The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s spring festival programming provides an important moment for musical reflection and learning across the city of Chicago. From a focus on particular composer, such as Beethoven or Dvořák in recent years, to engagement with broader concepts, including pianos and last season’s Rivers Festival, the celebrations include special concert programming, lectures, panel discussions, educational programming for schools and students, and events both at Symphony Center and in schools and community settings. This spring, the Truth to Power Festival focuses on the music and actions of composers Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and Benjamin Britten. Throughout the festival, the CSO will perform works by all three composers, with free pre-concert lectures that help to provide context to the thought process of each composer, and the cultural situations that they had found themselves in.
Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich all believed that artists should serve society by creating music that would inspire justice and fairness. In a time of such great oppression, these composers embodied an aspect of citizen musicianship: using music as a way to stir nations toward hope and a brighter future, and celebrating music’s ability to connect people and harness the power of shared experience.
Shostakovich provides a particularly interesting case – in addition to his already large output of published works, so many of his works were either abandoned or lost, and then rediscovered. Gerard McBurney, a composer and arranger – and artistic programming advisor at the CSO – has been called upon multiple times to recreate Shostakovich’s lost or unfinished work. We spoke with him about his experiences in reconstructing some of Shostakovich’s compositions.
Can you describe your experiences with reconstructing Shostakovich’s “lost” works?
In 1984, I went to the Soviet Union to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where I studied composition with Edison Denisov. Denisov was my first great orchestration teacher, which was very important for my work in Shostakovich, because Denisov was a pupil of Shostakovich himself.
While in Moscow, I connected with Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who gave me sketches of a lost musical, “Hypothetically Murdered,” by Shostakovich from 1931. At this point in my career, I had already reconstructed and arranged various unfinished pieces of Shostakovich’s, which helped prompt Rozhdestvensky’s request. I was able to take Shostakovich’s sketches, and eventually reconstructed about 45 minutes of the musical, which was later premiered by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and later performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms – both of which were conducted by Mark Elder. That performance helped spark an interest in reconstructing lost works of Shostakovich.
The timing of your work was great in a cultural and historical sense.
Yes, I was lucky because it coincided with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a huge interest in Shostakovich at the time, and people began to be fascinated by him and his work.
How did your experience with reconstructing “Hypothetically Murdered” impact your further work with Shostakovich’s compositions?
I received a personal request from Shostakovich’s widow, Irina Shostakovich, to orchestrate his 1950’s composition, Moscow, Cheryomushki – a musical comedy, which is a genre that you wouldn’t expect Shostakovich to write for. That was another step in my Shostakovich journey because this piece took off –there was now a sort of hunger for this sort of thing.
How did you come across your latest reconstruction project?
I was in my studio at the CSO when I received a phone call from Mrs. Shostakovich in Moscow, saying that they had discovered the sketch of part of a full-scale opera from 1932. The opera was supposed to be commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater as their contribution to the 15th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 1932 was a very important year in Soviet history because of this anniversary, and also because this is the period when Stalin shifts his attention from the genocidal collectivization program from the countryside to the reorganization of urban life – and in particular, the repression of the intelligentsia. The clamping down on artists, journalists, teachers, doctors, scientists, etc. So it’s a very complicated, violent and brutal moment.
The piece itself, called Orango, was a satirical prologue of a four-act opera, depicting the adventures of a creature that was half-ape, half-man and was the product of biological engineering. The timing of this was not that surprising, because ‘King Kong’ had just come out. But this piece was clearly outrageously and horrifyingly funny at the same time. Orango is the anti-hero, but in the course of the prologue, the Earth shifts on its axis, and by the end we see vast crowds of the human race as utterly monstrous. It depicts human beings as utterly absurd.
What I imagine happened – but can’t be confirmed – is that Shostakovich and his partners presented the prologue, and the project was immediately clamped down and nothing further happened. At the time, he was in the middle of one of his greatest works – the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District – and so he continued working, and never spoke of Orango again. It was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2004 by my friend Olga Digonskaya, a Russian musicologist, and Mrs. Shostakovich brought it to me to reconstruct.
Can you explain a little bit of your process of reconstructing Orango?
I received a copy of the manuscript, and actually found it quite difficult to work on. I did most of the work here in my studio, and it took me about a year and half to get it in the shape that I wanted it to be. Not because it’s terribly long – although it does involve a large orchestra and chorus with a lot of soloists – but it’s not the same as writing your own music. If you write your own music, you make up your mind about what it’s going to be. If you’re working on someone else’s music, you have to go into a very strange place. You have to channel the composer, and go into that composer’s inner world and say “I know what I would do here, but what would that composer have done?” To do that, you need to know what the composer did with their lives, and you need to know their process – how they solved problems, and how they orchestrated things.
The Truth to Power Festival starts May 22 and continues until June 8, and will feature multiple works of Shostakovich as well as free pre-concert lectures. For more information, visit cso.org/truthtopower.
PHOTO: Alfred Schnittke and McBurney in 1989.