Saturday, February 14, 2015

Music in The Cherry Orchard at People's Light

In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard with Mary McDonnell. Picture by Emma Lee/WHYY.

About eight years ago, back when we lived in our Downingtown house and I was still actively auditioning as an actor, I heard that there was a professional theater close by holding an open call. I was pretty excited by the idea of potential employment at a theater that didn't involve a 30-mile commute to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, at the time the only monologue I had under my belt that I could whip out at a moment's notice was bloody Juliet and her stupid vial speech. Unsurprisingly, I did not get a callback.

(One day I will write a whole blog about how sick I am of Juliet. Short version: very.)

Fast forward to last year, and out of the blue, thanks to a recommendation, I was finally given my first opportunity to be a part of a production at that same theater—but primarily as a composer and sound designer, though I'm also playing the violin live on stage. Of course, now I've moved to Philadelphia, so I have a wretched 30-mile commute in the other direction.

But it's worth it.

The Cherry Orchard at People's Light in Malvern is my first Chekhov. It's about time I popped that cherry, wakka wakka. It's a really great (mostly resident) company and a fantastic theater, led by artistic director Abigail Adams. And this play in particular stars Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn. Dear readers, for the past month, I have been coming to work every day and having wonderful conversations with and receiving hugs from Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn. Then I go home at night and watch them on TV, because they are in some of my favorite television shows. This is not something I imagined myself doing any time soon. It is pretty awesome.

Aside from rehearsals and performing, working on the music for this show has been unusually engaging and inspiring. The first task I was given was to set Yepikhodov's sung lines in Act II of the play. But rather than take the easy route of simply composing my own tunes to fit the words in Emily Mann's translation/adaptation, I postulated that Chekhov must have been referring to an existing song and opted instead to barrel down a research rabbit hole like a crazed dachshund.

In Chekhov's original play, Yepikhodov sings:

"Что мне до шумного света, что мне друзья и враги"

I don't speak or read Russian. Not even a little. I can kind of get around in Cyrillic by treating it as a form of simple substitution encryption, because I've had a little experience browsing the *cough* perhaps not 100% in copyright compliance *cough* sheet music archive Tarakanov. But I do have decent Google fu and some terrifically resourceful friends and contacts. I copy-pasted the Cyrillic lyrics into Google, and came up with the full text of the 1871 song “Спрятался месяц за тучку,” originally composed by Alexandre Dubuque (whose page on the Russian Wiki is much more expansive than the English version), with lyrics by poet Vasily Chuyevsky. Digging around in the aforementioned Tarakanov collection, I eventually found the sheet music (listed under "Unknown composer – Gypsy song").

Here are the lyrics in Russian as printed in that sheet music. There are other versions of the poem, but I am pretty convinced that these are the lyrics Chekhov knew. The second stanza here is the one quoted in The Cherry Orchard, although Chekhov made one slight change: "нам" ("we") has been replaced with "мне" ("I").
Спрятался месяц за тучку,
Больше не хочет гулять,
Дайже ты мне свою ручку,
К пылкому сердцу прижать.

Что нам до шумного света,
Что нам друзья и враги,
Было бы сердце согрето,
Жаром взаимной любви.

Когда ты со мною бываешь,
Я мало с тобой говорю.
Хо ты и без слов понимаешь,
Как страстно тебя я люблю.

Когда ты с другими бываешь,
Я взором слежу за тобой.
Жалею зачем ты с другими,
зачем ты опять не со мной.

Когда ты в раздумье глубоком,
любуюсь твоеы красотой.
мечтаю о счастье далеком;
Быть может, любим я тобой.
As far as I know, the song has never been translated into English in a way that scans with Dubuque's melody. In fact I can find no reference to any English language productions in which Dubuque's melody was used. Even Russian productions don't bother tracking down the original music.

The first thing I did was try my hand at an English translation, which was daunting. Not only is the song in a language I don't speak, Chuyevsky's poem uses archaic forms that aren't generally known to modern Russian speakers. For instance, the first line and title of the song includes the word "месяц" which for most Russians translates as "month." However, just as in English, the word "month" can also refer to the moon (in English of course they have the same root). Some of the Russian speakers I spoke to swore up and down that the word had to mean month, but eventually one of them asked her grandmother and confirmed that, indeed, месяц can mean moon in a poetic/archaic context.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I have some awesome and resourceful friends. One of them, Louis Greenstein, put me in touch with Joseph Brodsky's translator (!!!!) Barry Rubin. Mr. Rubin answered all my questions, set me on the right path in translating the song correctly, and pointed me toward some terrific information in this article by S. S. Yanitskaya, published in a Belorussian scholarly journal. Since the article is in Russian, and there isn't a published English translation, I doubt very much that I ever would have found it on my own. By this point my grasp of Russian and my ability to navigate the shortcomings of Google Translate were improving considerably.

Here's my version of the lyrics. Of course the exact translation had to be butchered to fit the meter, which anyone who has sung a song in two languages knows is nothing unusual. Also my rhyme scheme is ABCB because if I had shot for ABAB, I would have had to butcher meanings even further.
Under a cloud, the moon's hidden,
No longer wanting to shine;
Give me your right hand, my darling,
Tell me your heart will be mine.

What care I for the world's troubles?
What care I for friend or foe?
I'd have your heart to warm me
If you would be my own.

When you are with me, my darling,
I never know what to say.
But you always know what I'm thinking.
Passion will show me the way.

When I see you with another,
I'm filled with longing and pain.
I'll never feel love, my darling,
Till I am with you again.

Sometimes I see you a-dreaming.
How beautiful do you appear!
I dream that we are together
And happy forever, my dear.
And here's the PDF of the sheet music I created (click to download):

And finally, here's a quick little guerrilla video Matt helped me record this evening (opening night!) while sitting in the house before it opened. I am, of course, playing a mandolin, which Yepikhodov explicitly isn't.

A part of me wonders whether releasing all this information publicly might actually influence future English-language (or even Russian!) productions of The Cherry Orchard! I'm sure I'm saving some future composer or dramaturg a lot of time. If you're mounting a production of The Cherry Orchard and you want to use my translation or sheet music, please let me know - you won't have to pay me, just give me a tiny credit in the program.

I do have to say that the experience of chasing down this information made me realize how relatively segregated Russian music is from the rest of the Western canon. As Westerners who study music, we think we know something about Russian music because we're familiar with the usual suspects: Tchaikovsky, The Five, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, etc. But there are huge swathes of Russian music and musicology that are virtually unknown in the West (see also the song that Yasha sings a snippet of in Act III; the original "Поймёшь ли ты?" was by Natalya Rzhevskaya, a woman about whom I can find ZERO information online). I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the tumultuous history of Russia in the last 150 years. And some of it probably is probably an effect of the Iron Curtain. In any case, for a moment there, I almost felt like I wasn't a complete impostor with my almost-Ph.D. (ABD).

Oh, one other fun little trivial gem that I unearthed, despite my complete lack of Russian, is that this same song is referenced in the Nabokov short story "The Admiralty Spire":
In the evening, on the veranda, the gramophone’s gaping mouth, as red as the lining of a Russian general’s coat, would pour forth uncontrollable Gypsy passion; or, to the tune of ‘Under a Cloud the Moon’s Hidden,’ a menacing voice would mimic the Kaiser : ‘Give me a nib and a holder, to write ultimatums it’s time.’
Mr. Rubin looked at the story in the original Russian and confirmed I am correct! I love Nabokov, so this was pretty exciting to me.

I wrote a lot of other music for the show, including a two-step, a polonaise, and a waltz, (I also arranged several polkas by Glinka and the traditional lezginka), and of course the main show theme. I recorded all the music myself with Matt's help. Here's the main theme, which is already out there floating around in the background of radio promotion spots on WHYY and WRTI.

Opening night is now well underway (the famous string breaking sound is just about to play—it was exhilarating to make my own version of such a pivotal moment in theater), and pretty soon I have to get into my Jewish orchestra outfit to play in the third act, so I should sign off here. My bones ache from clearing out the Hannah for the last three days (more on that later). Life is pretty great.

The Cherry Orchard runs through March 8, and you can purchase tickets on the People's Light website.

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