Hypothetically Murdered & other works
SIGCD051Download only


Act 1 Part 1 No 1: Transition to the field hospital
Act 1 Part 1 No 2: Gallop
Act 1 Part 1 No 3: Transition to the field
Act 1 Part 1 No 4: The field 'Landscape'
Act 1 Part 2 No 1: Polka
Act 1 Part 2 No 2: March
Act 1 Part 2 No 3: The river bed
Act 1 Part 2 No 4: Finale to Act 1: Dance of the temporary victors
Act 2 No 1: Introduction to Act 2 'Petrushka'
Act 2 No 2: Petrushka 'Garmoshka'
Act 2 No 3: Storm
Act 2 No 4: The arrival of the lorry
Act 2 No 5: Dance
Act 2 No 6: Transition to the kitchen 'Jugglers and waitresses'
Act 2 No 7: Waitresses
Act 3 No 1: Paradise I: The flight of the cherubim
Act 3 No 2: Paradise II: The flight of the angels
Act 3 No 3: Adagio
Act 3 No 4: Bacchanalia of John of Kronstadt and Paraskeva Piatnitsa
Act 3 No 5: Waltz
Act 3 No 6: The Archangel Gabriel's number

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