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Dramatizing Shostakovich


The young Dmitri

The Emerson String Quartet will collaborate with seven actors in a new theatrical realization, “Shostakovich and The Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy” at the Seiji Ozawa Hall on Wednesday, July 19th at 8 PM. Co-commissioned by Tanglewood Music Festival, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival and Princeton University Concerts, the concept premiered at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival on last month. James Glossman, wrote and directed this timely and interesting discourse on the suppressive influence on culture in Stalin’s Russia. A fantasy based on Shostakovich’s 50-year obsession with creating an opera from Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The Black Monk,” this musical play treats the composer’s life-long struggle for freedom and sanity against his own demons. Described by James Glossman as a “Valentine to the human spirit,” it reflects on the sarcastic Russian reactions which often inspired Shostakovich.

The writer-adapter and the founding violinist from the quartet both responded to our questions.

BMInt: Phil, how did this project come about?

Philip Setzer: Chekhov wrote, “When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads in life: if you go to the right, the wolves will eat you; if you go left, you’ll eat the wolves; if you go straight, you’ll eat yourself.”  This is a perfect description of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, as well as the character Kovrin in Chekhov’s story, “The Black Monk.”I didn’t know this Chekhov story until my friend, Gerard McBurney, mentioned it years ago during our work together with his brother, Simon, on another music/theater collaboration about Shostakovich, “The Noise of Time.”  Gerard told me that Shostakovich loved the story and had long planned to write an opera based on it—a project that never came to fruition.  I filed this information in the “that might be interesting to explore someday” part of my brain.

I have admired James Glossman’s work as a director, writer and actor for many years. In the course of our friendship, we’ve often talked about wanting to collaborate on something.  Last year, I told him about Shostakovich and The Black Monk, and he loved the idea of trying to create something together.  Jim gives me much more credit than my role in this project warrants.  I may have planted the seed, but he took that idea and wrote a brilliant script, masterfully interweaving Shostakovich’s life with the Chekhov story.  

Some would argue that Shostakovich’s music is quite figurative by itself. How would you describe the genre of your production in comparison to that?

Glossman: What we are attempting to do in this production is to uncover and explore certain theatrical/dramatic extensions and parallels for these particular works of Shostakovich, which might then, in performance, evoke certain aspects of his life and work for an audience. The intent is for the music of the quartet and the dramatic performance by the ensemble of actors to work in tandem to create, for the audience, perhaps a taste, a visceral sense, of the struggle to create, over decades, a life’s work under seemingly impossible pressures.

Setzer: The word “figurative” is an interesting one.  It has two dictionary meanings:  

  • departing from a literal use of words; metaphorical, and
  • representing forms that are recognizably derived from life.

In a sense, Shostakovich’s music clearly fits both definitions.  Our theater piece could also be defined both ways.  First of all, our production is presented as if it comes from Shostakovich’s mind.  It is his fantasy, his fascination with the Chekhov story, his nightmares and ghosts, and, of course, his music.  That music is both derived from his life and is metaphorical in the sense that it represents his artistic reaction to the horrors that he witnessed–sometimes cooperated withand often fought against as best he could, under the circumstances. 

The story of those horrors—and of Shostakovich’s relationship with the Soviet regime—is by now pretty well known. What does his interest in a somewhat bizarre story by Chekhov add to that?

Glossman: Through exploring Shostakovich’s long-term fascination with Chekhov’s haunting 19th-century parable of madness vs sanity, implicitly (and at times explicitly) juxtaposed by Chekhov with questions of Freedom vs conformity, we begin to find, in our speculative music-theater piece, a series of thematic “sidelights” that throw into high relief the composer’s struggles both with Stalin and his oppressive regime, as well as with the irresistible ravages of time and his own body as well.

Setzer: One of the most interesting aspects of telling this story is addressing and exploring the fact that Shostakovich was fascinated, if not obsessed with, The Black Monk.  What Jim Glossman has so effectively accomplished is to interweave Shostakovich’s own story with the Chekhov in a way that has one reflect the other.  It should be clear by the end that, if the black monk is the figure of death and/or the devil, clearly Stalin is that and something much more horrific in Shostakovich’s mind.   Another thing to keep in mind is that both Shostakovich and Chekhov never lost their senses of humor, as acerbic, sarcastic or subtle as they may have been.

Compared to the high drama of some of the earlier quartets, the 14th is a relatively low key piece. What was the trigger that started your exploration of its context?

Setzer: It’s true that the 14th Quartet is not as overtly dramatic or tragic as, say, the 3rd, 8th, 13th or 15th quartets, but there is great sadness in the slow movement, the music of which recurs at the end of the whole quartet (and the end of our production).   It does end in the key of F-sharp major and there is a sense of redemption, but it is also elegiac and very touching.  As with most of Shostakovich’s music, there are some terrifying moments (in the 1st and last movements), in which he lifts his mask a shows us the terror underneath.

Glossman: It might only be useful for me to add that, when Phil first suggested our beginning to work on the development of this performance, he had already found a number of strong suggestions within both the music and the literature for building our piece around the 14th—and as soon as I first re-read the Chekhov while listening to a recording of that quartet, I felt immediately and powerfully that this was absolutely the right choice.

There is a connection between the quartet and the story via the Italian theme, which is not at all typical for DSCH quartets.

Setzer:  Shostakovich refers to “that Italian thing” in the 14th Quartet and, of  course, this seems clearly to be influenced by Braga’s “Angel’s Serenade” which is referred to by Chekhov in the story and would have been part of the opera.  We know this because we have an arrangement of the Braga made by Shostakovich, so it seems clear that he was planning to include it in the opera.  The song is very beautiful, seemingly almost too sweet, but if you look at the lyrics, it’s a kind of “Death and the Maiden” story with a young girl telling her mother she hears voices singing and calling to her.  Her mother can’t hear it and sends the music back to the angels.  It’s a bit creepy actually, and perhaps this intrigued Shostakovich (as it might have intrigued Chekhov as well).  

We perform the Braga in our own version, for soprano and string quartet. (We’re fortunate that Ali Breneman, the actress who plays Tanya, has such a lovely singing voice.) Other excerpts from the Shostakovich string quartets are drawn upon to complement both stories —Shostakovich’s and Chekhov’s. I found it surprisingly easy to find the right music for the action, using certain sections and sometimes repeating them, much the way good film music functions.  

This reminds one of ‘Shostakovich light’, his highly ambivalent persona as a film composer.

Setzer: Shostakovich did write some “light” music for films, but he also wrote great music for Hamlet and King Lear and was extremely good at it.  I tried to use his music, at times, in this way.  Interestingly, it is, of course, also the way music functions in an opera (in between the songs).

I believe that some of the music that was in Shostakovich’s head for the opera ended up in the 14th and 15th string quartets.  He simply didn’t have the time or strength to write out a whole opera score.  The swirling music in the Recitative and the Epilogue of the 15th strikes me as Black Monk music.  And so that’s how we decided to use this music.  We play the 14th in its entirety, but not continuously.  The 1st movement is played as an overture, most of the 2nd movement as a musical dialogue with Irina Shostakovich’s monologue about her husband, and the end of the 2nd, continuing into the 3rd and last movement, follows the end of the Chekhov story and, eventually, arrives at the end of Shostakovich’s story as well.

Glossman: There is certainly a connection between the manner in which Shostakovich often used his music in the service of a theatrical narrative in his film and theater work, and much of this work has great authority and power, particularly, of course, in some of the Shakespeare adaptations.  The composer’s relationship with—and feelings about—this work, and all the vast volume of work he undertook throughout his life in order somehow to thread the often microscopic needle between “survival” and “achievement,” is very much the spine, the creative core, of “The Black Monk: A Russian Fantasy.”

Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.

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