MUSIC HALL / Returned to life: Simon Broughton uncovers the burlesque context for Shostakovich's score Hypothetically Murdered

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YOU DON'T find Shostakovich's score to Hypothetically Murdered in most biographies of the composer. If it is mentioned at all, his Op 31 is swiftly dismissed: 'his personal low of lows' is the assessment in the most recent volume.

But the fact is that nobody had heard the score (except those at the original performances at the Leningrad Music Hall in 1931) until the premiere of Gerard McBurney's reconstruction last year in Birmingham. The Hypothetically Murdered Suite will get a much wider hearing when it is performed at the Proms tonight and shown on BBC 1 on 4 September. Aside from the music, which comes from Shostakovich's most eclectic and experimental period, the whole history of the piece is fascinating because it seems both unlikely and typical of its time.

Gerard McBurney was given the piano sketches to the score by the Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, a specialist in unknown Shostakovich who had discovered them in the Glinka Music Museum in Moscow. McBurney re- orchestrated them for a theatre band, guided by lists of instruments written in the margins and by other Shostakovich scores from the same period. The resulting suite is bold, satirical and highly coloured - the aural equivalent of Russian post-revolutionary posters.

The show itself was a vehicle for the entertainer Leonid Utyosov, unknown in this country but Russia's most popular singer, actor and film star for 50 years, from the mid-1920s. At the time of Hypothetically Murdered he was busy introducing jazz to the Soviet Union and giving outlandish performances with his theatrical jazz ensemble. He was an unlikely collaborator for Shostakovich, it would seem, but when they first made contact in Ukraine Shostakovich wrote back to a friend in Leningrad, 'I have met the person I think I most admire in contemporary musical life.'

Other significant names in the show were the choreographer, Fyodor Lopokov, who had worked with Shostakovich on his recent satirical ballets The Age of Gold and The Bolt, and the musical director, Isaak Dunayevsky, who was Russia's leading composer of operetta.

Except for the participation of a performing dog called Alpha, little was known about the show or its plot until I went to St Petersburg to check the theatre archives and try to find someone who had seen it in 1931.

Boris Bychkov, a lively man of 75, answered my advertisement in the St Petersburg Gazette (the former Leningradskaya Pravda). He was 16 when Hypothetically Murdered opened the autumn season at the Leningrad Music Hall in October 1931 and, thanks to having a schoolfriend who was an acrobat in the show, he witnessed several rehearsals and performances. The play was described as a 'Circus-Revue' and was about the civil defence of Leningrad in an air attack - a sort of Russian revolutionary Dad's Army. The title came from the 'hypothetically murdered' people who had to play dead on stretchers which were carried on and off the stage.

'At the beginning we were sitting in the auditorium,' Bychkov recounted, 'and suddenly a screen lit up and we saw Utyosov running along the streets of Leningrad with a crowd of people chasing after him with stretchers and gas masks. It was a piece of film. At this time there was a famous German Shepherd in Leningrad, called Alpha, who won all the prizes at dog shows, and she was chasing after Utyosov trying to catch him. At this moment the screen grew dark and there was Utyosov and the dog running down the aisle towards the stage. The stage was filled with all kinds of circus apparatus and platforms and Utyosov raced up a rope ladder to escape the dog.'

Prior to the performance, Alpha was to be seen doing tricks in the garden in front of the theatre, but then seemed to let the side down by barking incessantly throughout the show. In addition to Alpha, there was a real horse. These elements, plus the acrobatics, clearly tie in directly with the Russian circus tradition, but the introduction of film suggests the contemporary, very serious world of Berg's opera Lulu - a work which, curiously enough, also displays some circus elements.

1931 was a watershed in Soviet artistic history, marking the transition from the experimental and exciting post-revolutionary period to the heavy hand of state intervention. Reading the theatrical journals of the time, in particular the Worker and Theatre, which carried a review of Hypothetically Murdered, I was struck more than anything by the idealism and fervour of the period, which seem outlandish in contrast to today.

You get the feeling that the citizens of Leningrad at that time would have had to physically dodge the hundreds of political acronyms flying up and down Nevsky Prospekt. Everyone was trying in a deliberate and self-conscious way to make art, and everything else, directly relevant to the proletariat. There was the propaganda department Proletkult Agitotdel, RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians), RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) and GOMETS, the State Department for Music, Variety and Circus which was responsible for Hypothetically Murdered.

The review praised the show for being the first time the music hall had made an attempt to get away from a disparate collection of sketches to present a significant scenario 'relevant to current issues'. Thereafter things go downhill. The superficial experiments of montage, variety, film and ballet result in an 'enormous, unwieldy, indigestible vinaigrette.'

The review concludes with a bit of stern advice to the music hall that instead of arbitrarily inviting famous names to perform, it ought to set out on a systematic education of its authors and performers and the precise political planning of its repertoire.

Shostakovich is strongly criticised for re-using material from an earlier stage show. The issue is not the recycling of music, but something much more serious. 'How come the music written for the open-air feast of the kulaks is used here for Red Army dances?'

This is a foretaste of the serious trouble in which Shostakovich was to find himself five years later over his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. As Mark Elder, conductor of last year's premiere and of tonight's Prom performance, discovered, the composer recycled music from Hypothetically Murdered in that score.

The music, with all its brashness and humour, is bound to be successful at the Proms and even the review admits the audience was astonished at the time. As Boris Bychkov, a 16-year-old boy in the stalls, told me, 'The show wasn't very profound and the audience wasn't very sophisticated, but they enjoyed themselves immensely and reacted in a very sincere and open way.'

The 'Hypothetically Murdered' Suite, arranged by Gerard McBurney, is played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder tonight, 7.30pm, at the Royal Albert Hall, relayed live on Radio 3, and shown on BBC1 on 4 September.

(Photograph omitted)