In 1975, the famous director of the Taganka Theater – Yuri Lyubimov, the experimental Russian director, asked Alfred Schnittke to write a musical arrangement for his new play “The Census List” based on works by Nikolai Gogol. This is not the first encounter of the composer with the theatrical avant-garde – two years earlier he had already worked on the play “Turandot” by Bertold Brecht, but unfortunately the theater did not receive permission from the widow of the German playwright and the work was suspended. And there again he was offered a cooperation, gladly accepted by him. The leitmotif of Schnittke’s works has always been the man with his experiences, passions and emotions, so the opportunity to combine the tragic and the comic immediately attracted him. His enthusiasm was so great that after the rehearsals we dashed to the director’s house with sketches already drafted. According to Lyubimov, a very important role is assigned to the music in this. It fills the space, illustrates the time of the action and even allows them to give up the sets. The play premiered on June 9th , 1978 at the Taganka Theater. Gennady Rozhdestvensky is on the conductor’s stand; he had participated the performance and scoring based on Gogol’s work “Diary of a Madman”.
The Gogol Suite is constructed of 8 parts that fully reflect the drama and concept expressed in the play. The titles of the suite parts are preserved and have a programmatic meaning. They are: Overture, Tchitchikov’s Childhood, Portrait, Overcoat, Ferdinand VIII, Bureaucrats, Ball, Testimony.
A small but bright orchestral introduction sets the mood which corresponds to the genre. The feeling of chaos and disorder does not leave the listener. Constant rhythms acquire familiar features. Amid the roar of the wave of sounds, a parody of the well-known theme of the introduction to the First Part of the Fifth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven is formed.
In this part the composer manages to demonstrate not only his mastery as an orchestrator, but also the ability to modulate lightly and effortlessly in distant tonalities. Major tonal transitions create a feeling of growth and exaggeration without tension and drama. The theme entrusted to the woodwind instruments is built on ostinato repetitive intonations. The feeling of “growth” is also manifested in the dynamics. Initially quiet, it gradually grows into a confident forte. That’s how the part ends.
The music completely coincides with what is happening on the stage. A head grows from a small sprout. To keep it warm, they put a hat on it, and to make it grow faster, they feed it porridge. It soon grows huge. An absolutely impersonal man emerges from this plant. His entire features are gray and ordinary. Medium height, rank and face. Everything about him is nothing. The name of this gentleman is Pavel Ivanovich Tchitchikov.
The story is about Andrei Petrovich Chartkov. At the beginning of the work his artistic talent is recreated by a slender and melodic playing of piano, harpsichord, double bass and violin in three parts. The young artist is poor but promising. His poverty and unwillingness to study led him to indiscriminately paint portraits of noble people capable of providing him with a life of luxury. Fame and money deprive him of the opportunity to hone his talent. His melody becomes rough and incomprehensible, the main role in it is played by percussion instruments and low brass, who play in an unusual register for them. The music degrades, it becomes primitive. All of a sudden, though, Andrei Petrovich sees a talented work. A simple and beautiful melody is born in his head, which is destroyed by an angular motif. In his malice and rage, the artist begins to buy masterpieces and destroy them in his room. He gradually loses his mind.
This is a story about Akaky Bashmachkin’s love for a lady embodied in an overcoat. He is ready to do anything because of the beloved woman,. The mechanical music of “The Polka” demonstrates the fullness of the hero’s feelings, their “sublimity” and “sophistication”. The theme becomes a march dominated by the percussions.
In the “Census List” play, this is a small musical note based on the distorted music from the previous picture. The story tells of the mad Aksenty Poprishchtin, who imagines himself to be King Ferdinand VIII.
Indirect baroque intonations in the harpsichord timbre can be clearly traced in the music, which darken and lose their own meaning. This is a hint of the “higher” society of the bureaucrat, which has also lost all meaning of its existence.
Among the noisy crowd, the figure of the artist stands out like a colored spot. Percussion instruments measure a rhythm reminiscent of a waltz. But there is no grace, beauty or elegance in music. As there are none in those present.
Nikolai Gogol speaks about Russia. The music is full of bells and is in a minor key. There is something majestic in it, but also mysterious. In the distance you can hear the sound of the wind and the sad echo of the bells.
Gogol Suite is an avant-garde work. Polystylistic musical decisions are a bright canvas of incompatible motifs. The work clearly ridicules the vulgarity, stupidity and dumbness of the characters. The spectacle and the suite carry the always valid lesson of all times that only learning and diligence create a truly wonderful person.