Shostakovich: The Nose

performed by the “Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra Of The Moscow Chamber Theatre” and the Leningrad Philharmonic under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, or below (in English) by the Royal Opera conducted by Ingo Metzmacher

The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action…It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it.

Shostakovich’s The Nose is the only opera I’ll be discussing this month for which I have actually read the original work, in this case Gogol’s Нос, or ‘The Nose.’ There are pretty great English translations available online and the story isn’t terribly long. It’s a pretty absurd, disturbing, nightmarish story about a guy (a government official in St. Petersburg) who wakes up missing his nose, it having literally up and left his face to go start a life of its own, and the resulting attempts to restore normalcy to the poor main character. It’s a very enjoyable story of its own, but Shostakovich takes the work, wrings it out concentrates it, and slaps us in the face with everything uncomfortable and absurd about it.

It may shock you to know (sarcasm) that Shostakovich’s work is a satire, as he states, apparently “of the times of Alexander I.” Shostakovich wrote the opera in 1927-28, meaning he was, as Chris Addison puts it in the above video, an “irritatingly young” 22 or so upon its completion, in fact his first opera, “fresh from the success of his first… symphony.” He wrote the libretto himself, with the assistance of a few others.

In fact, the first nine minutes or so of the above YouTube video makes for a wonderful little introduction to the opera, discussing how the young composer took Gogol and then, as Addison puts it, bits and pieces of Dostoyevsky and others and mashes them together and creates his opera. Do watch at least those first ten minutes of the video.

I decided to include the work in this month’s lineup for a few reasons. For one, it’s Shostakovich and I tend really to enjoy his stuff.

Second, it’s accessible from the standpoint of being based on a relatively short, famous story by Nikolai Gogol, English translations of which are easy to find, and in that story, music and visual elements aside, the surrealist, fantastical aspects of the work come through loud and clear, a mark of an excellent storyteller, as Gogol is known to be. Shostakovich, though, takes these elements of the grotesque and surreal and political and ratchets them up to a wild level of intensity.

If you’re looking for a nice PDF version of Gogol’s The Nose, you can find one here. I can’t speak to the exquisiteness of the translation, but it’s the one I read. That aside, some familiarity with the previous operas we’ve discussed (from Berg and Debussy) as well as with Shostakovich’s work around this time (like his first symphony) may collectively offer a good primer on what you can expect from this work.

Thirdly, it’s a rather fantastical story, really, kind of an incomprehensible thing that would never happen in real life, but something that might seem perfectly ‘logical’ and truly terrifying in a dream, having to deal with the horrors of your nose deciding it wants nothing to do with your face anymore. And by extension, then, it also has very literary implications, symbolism, powerfully communicating societal ideas and dynamics. I love that kind of stuff.

Lastly, though, in a musical sense, it takes something from Berg’s Wozzeck, which we discussed last week. For one, just listening the music is quite harsh to the ear, challenging in a way that Berg’s work wasn’t. It’s a representation of the atmosphere. One could easily present this as a serious work of drama, a tragedy to be resolved, as someone like Tchaikovsky may have done. After all, Gogol’s source work was completed in 1836, almost a century before Shostakovich decided to pick it up, but approaching it with the acrid, biting sarcasm and vulgarity of the scoring drives home (into the heart, like a spike) the idea that this is a satire. I’ll also have you know that Gogol’s story and the play from which Berg drew, Woyzeck, were completed the same year, in 1836!

That aside, Shostakovich draws inspiration from Berg (as Berg himself did from Debussy, one might say) in another way, eschewing the typical operatic elements of arias and trios and all the rest with a straightforward presentation of the music, instead using more standard orchestral-music constructs, like canons and quartets.

The quote that opened this article was a statement from the composer expressing his disappointment at a concert performance given of only the work’s music. At a listen, you may also find that it is gratingly harsh, dare I say even unenjoyable (as in ‘not enjoyable’, not ‘impossible to enjoy’) without the visual element, the actions which the music underpins. That is a legitimate concern, and I’m sure a live performance of this work would do it far more justice.

That concert performance was given in 1929, to an expected unfavorable response; it was given against the composer’s wishes. The stage premiere of the opera was given the following year, on January 18, 1930, under Samuil Samosud, in Leningrad. It seems to have gotten an overall poor response but within a six-month period (the six months following the premiere? I don’t know) it got 16 performance from two separate casts, but would then go almost half a century until being performed again in the Soviet Union, in 1974, in the meantime being premiered in the U.S. in 1965. The 1974 performance, conducted by Rozhdestvensky, comes from what the conductor claims was the last surviving score of the work, which he found in the Bolshoi Theatre. That sounds quite fortuitous, doesn’t it?

Even taking the English version of the opera (which Addison above warns is ‘a bit sweary’, and it is) as canon, before a word has been spoken, we instantly get an idea of what this piece is going to be like. If you’ve read the Gogol work, you may have an idea of the kind of terrifying absurdity, the vulgarity and nightmarish comedy that a story like this could easily produce.

In just these first few seconds, we realize we have no overture, and the almost circus-like beginning is accompanied by the initial shaving scene, and the barber’s stinky hands (“У тебя, Иван Яковлевич, вечно воняют руки!“). This same poor man, Ivan Yakovlevich, wakes the next morning and chats with his wife as she kneads dough, only to find a nose in what would eventually be their breakfast, or lunch. (Granted, in Gogol’s story, it was bread already baked, but the kneading scene in the above opera is quite nice visually, as it gives an action with plenty of movement.)

You’ll have to go read the book or watch the opera for the rest of the story, but I want to take this first little development in the story, its real exposition, to talk briefly about the truly terrifying aspects of this work, and with more credit to Gogol’s original work, obviously.

In the next scene, Ivan tries to dispose of the nose in some inconspicuous yet thorough manner, exculpating himself, washing his hands of it. Remember, now, that he is indeed entirely innocent, even a victim himself, having woken to find a nose in his wife’s culinary efforts. It’s like a dream, isn’t it? This absolutely fantastical unbelievable thing, suddenly and decisively changing the course of your morning, and later, as we shall see, your life, like the dreams that some of us have had about being in public (usually at school) and realizing only at some point into the day that you aren’t wearing pants.

It weighs on him, haunts him, drives him almost instantly a little crazy, as paranoia sets in. And this is to say nothing of Major Kovalyov, his customer, to whom the nose belongs, waking up to realize his nose has absconded from his face. You can get a quick summary of the three parts of the story from Wikipedia. But that’s all we’re really going to say about the story. It’s a wild one.

I will talk briefly, I guess, though, about Shostakovich’s choice of the work. In the above Wikipedia article, there is a brief statement describing Gogol’s overall work, stating that during his time in St. Petersburg, “Gogol’s works were primarily focused on surrealism and the grotesque, with a romantic twist.” If you’ve listened to other works from Shostakovich, it might not be hard to hear how this description fits him, and how something like this might appeal. Indeed, the opening of the first symphony gives us some idea of the flavor, the color palate that the composer might be working with, an atmosphere just slightly removed from true terror.

Music

As I mentioned earlier, in concordance with the composer’s own sentiments, I really feel this is in no way a work to be listened to, but watched. Perhaps I felt differently about Wozzeck because the music, while powerful, and at times wild and violent, is overall terribly moving, gripping; one feels that the old soul of Mahler hangs around in the background, pleased. Also, I’ve watched Wozzeck (online) a few times. Listening to The Nose without having watched it can be a rough affair.

Shostakovich unabashedly drives home the absurdist, surrealist, grotesque elements of the work, like a spike through our foreheads, right into the brain. It’s almost grating, for large swaths. It’s military-esque, with side drum or piccolo, little caricatures of marches or brass fanfares, a splash of a sentimental violin solo, slaps and cracks from percussion, farts from trombone, on and on.

As negative as that may sound, it’s not, making the work overall almost unbearably true to the artists’ intentions, be it Gogol or Shostakovich. I wonder if Gogol, having written the work a century before Shostakovich penned his opera, and thus familiar with only the earliest of the Romantic era, if any German-based classical music at all, wouldn’t still instantly love Shostakovich’s adaptation for how powerfully absurd it really is.

What I mean to say is that music isn’t always meant to be pretty, or even enjoyable in the traditional sense. If there were one word, maybe, that I could accept as to what music is to accomplish, I’d say perhaps ‘moving.’ That could be emotionally, it could be cerebrally, but in any sense, it is to create a response. That response here is likely not swooning romance or the choking back of tears, but it suits the subject matter unquestionably. It is fitting for the music, and therefore an outstanding success.

Staging

Just the music aside, as grating and acrid as it is, the real focus, as with any opera, is on the action, the story itself. In just listening to the music, even understanding the text, we are missing out on a significant portion of the piece if we don’t know the accompanying actions and gestures that take place in that scene. I’m referring to the Royal Opera performance here, which is arguably a bit radical, but I think the composer may have enjoyed it. I do have a link to another performance of the work below.

For example, immediately after our poor barber Ivan Yakovlevich is arrested by the official for disposing of the nose, we come upon this scene:

(the above should begin at about 19:11)

The curtain opens to reveal wild dancing, almost tribal-like rhythmic drums, ritualistic in a kind of scary way, performing their dance around none other than an enormous nose sitting on a hospital, institution-like twin bed. Granted, that’s just this production of the opera, as the below (very small-scale, perhaps chamber-sized) production, in Russian, from the early 70s or so (with the composer in attendance!) obviously doesn’t give the same grotesque cabaret sacrificial dance that The Royal Opera did:

That being said, whatever the decision is in those passages, it hopefully matches the music and forwards the story. By this point, below, Kovalyov has awaken, found his nose missing, and that it is now living its own life:

And then obviously, if you know about the tap-dancing noses….

But as for the rest, you’ll have to ‘enjoy’ it yourself. It’s truly absurd.

Similarities

I think it’s interesting to see what parallels can be drawn across some of the works we have discussed thus far, the ‘bigger’ ones. Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle formed their own little pair, but Debussy’s only opera was very influential in its own way, again aside from Wagner’s hold on the form. After that came Wozzeck, a work which clearly had an influence on this piece. We see it not so much in the actual subject matter as the atmosphere and approach. We talked about this above, but at this point I’m assuming you finished watching it so we can talk about it in slightly more familiar terms.

They both encompass an uncomfortableness, a harshness, but in different ways. Berg’s work makes us uncomfortable in a philosophical manner, caustically dissolving the foundations of the little world we are presented with so that it crumbles and gives way, a deeply disturbing approach. Shostakovich is at least as uncomfortable, but in a way that gives us more satire and uncomfortable comedy than paralyzing fear.

Conclusion?

What are you looking for in an opera? I’ve been on about this one for some time now, with no real insights. I’d say it’s a youthful work, but that’s not to say ‘immature’, necessarily. It’s got a forwardness to it, a wildness uninhibited by any sense of restraint or timidity or anything like that. Again, we can compare it to his symphonies, which also have these maniacal, crazed, comical but also sometimes diseased passages in them. They are, however, tempered by either the heft or sorrow or seriousness of other passages or movements, so that the whole, overall, is a powerful, serious work. Shostakovich goes all out here, and it may not surprise to you know that this work was easily misunderstood and not very readily welcomed for some time, and probably (unfortunately) not because the satire hit home. Who knows?

There are yet more words to write, discussing the literary aspects of this work, but I must stop myself. I really love this story, and while I can’t listen to this work in the same way I listen to Pelléas or Wozzeck, it’s a captivating work, a world easy to get lost in, and with no more than that, it can be said to be successful.

Phew. We’ve only got one  more opera left to go this week. This one was technically in Russian despite featuring the English performance at the Royal Opera, but we have an original English work for next week, to round out the series. We’ve had French, German, Hungarian, Russian, and finally English? Any guesses? Stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.

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