In December 2006, the Princeton Orchestra premiered excerpts of Prokofiev’s score in our winter concert on campus. The première was met with mixed reviews, both from the orchestra and audience alike. I expected this. After all, incidental music is awkward in a concert setting, where it is removed from the context in which it is meant to be heard. Prokofiev’s Boris Godunov is not a “piece”. One cannot perform it as one would a symphony or a concerto. It is a mélange of songs, songs that share little, if any, thematic material in common. Like the play itself, in which the 25 scenes are only very loosely connected, Prokofiev’s music is similarly modular. This concept of musical modules struck me as odd at first. I wanted to equate module with movement – both, I thought, were ways of breaking up a large piece of music into digestible chunks. But there is a distinction between the two that I would come to understand only later. Unlike a symphonic movement that draws on the musical themes and motifs of other movements surrounding it, a musical module needs no such “company”. Each section can stand on its own as a separate and complete musical entity. This gives music a much more ephemeral quality. It dies as soon as it is played and one rarely hears the themes of one module repeated in the next. In Boris Godunov, for example, the polonaise comes and goes and it is never reprised or even echoed, although an astute audience member will hear that the final theme of the final chorus echoes what the all-male choir sings at the beginning of the show. Nevertheless, I feel this is more an exception than the norm.
Prokofiev’s music is an aural representation of Pushkin’s text. When Meyerhold commissioned the music, he intended it to be heard only within the unified framework of the action on stage. The music is a prop, handed off to the actors so that they might better transmit their emotions to the audience. To hear the music outside its visual and dramatic context – tempting for today’s spectacle-craving American audiences – means the actor is no longer the focus of the production. Meyerhold undoubtedly would have spurned such musical “entertainment”. In fact, I think Meyerhold, with his actor-centred aesthetic, might have approved of all his actors wearing headphones onstage. Then only they would hear the incidental music and the audience would be forced to observe the actors’ emotional cues more closely in order to discern its melodies. But avant-garde drama can only go so far before it starts alienating the audiences to which it speaks, and for the Princeton production, the orchestra was openly placed onstage.
For the actual production, our conductor chose to scale back the orchestra. I was given a transposed saxophone part to play during certain sections where the horns are silent. This meant that the horn replaced the saxophone as the primary voice in the Amoroso that accompanies Dmitrii’s late night meeting with Marina in the garden. While Prokofiev might not have written it with this instrumentation in mind, I think the sounds of the euphonium and horn blend, and the melodic line had a smoother, richer edge to it. The part was very exposed, and I was happy for the opportunity to be more involved with the music making since originally I had only been assigned the third horn part. Had we followed Prokofiev’s original instrumentation, my total contribution would have consisted of a series of stopped B-naturals in the battle scene, and a repetitive strain of stopped D-naturals (below the staff) in the final chorus of the narod. Given that stopped pitches around middle-C are difficult to project (this is in the range of the instrument where an attempt at a brassy shrill degenerates into a muffled mess), I wondered why Prokofiev even called for my part at all!
Being in the orchestra meant I sat behind a scrim, in complete darkness, for most of the play’s second half. What I did see from the stage, I saw from the back – a rather neat perspective, but not the one Meyerhold had intended. I was hardly an actor (though I was listed as a part of the company), and much less a member of the audience, even though I occasionally caught a scene or two from behind. I straddled the fourth wall. And I have Prokofiev to thank for it.