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Thoughts about Shostakovich’s ‘Festive’ overture

1950 photograph of Dmitri Shostakovich in the audience at a Bach festival in Leipzig
by Roger and Renate Rössing, from Wikipedia (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license)

In the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Dmitri Shostakovich was able gradually to recover his footing as a creative artist. Most importantly, Shostakovich was able to “liberate” many of what he called his “desk drawer” compositions, music that he had kept discreetly hidden after having completed it. Beyond that he could get back into the business of serving Soviet authorities with his skills with less fear of persecution (if not none at all).

One interesting gesture of service concerned the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1954. This involved a major concert held at the Bolshoi Theatre. However, only days before the big event, the conductor, Vassili Nebolsin, realized that he did not have a suitably “festive” overture for the occasion. He approached Shostakovich, who managed to compose his Opus 96 overture (which he called “Festive”) over the course of three days.

The author of the Wikipedia page for this piece likens it to the overture that Mikhail Glinka wrote for his Russlan and Lyudmila overture. One can appreciate the comparison in terms of the rapid-fire melodic passages for the strings; but one also see signs that Shostakovich was beginning to work up the courage to have a little fun again. He decided to double his brass section. The four horns, three trumpets, and three trombones on stage were reproduced in the same number in an offstage section. Only the tuba was not duplicated. As might be expected, he used his brass to evoke grandeur; but, to the discerning ear, there are also signs that he was looking back on several of the grand gestures that permeated much of nineteenth-century Russian music.

Shostakovich was clearly not looking back in anger. Was he looking back with nostalgia? Was it an ironic recollection of the excesses that would eventually be reduced to ashes by the October Revolution? As was the case with just about all of the other music he wrote, Shostakovich never said anything for certain; and, even if he had said something, we would have to wonder whether or not to believe him.

Opus 96 would become as much of a “hit” in the United States as it was when it was received by the Soviet authorities in 1954. Donald Hunsberger transcribed the score for concert band in a version that is almost as popular as the original. Last night the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Brass Ensemble, conducted by Paul Welcomer, performed Peter Lawrence’s arrangement for only brass and percussion. Listening to brass instruments play all of those rapid passages for strings was quite an experience, but the overture is still dominated by its fanfare material. Welcomer gave the concluding statement of that fanfare a bit of a comic twist, almost as if he was willing to go with the possibility that Shostakovich was being ironic. In the context of this current “gilded age” that has now expanded to international proportions, that irony seemed disturbingly appropriate.

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