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Prologue to Orango
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, baritone horn, tuba, timpani, percussion (drum set, triangle, sleigh bells, wood block, castanets, ratchet, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, military whistle, car horn, slide whistle, flexatone, xylophone, glockenspiel), banjo, and strings, plus soloists and chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
1932 was an important year for Soviet citizens, the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution and a good moment to celebrate a decade and a half of Bolshevik rule. Unfortunately, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater was late in preparing for this event and this was darkly remarked on in the newspapers. On March 8 Dmitri Shostakovich was hurriedly contracted to provide a new opera, The Solution (in the sense of the solution to a riddle or a puzzle), on a libretto by a well-known poet, Demian Bedny
The young composer at this point had just completed the second act of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and had also been announced as working on other 15th anniversary celebrations, including a musical comedy for a Leningrad theater, a choral symphony, and a film score.
In May Bedny suddenly withdrew and the Bolshoi turned to Count Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945, and a relative of the author of War and Peace), most famous for his historical novels. He brought with him an assistant, the little-known Alexander Starchakov (born in 1892, arrested and shot in 1937).
The pair proposed a dystopian and double-edged “satire on the bourgeois press,” with science fiction elements on the model of Bulgakov’s 1926 novella A Dog’s Heart and Mayakovsky’s 1929 play The Bedbug, to which Shostakovich had already written incidental music.
According to Dr. Olga Digonskaya, the musicologist who first discovered Shostakovich’s manuscript of Orango and reconstructed its checkered history, the librettists’ starting point was an earlier short story by Starchakov about a French embryologist who attempts to crossbreed apes with humans. This they fleshed out with a web of amusing topical references taken mostly from Soviet newspapers. These included the Prologue’s setting on the front steps of the preposterously gigantic (and, in the end, never constructed) Palace of Soviets, the designs for which had recently been widely publicized; and the equally preposterous experiments of the scientist Professor Ilya Ivanov (1870-1932), who really tried crossbreeding apes and humans, and had died in exile only months before.
From these materials, Tolstoy and Starchakov created a three-act structure, preceded by a prologue.
Prologue: A vast celebration is taking place in and around the Palace of Soviets in Moscow. Soviet citizens and foreign guests are being treated to a series of entertainments, including an encounter with the half-ape half-human hybrid, Orango. To the delight of the audience, this leads to the performance of a full-scale dramatization of Orango’s life-story.
Act 1: A French biologist creates a scandal by impregnating a female ape with his own sperm. The ape gives birth to a “hybrid” son, Orango.
Act 2: Orango grows up, fights in World War 1, becomes a journalist and newspaper owner in Paris, and a speculator on the stock exchange.
Act 3: Orango visits the USSR and develops a hatred of communism and the working classes. He becomes more ape-like, marrying a seductive Russian émigrée in Paris, attempting to rape his half-sister, and going bankrupt in the course of a worldwide financial crisis. Eventually his wife sells him to a Soviet circus-manager and he ends up in a cage in Moscow.
Shostakovich, who had actually visited Professor Ivanov’s “ape farm” in 1929, seems to have been delighted by this proposal and was soon swept into this project. Some time over the summer of 1932 he drafted a voice-and-piano score of the Prologue.
Working at speed, he borrowed from earlier pieces, reusing the overture and ending to his ballet The Bolt, as well as ideas from his more recent music-hall spectacle, Declared Dead.
At the same time, he invented a good deal of strikingly new music, some of which connects to the third and fourth acts of Lady Macbeth, the composition of which he would shortly return to, and other parts of which look forward to the last movement of the Fourth Symphony (1934-1936).
Alas, the project came to nothing, for reasons that remain obscure. Certainly Tolstoy and Starchakov never finished their libretto. Perhaps also the Bolshoi deemed the subject matter no longer appropriate, or the debate moved on and there was no more need for such an elaborate show.
Shostakovich put away his completed piano score of the Prologue, and it was neither remembered nor spoken of again until 2004, when Dr. Digonskaya found it among the composer’s papers in the Glinka Museum in Moscow.
It reappears now as a ghost from a lost era, the work of a young composer of the utmost energy and brilliance, not yet cast down by history, ill-health, and politics, and in every new piece that he embarked on striving for brilliance, theatricality, and corruscating satire.
What You Will Hear
Shostakovich’s autograph consists of 13 sides of large-scale manuscript, written out in full for piano and voices. Where the composer’s own orchestration already exists, as with the overture and dance sequence taken from The Bolt, that is what will be played. For the rest, I have scoured through his other marvelous scores from the same period, stealing his tricks and trying to make the music sound as much as possible like him.
After a rousing Overture, the curtain rises to reveal a massive Stalinist skyscraper, Moscow’s (never constructed) Palace of Soviets. Through its glass front walls we see amphitheaters, choirs, an orchestra, and swarming audiences. In the square in front are tables laden with food and more crowds. A celebration is in progress.
The choirs, a soloist, and the orchestra perform an anthem – “Work was a curse” – mourning the sufferings of the Russian people before the Revolution and praising the Bolshevik victory of 1917. An Entertainer appears – “Time for the next number in our program!” – to announce: “Orango, the humanoid ape.” Two foreign guests express their boredom at this idea.
The Entertainer offers them instead a patter song celebrating the “Wonders of the USSR” (“Ten thousand oil derricks from Arkhangelsk to Baku!”), followed by a Dance of Peace by “our greatest ballet star, the eighth wonder of the world, Nastya Terpsikhova.” Nastya so excites the audience that the entire company joins in a wild general Dance.
The Foreigners remain unimpressed – “How do you like our program?” “I was not amused” – but the Soviet crowds loudly demand to see Orango. The Entertainer explains that Orango is “that missing link” whose existence was once postulated by Charles Darwin. Orango is led on by a Zoologist brandishing a bar of chocolate.
The Zoologist delivers a lecture on how Orango is half-human, half-ape – “The length of the extremities, the angle of the face.” “You could hit him on his skull with a log and do him no harm,” but he eats with a knife and fork.
For the crowd’s amusement, the “hybrid” is put through his paces – “Yawn, Orango!” - yawning to order, blowing his nose, and playing the popular nursery rhyme “Chizhik-pyzhik.” Suddenly, he catches sight of a red-headed woman, Susanna, seated at the foreigners’ table. He approaches and roars: “Rrrrrrrred-headed temptrrrrress!” The audience reacts with horror and the foreigners threaten to shoot, but the Entertainer calls for calm and brings on Nastya to soothe the angry Orango with another Dance.
Unfortunately, Nastya’s gyrations provoke the unfortunate creature to even greater distress – “It’s stifling, stifling! I’m suffocating under my furry pelt” – and he is hastily removed. The mysterious Susanna also tries to leave, but the Entertainer stops her, asking why she provoked such a violent reaction. She refuses to answer.
Three more foreigners push forward to shed light on the matter – “Let me remind you!” “Who are you?” – and each explains their personal connections to Orango: Armand Fleury, an embryologist from Paris; his daughter Renée (“Orango is my stepbrother”); and a French journalist, Paul Mâche (“Orango is my pupil”).
A troupe of amateur actors and musicians march on to join these assembled characters and the Entertainer announces: “The prologue has gone on long enough!”
Now they will perform, “with singing and with dancing,” Orango’s story: where he came from, his adventures round the world, and how he ended up being bought in Hamburg for $150 to be exhibited in Moscow as light entertainment.
The Prologue ends with a chorus: “Let’s laugh, let’s laugh at the fascinating story of the human ape known as Orango! Let’s laugh, let’s laugh at the fruitless attempt to control the steering wheel of life with the hands of an ape!”
— Gerard McBurney