(click here to download printable version of introduction)




One of the primary goals of this project is to bring together the fields of visual arts, music, literature, and history to make “Misery” accessible, entertaining, and, socially relevant to students. In this guide you will find useful information and tools to help you and your students experience the story in an entertaining and educational way.


The classroom materials, (questions and answers, projects, etc.) are color coded by the various areas of study.


Introductory information

The Story

History and Sociology


Visual arts



Instructors can use materials from any area, and materials can be coordinated with, and brought together with instructors from other areas or field of study to give a complete picture of the world in which the story takes place, and how it is relevant to current events and life today. Choose the ones that you find most relevant to your curriculum and student education level.


Some answers or possible answers are provided in italics below the question, however some questions are more open ended and will involve discussion.




Iona Potapov is a cab/sledge driver sitting in the snow at dusk, waiting on a fare. His son has recently died and he is suffering. He tries to tell his story to each fare that he picks up, but, for various reasons, none of them will listen. He is surrounded by people but completely alone. At the end of the day the only one he can talk to is his horse.




• Iona Potapov

• The Little Mare, (Horse)

• The Military Officer

• The Three Drunken Men

• The House Porter

• People on the Street

• The Young Cabman

• Other Cabmen




1. From what point of view is the story told?

3rd person

2. What is the voice that the author uses to tell the story?

3rd person subjective

3. What is the tense that the author uses to tell the story?

Present tense

4. What type of storytelling today is similar to the perspective and tense that Chekhov uses in “Misery”?

Reality TV, Direct cinema

5. What are the themes in the story?

6. How does the environment mirror the emotional state of Iona?

7. How is time expressed through the story?





Often, when reading a story, it is important to understand the time period in which it was written. It is also important to know when the story is to have taken place.


Why do you think it would be good to know when the story was written?

To understand what was going on in the world at that time, and understand what was going on in the author’s life, (personal and professional), at that time


Why do you think it would be good to know when the story is supposed to take place?

To understand what was going on in the world at that time, and possibly gain a deeper understanding of what the author is saying


Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 and died in 1904. “Misery” takes place during the period in which the author lived. During this time, Russia was undergoing great changes. To understand what was happening in Russia, you can read more here:






1. Given what we know about the time period of the story, what can we infer about the General’s treatment of Iona?

• How did he respond initially after hearing of the death?


• After the people on the street react to Iona’s driving?



2. How does his behavior relate to his role of a General and his experiences, given the recent war?

Being in command of military personnel during a time of war, the General would have to balance compassion toward his men and accomplishing the mission.

• Death probably would not affect the General as much, given how much of it he may have seen on the battlefield.


3. What can we conclude about the social and economic status of Iona?

He is poor


4. Thinking back to the reforms of Alexander II, how do you think they created or contributed to the situation that led Iona and his horse to St. Petersburg?

Iona was probably a serf and a peasant, and with the reforms, found himself without land and would need to travel to the city to make money.


5. Can you think of other times in history where changes, (political, social, economic, environmental), created a migration of people to other areas to look for work?


Possible Exercise: Compare and contrast the reforms of Alexander II and the process by which they were implemented to current events?

6. What can we conclude about the social and economic status of the three men?

They are wealthy

• What makes you think that?

• Can you give examples from the story?


7. Does the difference in class or status between the men and Iona affect the way the men treat Iona?

• Do you think it is right to treat someone differently based on their economic or social status?

• Do you think rich people are better than poor people?

• Have you ever treated or been treated differently based on economic or social status?


8. Who gives Iona the time of day?

The house porter

• What is his reaction to Iona?

He wants him to go away


9. How does the other cab driver react when Iona tells him of his son’s death?

He continues to sleep


10. How does the economic status of the other cabman affect his reaction to Iona?

He would be poor as well and probably working as much as he could to earn enough money to live


Possible Exercise: Looking at the different motivations for the treatment of Iona, create a list of challenges to creating a more egalitarian society. Come up with ideas for overcoming them


How did the assassination of Alexander II and the subsequent policies of Alexander III lead to the Revolution?




In many ways the orchestra can be thought of as one large instrument, but it is actually a large community of players grouped into various families. The typical symphony orchestra is grouped by woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion instruments, and generally, all led by a conductor. This hasn’t always been the case, though. The orchestra has changed over time and is still changing. The orchestra of today can have a performer playing computer generated sounds as well as instruments typically associated with rock and popular music like electric guitar; and, some orchestras don’t have a conductor.


You can find out more about the history of the orchestra here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orchestra


You can find out more about the role of the conductor and the various instruments below.


• The Conductor: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/conducting

• The instruments: http://vsl.co.at/en/Academy and http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments




• Iona Potapov   Bassoon

• Iona’s Inner Voice  Horn

• The Little Mare, (Horse) Strings, Percussion, (sleigh bells and snare drum)

• The Military Officer  Bass Trombone

• The Three Drunken Men Horn and Trumpets

• The House Porter  Trombone

• People on the Street  Woodwinds, Brass

• Other Cabmen  Strings with special effect




Misery’s structure is derived from the story itself. The themes are dependent on the events in the story. The composer titled the work “Anti-concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra”. In order to understand the term anti-concerto, we first have to understand what a concerto is. An overview of the history of the concerto can be found:



In a typical concerto, the soloist is the protagonist of the story or the hero. They either lead or are victorious over the orchestra. In an anti-concerto, the soloist is either an anti-hero or the underdog.


In what other ways does this piece differ in form from a typical Romantic Concerto?


Possible Exercise: “Misery” uses a literary work to determine the form of the piece. Map out the form and structure of the piece. Discuss:

1. How does the form of “Misery” compare to other traditional musical forms of the past?

2. How is it similar and different?

3. How do literary forms and musical forms parallel?




1. What instruments constitute a standard orchestra?


2. What instruments are missing in “Misery”?

Orchestral Bassoon (not the soloist), Oboe and English horn


3. Why do you think the composer did this?

To help convey the feeling of loneliness and isolation Iona feels, (he is alone as a double reed instrument)


4. What do you think the celesta represents?



5. Why do you think the composer chose the bassoon to represent Iona?


6. How does the composer express time passing in the middle of the piece?



7. Why do you think the composer used the horn to represent Iona’s thoughts?

• Bassoon and horn sound similar and blend well

• Horn is a bit darker and less nasal that bassoon, so it would be the most like what Iona’s voice would sound like to him


Possible Exercise: Have students talk and listen to their voice as they speak, then record their voice and play it back to them.(If performers are available or if you have a recording, play a passage on Horn and the same passage on bassoon. Compare the difference in the sounds of the instruments to the individual’s perceived difference in the sound of their own voice. Discuss


8. How does the composer convey motion in the piece?


9. How does the composer create the emotional climax where Iona breaks down after getting the time from the House Porter?





Extended techniques are ways of playing an instrument that are not typical.


Read the preface to the score and the following references:


snoring effect

circular breathing


Discuss how the composer uses the extended techniques to help tell the story?


Possible exercise: Show the video and have students practice circular breathing




Anton Chekhov:




Michael J. Evans:




Sam Apple Cummins




Jan Hudeček




Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra




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