Festive Overture

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            Shostakovich is clearly regarded as one of the small group of the twentieth century’s most significant composers.   Yet, on no other of his peers has more ink been spilt attempting to understand what thought processes and motivations reveal a composer’s own true self than that on Shostakovich.   Was he a musically gifted, but incredibly naïve, tool of the worst instincts of Stalinism--or, a wondrously deceptive, resident critic of the terrors of Soviet Communism?  Shostakovich left a maddeningly ambiguous record of his inner thoughts.  He certainly was capable of writing the most satirical compositions that scathingly excoriated the excesses and flaws of Western Democracies.  But his informing contribution was his music of dark and profound passion that laments the fundamental tragedies of universal human experience.   It is tempting for those who enjoy easy freedoms of artistic expression to hold others from other times to a higher moral standard and to adjure them not to “sell out” their integrity.  But few major composers have endured such political and artistic oppression as that of Shostakovich. 

            He was a student during the early years of the Soviet regime, and like all artists in that country at that time, enjoyed the relative indifference towards the arts of early communism.   Stylistic prescriptions and proscriptions lay in the future, so he studied the music of a broad array of traditional and modern composers.  His musical education was broad, and he was free to pursue his own artistic interests.  He was generally supportive of the communist regime, and saw no reason to think otherwise.   But, as the world knows, during the late twenties and early thirties, life in the Soviet Union evolved into something much more sinister and challenging.  As Stalin gradually clamped down on every aspect of everyday life, the arts became progressively a tool for social and political indoctrination.   Art was impressed into the service of the state as propaganda, taking in this case the form of what is known as “Socialist Realism.”  By 1936, Shostakovich had fallen into dangerous disfavor with his controversial, lurid, opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District—a work that definitely did not glorify the joys of the collectivist state. But, he gradually redeemed himself by treading an artistic tightrope between shallow, disingenuous Soviet propaganda, on the one hand, and serious works in the Western tradition of art music that exposed him to the wrath of the government guardians of received ideology.

            This intellectual high-wire act fostered a lifetime of masterpieces:  symphonies, string quartets, keyboard works, and more.  His historical reputation is founded upon a musical style informed by master craftsmanship, seriousness, and depth of feeling--not so unlike a previous master of classical musical style, Johannes Brahms.  So, in this context, it is a marvelous, pleasant surprise to encounter the effervescent ebullience of his triumphant Festive Overture.

            Like Brahms’ genial, happy, Academic Festival Overture, Shostakovich’s overture is equal evidence of the lighter side of a serious, introspective artist.  And, like Brahms’ work, Shostakovich’s overture was commissioned for a specific, festive occasion—in this case, a concert by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, celebrating the anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution.  Apparently, the conductor had not prepared adequately for the occasion, and he found himself in the unenviable position of not having a suitable opening, celebratory work.  The concert (6 November 1954) was only three days away when Vasili Nebol’sin, the conductor, made a visit to the composer—probably with his hat in his hand.  To his surprise, Shostakovich agreed to compose a suitable opener on the fly.  He had a reputation for fast work, and this occasion demanded it.   Working like a Mozart, sending pages still wet with ink to the copyists at the theater, Shostakovich knocked out a masterpiece in record time.

            After opening with a dramatic, imposing fanfare in the brass, the tempo changes to breakneck speed, with a main theme of cascading notes.   It’s literally a driving gallop, carrying the sparkling ocean of notes before it.   A lyrical second theme soon appears in the solo horn, but still driven ahead.   Soon, a Tchaikovskian pizzicato section leads us back to the main theme.  Both themes are then combined, followed by a recap of the brilliant fanfare and a mad dash to the end.   Whence this tour de force of frenetic optimism from one of the century’s most serioso composers?  Well, all great artists are capable of infinite varieties of expression.   But, perhaps there is something in the piece of relief at the recent death of the century’s greatest criminal, and Shostakovich’s personal nemesis, Josef Stalin.  Shostakovich was innately subtle and ambiguous in his artistic expression.  So are the joyful implications of Festive Overture.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan