Music Appreciation: Galop by Dmitri Shostakovich

Let’s take a look at another piece by our Russian friend Dmitri Shostakovich, a prolific

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1942

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1942.

composer who lived from 1906-1975. Galop is a short, frenetic piece from the satirical operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki. The plot of the work deals with housing issues in Moscow (specifically the Cheryomushki neighborhood) and follows a group of characters new to the housing development. Even though I’ve played this piece several times, I’d never really paid attention that it was part of a larger work. It was interesting to read up on the operetta. Apparently it was made into a movie version in 1963 – I’ll have to check that out sometime.

I’m having a hard time finding much else about this piece, such as when it occurs within the operetta and what exactly is happening during it. (Update: Thanks to a reader, Sue, I now know that this piece provides dancing music for a housewarming party. Watch this video around the 7-minute mark). It’s also a piece that seems to be far more popular in the band world than in the orchestral realm, at least that’s how it appears from my Google searching. So with that in mind, I’ll talk about the band version, which was arranged by Donald Hunsberger.

 

Hold on to your hats, because we’re in for a wild ride! A galop is just what you’d expect: a fast and furious piece. Don’t look for a soothing lullaby here.

We jump right in to theme A, no introduction necessary. Remember this theme, as it will come back more than once. I’d consider this piece to generally have a rondo form, which means that theme A alternates with other themes (i.e. A-B-A-C-A etc.).

Anyway, we burst out of the gate with the full ensemble, flying along at breakneck speed. We’re in a minor key despite the speed. Often times we like to distill major and minor keys into fast = happy = major, or slow = sad = minor (I’m guilty of it myself). This piece is a good reminder that music (and its keys) has many moods.

Theme A is repeated, then jumps immediately into theme B (0:19). The saxes and middle instruments take over the melody while the other sections interject statements throughout. The mood is somewhat different here, still not really happy, but a little lighter than theme A. The descending line at 0:23 has a bit of a laughter effect. As with theme A, theme B repeats.

Back to theme A at 0:31 (what did I tell you?), two times through.

Theme C (0:43) changes mood again. This time the high winds are fluttering about with a subdued oom-pah accompaniment underneath. This is probably the cheeriest part of the piece, which isn’t saying much. It sounds like a crazy polka to me. Like all the other themes, C is repeated.

And we come around to theme A again, repeated (0:55).

At 1:06, we get a new theme and a new mood. Theme D is more lyrical than the previous themes, though it’s disrupted by the descending laughter lines (such as the one at 1:11). We’re still at the same tempo, but it doesn’t feel quite as frantic here. Shostakovich changes to mostly eighth and quarter notes for this theme, compared to the eighth and sixteenth notes he’d been using before. So while the basic pulse stays the same, we’re changing how many notes are played during each pulse. He also changes the articulation to mostly slurred (smooth) lines. Up until now, we’ve heard choppier notes. Those types of things can change the mood of a piece, and we didn’t have to change the tempo to accomplish that.

After the second time through theme D, we don’t go back to theme A, which is what we’re expecting based on the pattern so far (1:31). I consider this more of a bridge than a theme E, partly due to it a) not strictly following the rondo pattern and b) it’s not a phrase of eight to fourteen measures that gets repeated like every other theme we’ve had. This feels like the break strain/dogfight section of a march, where there’s a conversation between the lower and upper ends of the ensemble. The low brass and winds finally decide they’re going to have their say here, as they’ve mostly been oom-pah-ing this whole time (with the exception of the laughter lines).

But despite the argument, the ensemble pulls together at 1:43 for one final round of theme A (repeated, of course).

At 1:55, we return to theme B. Or do we? Nope, Shostakovich is providing us with a coda (a finishing section of the piece). He uses the idea of theme B, but turns it into an ending instead of a way to lead into the next theme.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the gallop through the neighborhood of Cheryomushki. If anyone happens to know what exactly happens during this piece in the operetta, drop me a line in the comments!
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Bonus Features: Festive Overture

I had a couple more things to talk about with Festive Overture, but the last post was getting a bit long.  So here’s another “bonus features” post.

First off is our piece as played by a concert band.  Bands frequently play pieces that were originally for orchestra.  An arranger takes the parts and rewrites them for the instruments in the band.  So the violin parts get redistributed to flutes, clarinets and oboes; saxes, bassoons and bass clarinets get the viola and cello parts.  The low brass get more of the string bass parts, etc.

So why do all that?  Because we can 🙂  Why should the orchestras have all the fun?  You could liken it to when rock bands do cover songs.  It’s another way of expressing and hearing the music.  Some arrangements try to be as faithful to the original work as possible.  These arrangements are considered to be “transcriptions”.  The arranger doesn’t add his own voice to the piece outside of some decisions as to what instrument plays which part.  Other times, the arranger manipulates the original – he changes the time signature, modifies the melody, stuff like that.

So here’s a transcription for band by Donald Hunsberger.  The key has been moved down a half step from A to A♭.  There are practical reasons for changing the key in that different instruments have an easier time with certain keys over others.  So the group you’re writing for can influence which key you use.  Sure, we musicians should be able to play in all keys, but I figure why makes things harder than they need to be?

Do you like one version better than the other?  What differences did you hear in the instruments?  Did you notice when one section of the piece was played by a different instrument than in the orchestral version?

I have one more recording to share.  We’re back to the orchestral version, but listen to how fast they go!  Holy cow!  I came across this one while searching for just the right one to use in my discussion post.  While I admire how well they play, I prefer the slower one.  With tempo, there is often some wiggle room for interpretation.  Composers will sometimes specify a metronome marking (which specifies speed as “beats per minute”).   I tend to see more general terms, such as allegro (fast), maestoso (majestically), etc.

Here’s the warp speed version:

And that wraps up our discussion of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture.  I hope you enjoyed it!

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Music Appreciation: Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich

Now we move to a Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), a Russian composer who had a strained

Photo of Dmitri Shostakovich (1958)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1958)
(Public domain image)

relationship with Joseph Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia.  During that time, artists had to be careful what they produced.  There could be terrible consequences if they didn’t properly reflect the state’s approved aesthetic of “socialist realism”.  Despite the lack of artistic freedom, Shostakovich was a prolific composer, writing symphonies, string quartets, ballet and movie music, and much more.

I didn’t know the back story on Festive Overture before now – I just knew I loved the piece and have had a great time rehearsing and performing it.  I hadn’t known that it was composed just three days before its premiere at a concert commemorating the anniversary of the October Revolution.  Wow!

(In researching this post, I stumbled across an archived story about Shostakovich that NPR did a few years back.  They talk a bit more about the political climate Shostakovich faced.  You might also be interested in articles from the LA Philharmonic and California public TV station KCET.)

So let’s hear some music!

 

Shostakovich creates a bold beginning with a trumpet fanfare, adding in the horns to help build the chord.  The low voices follow with a statement of their own.  As the high brass repeat the fanfare, the strings and upper woodwinds join in with some shimmer in the high range.  The tension builds through repetition, with the entire orchestra uniting in rhythm and slowing down just a bit to introduce the main theme of the piece.

And then we fly!  The clarinets play the main theme of the piece – it’s just so gleeful and free.  They’re joined by the flutes and piccolo, with the strings as accompaniment. But listen to the strings here – listen to how rhythmic that accompaniment is.  I feel it adds an extra push of excitement to the rollicking already happening in the melody.  Then the violins decide they want the melody, too, and let the horns take over the accompaniment.  Even though it’s not as syncopated as the string accompaniment earlier, it still has an intensity to it that propels the melody forward.

(For the love of Pete – why on earth do the audience members look as if they’re listening to a funeral march?  Maybe I’m more of a nerd than I thought, because it’s hard for me not to break out into a grin when I hear this piece, especially as that clarinet part begins.)

At 2:15, the trumpets enter with a new theme, accented by flourishes from the upper instruments.  It doesn’t last very long and is followed by a conversation of sorts between the strings and brass (2:24).  The woodwinds join in and keep the conversation flowing and building toward the next section.

This time, it’s the middle and low voices who get the primary melody (2:45).  The rest of the ensemble adds flourishes and accents.  Listen closely here – does the melody sound familiar at all? It’s actually the same as the initial clarinet melody, just slower.  Pretty cool, huh?  He changes it just a bit, but it’s clearly based on the main theme.

After the low instruments have their say, they help to usher in the gorgeous “slow” theme (3:04).  I put slow in quotes because the overall tempo of the piece doesn’t change, and you can hear that the accompaniment is still driving along under the lushness of the cellos.  But this melody is not frenzied and exuberant like the first theme.  (I talk about many different themes in this piece, but I consider the first clarinet melody as the main theme and the “slow” melody as the second most important theme).  The melody continues with the violins joining in, then Shostakovich uses repetition and manipulation of a motif at 3:30 to transition into the next section (a motif is the smallest bit of thematic material; think of the da-da-da-dummmm of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).

This next bit is interesting in that it doesn’t have a melody that announces itself like all the other themes.  At first it sounds like regular oom-pah-ing to usher in the next part, but if you listen closely, it’s quite melodic.  The ensemble helps show the musicality of this part with its subtle crescendo and descrecendo at 3:44-45-ish.  Another reason this section feels different is because the strings are playing pizzicato, which means the players pluck the strings instead of using a bow drawn across them.

After going through this oom-pah melody twice, the high winds join in with some runs which gain in intensity and provide a good compliment to the heavier accented line in the strings.  Shostakovich brings back the trumpet theme we heard back at 2:15, but uses the strings this time.  All through this he builds tension and anticipation, moving us forward, bringing us finally to the primary clarinet theme, this time with the entire orchestra playing.  We get some relief from the tension he’d built leading up to this.

He’s not done with us yet, however.  At 4:29, he takes the melody in a bit of a different direction, teasing us some more by manipulating the runs in the violins, adding some repetition to them, and using a trill at 4:36 to add even more tension, until…

Glorious resolution!  Everything comes together at this point.  We have the gleeful fast melody over the lush slow melody.  There are some slight changes to each, but the effect is amazing.  He lets us on for a bit before calming down a little.  I’ve always loved the descending line/transition at 4:48 that brings us back into the slow theme.  But he doesn’t keep us there for long, as he’s back to manipulating the melody at 4:58, bringing the tension in again, raising the pitch of the melody to add to that tension.  Another transition statement I love is starts with the back and forth at 5:12, which has an ascending brass line to move it forward, and concludes at 5:15 with the entire group playing the same rhythm.  Using the same rhythm is very effective here.

We have one last burst of energy at 5:17, bringing back earlier themes throughout this section.  We noodle around some more, finally slowing down just a tiny bit to usher in a return to the fanfare we heard way back in the beginning of the piece.  Remember that? It was several minutes ago!  This time the entire ensemble is playing and the strings and winds have added various flourishes.  He’s not quite finished with us yet.  We take one last dive into the swift river of sound, joyously building toward the end.

Did you have fun?  I sure did!  It’s difficult not to feel the “festive” part of this overture.  I actually have a couple more tidbits to share, but given the length of this post I think I’ll cover those in a bonus features post.  See you next time!

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