Censorship. Repression. Scorn. Brutality. Humor. Absurdity. Hysteria. Russia’s relationship with self-expression has been a fraught one throughout its tumultuous history. Full of danger and hardship, with no guarantee that your vision will be seen, respected, or even tolerated unless it is confined to authorized narratives, music has always been that one art form whose voice is hard to control and even harder to regulate ideologically. As the world today faces increasingly intense and precarious circumstances, it is essential to look back on history, learn from our mistakes, and take notes on our faults.
Luckily, the arts—music especially—provide a playground where we can discover and then rediscover the past in continuously experimental and captivating ways. In this edition of “Opera Meets Film,” I look at the recently released animated film “The Nose or the Conspiracy of Mavericks” by animator and director Andrey Khrzhanovsky, inspired by composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 opera “The Nose,” itself inspired by playwright Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story of the same name.
A Little History
To understand Shostakovich’s first opera, “The Nose,” one needs a bit of historical context. In 1924, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—Vladimir Lenin—died. In his place, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin rose to prominence, much to the dismay of many, including the majority of the Bolshevik party itself. Lev Davidovich Bronstein—better known as Leon Trotsky—had been a strong contender as Lenin’s replacement for the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. However, due to a succession of criminal occurrences and duplicitous events, he was eventually run out of the country, leaving Stalin and his cabal to climb the ranks, purge their adversaries, and finally take over the Bolshevik party and the nation.
It is important to note that before December 30th, 1922, the USSR did not exist. With its ratification, the history of Soviet Russia began. The early Soviet 1920s, before the emergence of Stalin and the consequent rise of “Stalinism,” were thoroughly saturated with utopianism and intense dreaming about the future of mankind itself, a carryover of symbolism, reminiscent of Alexander Scriabin’s “Prometheus.”
In early Soviet Russian culture this movement had been called Russian Futurism. By the late 1920s, however, following the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship, there had been a categorical change in the dream of Socialist utopianism. The cruel, unsexy, and brutal reality of what it meant to live in a Soviet nation had begun to dirty up the vibrant vision which Lenin and the early revolutionaries had promised to the disenchanted proletariat.
In terms of music, the Soviet 1920s were a time of great exploration and international exposure, although still heavily laden with Socialist rhetoric and propaganda. In 1918, Lenin nationalized music education, leading to heightened interest in folk music and other ‘national’ styles of music. The phenomenon of the “Mass Song”—an easily singable song with overtly pro-Socialist theming—had become the aesthetic norm for all Soviet music, along with concepts such as music accessibility and anti-formalism.
While Socialist Realism would not hit the Soviet scene until 1932, its formative beginnings were appreciable within Soviet musical life. The tension between musically manifesting the Soviet reality, versus encouraging the continued development of Soviet music a la European modernism, had caused an internal dialectic, personified in the institutional war between the RAPM (All-Russian Association of Proletariat Musicians) and the ASM (Association for Contemporary Music), the former thoroughly Socialist in their ideology yet conventional artistically speaking, while the latter advocated for revolution in all things but ideology. Intense factionalism between who would determine the future trajectory of Soviet music-making led to the short-lived movement of the Russian Avant-Garde.
By the end of the 1920s RAPM had come to dominate the scene, leading to the ultimate birth of Socialist Realism. In 1927, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, composer Alexander Mosolov’s symphonic suite “The Iron Foundry” was performed alongside Shostakovich’s “October” Symphony. Yet, the suite was quickly denounced, and Mosolov was eventually jailed—to be later released—for presenting the ostensible ‘Socialist Utopia’ in a negative light. In 1928, Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan would begin, catalysing a whole series of dogmatic transformations of Soviet cultural life, including Anti-Formalism and most famously Socialist Realism.
Soviets across the artistic spectrum were censured, censored, and jailed, many dying due to Stalinist purges of Western and bourgeois influence. Within this scary landscape was the birth of “Soviet” opera itself—although Mikhail Matyushin’s opera “Victory Over the Sun” had helped get the gears turning as early as 1913. Though not yet known within the Soviet Union, the stage was set for conservatory student Dmitri Shostakovich to make his operatic mark.
Creation of ‘The Nose’
Shostakovich was surrounded by political tension and hardship, though in the 1920s, having enrolled at the Leningrad Conservatory, he was reaping the benefits of Stalinist Russia’s pre-Socialist Realism phase. Engaged in competitions and European life, and being influenced by French and German strains of avant-gardism and neoclassicism, Shostakovich’s first opera represented his ingenious ability to navigate modernist waters without losing his sense of national self.
In 1925 the composer, then just 20-years-old, graduated from the conservatory and premiered his “Symphony No.1” as his graduating thesis to jubilant reception. His “Symphony No.2” premiered only two years later. Inspired by his friendship with composer and musicologist Boris Asafiev, and fueled by his strong affinity and reverence for theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, the idea of ‘The Nose” was created around this time. From 1927 to 1928, the young composer began writing what would become one of Russia’s most transformative operas, having taken the job as musical director of the Meyerhold Theater (GOSTIM). It was here that the opera would be later premiered.
The actual process of writing the opera was concise, taking him less than three months. The process of bringing it to the Leningrad stage, however, was more than six months long due to bureaucratic complications. Shostakovich had expressed his desire for the opera to be directed by Meyerhold, but because of this request, the premiere had to be postponed considerably.
After a few concert performances in 1929, on January 18, 1930, “The Nose” at last premiered at the Leningrad State Maly Opera Theater (MALEGOT)—today known as the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Reviews of the performance were relatively split. The audience largely found the whole thing a fascinating and novel experience. More formal observers were however torn between their detestation of its ‘formalist’ elements and their recognition that the work was a revolutionary step forward for the Soviet opera project.
While many critics, like musicologist Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, ridiculed the opera as something inherently dangerous, ‘sexualizing’ the bourgeois existence with its inaccessible musical language, others, like critic Ivan Sollertinsky, saw Shostakovich as a liberator, someone who had taken Soviet opera and radically transformed its very being.
As he wrote, “This is the first original opera written on the territory of the USSR by a Soviet composer.”
Though Gogol’s story’s was largely incompatible with the Socialist worldview—which comprised of workers, proletariat, and paradise, not surrealist critiques of authority—Sollertinsky believed the opera’s main contribution to history was as a benchmark for future operatic creativity within the Soviet Union itself: ‘The nose is a real encyclopedia for young Soviet composers.’
Later, in an article entitled “Why the Nose,” published in 1930, and again later in his personal 1956 memoir, Shostakovich explained his attraction to Gogol as being born out of both admiration and circumstance.
“Soviet authors had created a number of major and highly significant works, but since I am no writer, it was difficult for me to make a libretto out of any.”
He consequently ventured into the classics, eventually settling upon Nikolai Gogol and his 1826 short story. Shostakovich gives four main reasons for his usage of the story: it was easily translatable into an opera plot; it was surreptitiously critical of autocracy without being politically overt; the dialogue is highly expressive; the narrative takes lots of dramatic turns. Known for his ingenious usage of the grotesque and the absurd, Gogol’s story helped give a voice to both Shostakovich’s day-to-day concerns and more considerable cultural worries.
With the goal of marrying text and speech in a show of “theatric symphonism,” the opera was not written to be either entirely funny nor completely morose and solemn. Instead it was intended to show the somber, satirical humor of the despot’s attempts at gaining and then holding onto power. Despite this, due to a largely negative reception, after running for 6 months, the opera would not be performed again until 1974.
From Opera to Film
The journey of Shostakovich’s opera to the cinematic stage began in the 1960s during a period of expanding access to Western cultural life thanks to Nikita Khrushchev, the fourth leader of the Soviet Union. Starting in the mid-1950s and ending in the mid-1960s, a massive restructuring of Soviet political, economic, and cultural life occurred.
Called the “Khrushchev Thaw,” after Stalin’s death in 1954 widespread reforms helped restore Soviet Russia’s life following the stultifying effect which Stalinist rhetoric and policies had had on the country. In the realm of culture and music, it was during this period that Soviet jazz and early rock culture began their cultural expansion, while ‘Soviet Bard’ culture also began to emerge. Black market trading of Western goods and cultural products would become one of the biggest catalysts for Soviet youth’s rejection of Socialist ideology, while classical music composers would venture into the experimental and avant-garde once again.
The rhetoric and aesthetic dominance of Socialist Realism would color the entire period, however. Operas, cantatas, and symphonic works were all based on similar Socialist tenets. Victory in warfare, civic duty, nationalist patriotism, the project of Socialism, and revolutionary zeal were among the most ubiquitous themes of the day.
It is no surprise that at the same time the “Second Russian Avant-Garde” emerged in the sphere of the fine arts, with music composers becoming increasingly interested in joining their European, modernist, colleagues. In this swirling world of non-stop musical revolutions and ideological rebellions in a myriad of aesthetic forms, director Andrey Khrzhanovsky found himself immersed in cinematic activism.
A graduate of the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), Khrzhankovsky’s animated films are known for their critical view of society and government, their emotional poignancy, and their creative storytelling. Khrzhankovsky’s relationship with “The Nose” began in 1968, following the release of his second film, “Glass Harmonica,” which, according to the word of Korney Chukovsky, a childhood friend and son-in-law of Shostakovich himself, was ‘approved’ by the composer.
Feeling encouraged by this, Khrzhankovsky professed his love for Shostakovich’s work and swiftly asked for approval to make “The Nose” into a film. It stands to note that the opera would not be formally published until two years later, with the first post-censorship performance of anything from the opera having occurred only two years earlier. The first staged version would not happen for another six years.
Having acquired approval in 1974—the same year he alleges to have found the Soviet Union’s last-surviving copy of the score in the Bolshoi Theatre—Khrzhankovsky would see the opera for the first time—the Pokrovsky version—on an invitation by Alfred Schnittke. It would be another two decades before work would start. Originally intended as a tribute to Meyerhold, the film’s themes moved back to “The Nose.”
In collaboration with screenwriter Yuri Arabov, the notion of state-sponsored artistic censorship and repression became the predominant theme. However, given the music’s complexity, direct adaption was impractical. After two critical conversations, much like Shostakovich’s 1950 cantata “Anti-Formalist Paradise”—a satirical reaction to the war on Formalism—the film would balance between levity and sobriety.
The film synthesizes two of Shostakovich’s works. The first two-thirds of the film use the opera “The Nose,” while the final third utilises the cantata “Anti-Formalist Paradise.” Throughout the film, the names of thinkers and artists who were censored are presented. Everyone from Sergei Eisenstein, a Soviet film director, Mikhail Bulgakov, a Soviet playwright and author, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, to Joseph Stalin, Nikolai Gogol, and even Kazimir Malevich, an early-20th century avant-garde fine artist, and Vasily Surikov, a late-19th century Russian realist painter, make an appearance. Khrzhanovsky’s “The Nose” debuted on September 11th, 2020, at the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, and later received the prestigious “Jury Prize” at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France.