Intermezzo: Tumanov’s essay The Correspondence of Literary Text and Musical Phraseology in Shostakovich’s Opera The Nose and Gogol’s Fantastic Tale

In the conclusion to his essay, Tumanov writes that “besides its purely musical features, Shostakovich’s adaptation of Gogol’s prosaic text works as a sophisticated yet faithful translation of Gogol into the intricate language of modernistic opera, which Shostakovich himself called a musico-theatrical symphony. The opera Nos was one of the first operas, if not the very first, of this kind in the history of Russian music theater. It laid down a number of important aesthetic principles for the genre of the modernistic opera in Russia as a whole. Our comparative analysis suggests that the main source of Shostakovich’s opera aesthetics was the aesthetics of the literary criticism of the time, as well as the aesthetics of its primary origin – Gogol’s fantastic tale.” (414)

Elsewhere in his study of Shostakovich and Zamyatin’s transposition of Gogol’s story, Tumanov outlines the essential features of the original that were incorporated into the opera. They consisted of two types of skaz, narrative skaz and reproductive skaz, the first being limited to jokes, semantic puns, etc., and the second introduces the device of verbal mimicry and gesture, inventing special comic articulations, oral puns, capricious syntactic arrangements, etc. (401, Tumanov quoting Eichenbaum in Как сделана шинел). With regard to the reproductive skaz, he writes that the opera develops as such both in the form of a lively dialogue worked out to the smallest detail, and in a form that is purely musical, transmitting events by seemingly nontheatrical means and constituting orchestral or symphonic skaz. (401)

Such an approach exemplifies Elliot’s genetic orientation of adaptation or transposition: Narratologists figure that what transfers between literature and film as an underlying deep narrative structure akin to genetic structure awaiting manifesting substance in much the same way that genetic material awaits manifesting substance in the cells and tissues of the body (Elliot 230). As I wrote there: Transposition sees parallels between the past and present (raison d’être of its existence), hence the structure of an original must contain something that can manifest itself in the present or is at least relevant in the present. 

Shostakovich and Zamyatin create the larger reproductive skaz through the discord between the logical and the absurd, what Eichenbaum calls “logical absurdity” (407). For the scene in Kazan Cathedral, Shostakovich writes: “The music in this scene is grandiose and solemn. There is no ethnography of church tunes. The music transmits the very character of the cathedral. In the staging, a satirical discord with the music is necessary.” (406-7, quoted from Tumanov) We find this again in the commonplace characters such as Ivan Yakovlevich and Kovalev who sing and talk in a “normal” register and are assigned the voice ranges of bass and baritone, respectively. The “mystical” characters (the Nose, the police inspector and Praskovya Osipovna, according to the Tumanov), on the other hand, sing in an unnatural register. (410)

Evidence that Shostakovich saw his opera as a transposition can be seen in the comments he made on it: “In the libretto I retained Gogol’s text unaltered” (402, quoted from Tumanov) against the backdrop of the opera’s reality which forced him to make minor alterations in the form on account of the different genre. That is what transposition entails: The central elements of transposition consist of this engagement with each sentence and the shift in content/form. Shostakovich’s vision was not a loose adaptation slightly informed by the original, but rather a strict adherence to the content of the original with modifications to the form.

Works cited:

Tumanov, Alexander. Correspondence of Literary Text and Musical Phraseology in Shostakovich’s Opera the Nose and Gogol’s Fantastic Tale. Russian Review. Vol. 52. No. 3 (Jul. 1993). 397-414. Online. Accessed Mar.20, 2012.
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