Vesevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) was one of the most important theater directors of the twentieth century. His influence spread in every direction, even beyond Russia. Modern theater the world over is hardly conceivable without him, but he also had a decisive impact on the evolution of the cinema (through his one-time pupil Eisenstein), on a whole variety of writers and painters, and on composers. Stravinsky and Prokofiev both knew him and were affected by him, especially in their theater works, but the composer most touched by his aesthetic and techniques was Dmitri Shostakovich.
In 1928, Meyerhold plucked the young Leningrad composer, still only in his early 20s, and took him to Moscow. There Shostakovich worked for a short but important time as pianist and temporary music-director in Meyerhold’s theater and actually lived in the apartment of Meyerhold and his actress wife Zinaida Raikh, before returning home a couple of months later to work on his opera The Nose.
Some time afterwards, and with Shostakovich no longer in Moscow, Meyerhold began a spectacular new production of a brand new satirical comedy by the USSR’s most famous young poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). He first invited Prokofiev to compose the score, but when Prokofiev rejected him, he offered the job to Shostakovich who, at this stage, still had no practical experience of writing for the theater. Meyerhold also assembled a star cast and a spectacular team of stage designers, including the celebrated photographer and painter Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956).
Mayakovsky’s “fairy comedy” (the absurdly inappropriate subtitle is typical of the play) is a hilarious, buffoonish, and double-edged satire on Soviet life in the early Stalinist period, when the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP), a doctrine of relative liberalism, meant that small businesses were temporarily allowed to flourish and there was something of a consumer boom in the main Soviet cities.
The year is 1929 itself. A once active communist, Ivan Prisypkin, has done well out of the new NEP prosperity and has transformed himself into a social-climbing and corrupt little capitalist. He drops his old girlfriend (a good revolutionary girl) and sets his sights on at the daughter of a petty bourgeois lady who runs a beauty salon. To reinforce this ostentatious triumph of NEP values, Prisypkin marries his vulgar young wife in her mother’s salon. The wedding soon gets out of hand, there is a fight, and a fire starts. The firemen are called, but unfortunately not before everyone has been burned to death. In the clearing-up process, Prisypkin’s corpse is missing.
Fifty years pass and it is 1979. Prisypkin is discovered deep-frozen in a cellar and is brought back to life thanks to modern scientific techniques practiced by the Institute of Human Resurrection. Back in the land of the living, Prisypkin takes time to realize that, like Rip van Winkle, he has come back in another age. And because his head is still filled with the nonsense of the NEP era, he keeps disturbing the conventional status quo of the future communist paradise. For example, he introduces a girl to the long defunct concept of “love.”
After many adventures, the citizens of the future eventually gather at the zoo where they succeed in confining this revolting specimen of bourgeoisius vulgaris in a cage, where he is exhibited for the edification of the public alongside another useless specimen of a former life-form long since eradicated by progress, bedbugus normalis.
In later years, Shostakovich claimed that Mayakovsky had told him that his favorite kind of music was firemen’s bands and that the composer had to write music for the play in that style. In point of fact, as a glimpse of the original performing materials makes clear, it was Meyerhold the director, not Mayakovsky the author, who dictated how the music sounded.
Early on in the process Shostakovich composed quite a few numbers in a lively jazz-manner, rather in the spirit of Kurt Weill. These included a sentimental waltz, a foxtrot, and other dances to conjure up the self-indulgent atmosphere of the NEP period. From the evidence, though, it seems that Meyerhold used rather little of this pre-composed music. Instead he encouraged the young composer to write fiercer, more avant-garde music and then made sure that this noisy new stuff was heard at a number of different points in the play.
The surviving published score begins with a lively introductory March in the approved “firemen’s band” style and then goes on to a sleazy Intermezzo, vividly evoking the supposed pleasure-seeking materialism of NEP and Prisypkin’s new way of life.
The Wedding Scene, complete with a singer and chorus, was one of the episodes written most closely under Meyerhold’s supervision. The manuscript contains notes in several handwritings detailing elaborate stage-business. This is followed by the Fire, another example of Meyerhold forcing the young composer to write the precise music he needed to make his dramatic points. Meyerhold was apparently especially pleased with this episode. The first half of the play ends with the Firemen’s Fanfares and a lusty Firemen’s Chorus, a comical parody of an official Soviet song.
From the second half of the play comes the Scene in the Town Square. A group of journalists and scientists attempt to pacify the obstreperous Prisypkin by giving him beer. Unfortunately they themselves are soon overcome by the fumes.
The play ends at the zoo. Various groups of citizens turn up, each singing their tune. First comes the March of the Pioneers (Soviet girl- and boy-scouts), then the pompous March of the City Fathers. There is another Fanfare, celebrating the opening of the new exhibition, a mechanical little Waltz, and finally, a lively Closing March, both scored for Mayakovsky’s beloved firemen’s band.