“Hypothetically Murdered”. Music to the Variety Circus Show
Leningrad Music Hall; directed by Nikolai Petrov and conducted by Isaak Dunayevsky. Soloists: Klavdia Shulzhenko, Leonid Utyosov.
Moscow, Sovetsky kompozitor, 1977
TSGALI SPb, rec. gr. 378, inv. 1, f. 168; RSALA, rec. gr. 2048, inv. 2, f. 45
Music to the Variety Circus Show
The music to the variety circus show Hypothetically Murdered (also translated as Conditionally Killed) based on a play by Vsevolod Voyevodin and Yevgeni Ryss, Op. 31, was written for a show of the same name performed at the Leningrad Music Hall.
The music hall was a new phenomenon in the theatrical life of revolutionary Russia. The first theatre of this type was organized in Moscow in 1927. The Music Hall in Leningrad opened in December 1928.
The Soviet Music Hall was assigned the task of creating ‘thematically pertinent narrative shows’ based on a variety of so-called small stage art forms. Since this type of show was somewhat at odds with the natural entertainment genre, the music hall immediately became a target of constant critical attacks and various types of creative and administrative reforms. In 1931, a new director, Mikhail Padvo, was appointed to ‘bolster the leadership’ of the Leningrad Music Hall.
The themes of the first show of the new season were to be ‘the defence potential of our country, unification of the front and the rear, Osoaviakhim and AD tasks’.
Preparations to repulse the potential enemy, particularly in terms of defence from air attacks and gas attacks, constantly featured in the slogans of Soviet propaganda at the end of the 1920s. In the ceremonial parades at the May Day demonstrations, the workers marched in gas masks, and simulated bombings became a customary phenomenon on the city streets, causing quite a lot of inconvenience for those who left the house without any ‘means of protection’…
The new realities of life were also immediately reflected in the literature. The hero of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov’s extremely popular satirical novel The Little Golden Calf (1931!), charming trickster and knight of fortune, the ‘great conman’ Ostap Bender, for example, found himself precisely in the midst of such mock exercises and gas attacks when he set off for his crucial meeting with underground millionaire Alexander Koreiko: ‘At that moment, a group of people wearing gas masks ran up. ‘Comrade, you’ve been gas poisoned,’ one of the rubber mugs said to him gleefully. ‘You’re in the contamination zone! A gas bomb’s been dropped, you see.’ Ostap silently and angrily thrashed about in an attempt to get away. But six masks were already holding him. ‘What’s more, comrade, you’ve been wounded in the arm by shrapnel. Keep your wits about you! You know that exercises are going on.’ A Komsomol woman with a red cross on her apron ran up to the great conman. She pulled some bandages and cotton wool out of her canvas bag and, frowning to stop herself from bursting out laughing, she bound up the conman’s arm over his jacket sleeve. Ostap was pulled towards the stretchers.’ Gas shelter No. 34, to which conditionally poisoned Bender was taken, was in a club building, in a semi-basement with a small stage and poster that read ‘We don’t want war, but we are willing to put up a fight!’
The plotline of Voyevodin and Ryss’ play is amazingly close to the episode from Ilf and Petrov’s novel. During a rendezvous on one of Leningrad’s streets, its heroes—Stopka Kurochkin and Mashenka Funtikova—find themselves in a training air alert zone. Stopka is told that he has been ‘hypothetically murdered’, and he is grabbed with the intention of being placed on a stretcher. Stopka takes to his heels … disappearing into the circus’ big top, while Mashenka gets into a fight with the “medical orderlies”. As the story unfolds, the characters who escape during the chase find themselves involved in a series of comical situations, both realistic and fantastical: in a posh restaurant, in the kitchen, on the bottom of a river, in a train depot, and even in paradise…
The Music Hall’s main group of musicians was Leonid Utyosov’s Tea Jazz (theatrical jazz band), the participants of which played, in particular, the role of the twelve Apostles. Uprising stars of the Soviet stage and cinema participated in the show: Klavdia Shulzhenko, Vladimir Koralli, Stepan Kayukov, artists N. Akimov, V. Dmitriyev, and E. Okorokov, ballet masters F. Lopukhov and N. Glan, and director-laboratory worker of the circus numbers E. Gershuni. Isaac Dunayevsky, the future writer of Soviet song classics, was the director of the music section and head conductor of the theatre.
The story of how Shostakovich’s music for Hypothetically Murdered was written is rather unusual. The composer was already acquainted with both Utyosov and Dunayevsky by this time, and often frequented the theatre. But the claim in the literature that Shostakovich came to the Music Hall on Dunayevsky’s initiative is doubtful. According to Klavdia Shulzhenko’s reminiscences, a small group of preference lovers formed backstage in the theatre: Shostakovich, Dunayevsky, and Padvo. ‘They usually gathered late in the evening or right after the performance in the director’s office and began playing cards,’ recalls the singer. ‘Sometimes they would play until morning, and sometimes even longer. Once … Dmitri Dmitriyevich was having the worst luck: he totally wiped himself out.
“I bet twenty numbers for your show,’ he offered the director. ‘He lost.
“Another twenty!’ he said. And again lost.’
So, according to the memoir-writer and participant in the events, Shostakovich owed forty numbers for Opus 31 as compensation for his card debt.
The precise time the music was composed is not known. But as early as the announcement published on 20 August 1931, Shostakovich is presented as the show’s composer. So the music to the variety circus show Hypothetically Murdered was most likely composedin the summer of 1931.
Nikolai Vassilyevich Petrov (his stage pseudonym was Kolya Peter) was an outstanding director who had immense experience by that time with working in Russia’s variety theatres (The Bat, The Stray Dog, The Comedians’ Rest Break, The Slapstick Comedy cabaret, and others).
Judging from the memoirs, the show participants worked on Hypothetically Murdered with great enthusiasm. Shostakovich composed two songs for Shulzhenko-Mashenka. ‘It was easy to sing his songs,’ says the singer. ‘They were big hits, which invariably aroused laughter and applause from the audience. But something else was more important. The playwrights were not very generous when they wrote the part for my Mashenka, whereas Shostakovich’s music made it possible for me to express my heroine’s character more clearly, she was such a sweet petty-bourgeois and commonplace girl.’
Originally, the premiere was scheduled for 22 September, then it was postponed until the end of September, but on 30 September, a new date was announced: 2 October.20 It was on 2 October 1931 that the first performance of the variety circus show Hypothetically Murdered was held.
The premiere of Hypothetically Murdered was extremely successful.
- (arr. G. McBurney) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder. 1992 // United 88001, 1994
- Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev. 2000 // Le Chant du Monde RUS 288170, 2001
- (Piano reduction of the orchestral score by the composer) Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano). 2000 // Chandos CHAN 9907, 2001
- (arr. G. McBurney) Republican Guard Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Ponkin. 2002 // Mandala MAN 5039/Harmonia Mundi HMCD 78. 2002