Gaetano Braga. “Serenata”. Transcription
DSCH Publishers, Moscow. Archive D. Shostakovich's Series
D. Shostakovich's Arcive. Moscow
Gaetano Braga. Serenata
Arranged for Duet and Chamber Ensemble
For almost half a century, the Chekhov long story The Black Monk occupied the thoughts of Shostakovich as reader, composer and thinker but, having become a ‘leit-conception’ of a sort in his life, it was never to take music-theatre form.
By 1943, Shostakovich was evidently already considering the plot of The Black Monk as possible material for an opera: the composer insistently recommended it to his student, Revolt Bunin, for the latter’s first venture into the genre of music theatre.
Also in 1943, in his article Thoughts on Tchaikovsky Shostakovich, noting that Tchaikovsky and Chekhov shared a similar ‘sense of the tragic in life’, let drop a phrase, subsequently to become famous, to the effect that the long story The Black Monk, ‘one of the most musical works in Russian literature, is written almost like a sonata’.
Next reference to the work, relates to September, 1972. the composer took the firm decision to seek for the notes of Gaetano Braga’s Serenata which is mentioned in key episodes of the long story (before the Black Monk’s first and after his final appearance), and to transcribe it.
Having received the notes for the Serenata, Shostakovich finished the transcription on his birthday, 25 September, signing it and adding the date ‘25 IX 1972’.
Having completed his transcription of the Serenata (for soprano, mezzo-soprano, violin and piano), Shostakovich requested the young singers and musicians—G. Pisarenko (soprano), K. Morgunova (mezzosoprano), O. Kagan (violin) and E. Leonskaya (piano)—to learn, play and record it. A performance of the transcription, with the participation of cellist D. Fershtman, doubling the bass voice of the piano part, took place in late 1972 — early 1973, at Shostakovich’s flat, in the absence of the author, who listened to it by telephone.
Preserved in the D.D. Shostakovich Archive are draft versions of plans and libretto for the opera, The Black Monk, written, by Irina Antonovna Shostakovich, from the composer’s words, and relating, hypothetically to 1973, which show that the original plan was to write the opera in two or three acts.
By the spring of 1975, the opera project had undergone a further modulation: Shostakovich, dissatisfied with his own attempts to write a scenario, turned to the musicologist and librettist, Alexander Medvedev, with the request he write librettos for… two one-act operas, one of which was The Black Monk.
In that same spring of 1975, just before he died, Shostakovich gave an explanation of why he had taken so long mulling over an opera project that meant so much to him. ‘I could not find the ‘key’ to Chekhov’s long story. It has a lot of dialogue, but little action. And that is not good for an opera. But the main reason is I could not imagine how to represent a hallucination, ghost, mirage on stage. The Monk, after all, has to move, as well as sing, and be seen by Kovrin on stage and the audience in the auditorium. I couldn’t find a treatment... I begin to write the music only once I have heard and seen my conception as a whole, in all its dimensions, with beginning, middle and end. Now, it seems, I do have such a vision’.