Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composer and the pieces

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Op. 96

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was one of the greatest composers of the last century, yet for much of his life he led a dual existence as both a rebellious composer and the musical face of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. He walked a fine line and often worked in fear of his life. Things came to a head when his racy opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was denounced in Pravda after Stalin attended a performance. The frightened composer responded by setting aside his audacious Fourth Symphony (written in 1936 but premiered in 1961) to produce a more conservative Fifth that he called “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.” The work served its purpose, but his fortunes varied from there. His Sixth Symphony (1939) was not denounced but played to mixed reviews. The Seventh (1940), dedicated to the besieged city of Leningrad, was popular and accepted by Stalin. Three years later, the dark, powerful Eighth was criticized for its pessimism, and in 1945, the Ninth’s witty reaction to the end of the war was disparaged for its alleged lack of patriotism. The last straw was when the Eighth and Ninth (and works of other composers) were banned as “formalism” in 1948. For six years after that, Shostakovich composed several safely patriotic works like The Sun Shines over the Motherland and Song of the Forest. He enjoyed writing those pieces—some were indeed quite good—but he also managed to write a few that did not fit the patriotic mold.

Most scholars believe Shostakovich hid his true feelings about all this in some of his music, but what those feelings were remains a puzzle. Did he loathe the regime? Were his “patriotic” works really patriotic? Was the concluding fanfare of the Fifth Symphony festive (played fast, as marked) or oppressive (played slowly)?

The year 1953 was a major one for Shostakovich. Stalin’s death in March was followed in December by the premiere of the composer’s Tenth Symphony, a work that seemed to express many of his inner struggles. It was arguably the most important of his works to use the DSCH motif (D E-flat C B) that stood for his name. (DSCH is based on the German spelling of Schostakowitsch, with each letter standing for a note. In German, E-flat is Es, hence the S; B is H.)
Shostakovich wrote Festive Overture at the request of the Bolshoi Theater for a piece to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. Though he called it an overture, it stands alone as an “occasional piece.” The composer was given almost no lead time and either created it at great speed or used material he had written in the past. It begins with a slow brass fanfare and what sounds like a march but in 3/4 time. Then comes an exhilarating, breathless presto that begins in the clarinet and never lets up, with its spirited flurries of sound, kicked along by afterbeats. Interspersed are Russian-style tunes that are a little martial, but also good natured, even celebratory. The final section returns to the slower fanfare style of the opening and closes in triumph. Festive Overture is a popular orchestra piece and is often played by concert bands.                                                                                                                                      

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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