Music Appreciation: Slava! by Leonard Bernstein

With the appearance of “Slava!” on our music stands this semester in community band, I decided now was as good a time as any to chat about this fun piece by Leonard Bernstein. For those of you who have followed the blog since the beginning, you might remember my post from a couple of years ago on Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide.” I’m way past due for talking about another Bernstein piece!

Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich playing cello.

Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich playing cello. Photo by music2020; used under CC BY 2.0 license.

Shostakovich composed “Slava! A Political Overture” to honor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in his first season as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a prominent cellist in addition to a conductor, and he worked with many composers to bring new cello works to the repertoire. This piece for orchestra is titled after Rostropovich’s nickname, “Slava.”

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I’ve played this piece a few times and have listened to it too many times to count. But it’s always been the band version (transcribed by Clare Grundman). I knew it was originally composed for orchestra in honor of Rostropovich, but didn’t think about it too much beyond that. I learned some things while researching this post! For one, the concert band version has a different subtitle: “a concert overture.” It turns out that it’s more than just a simple subtitle change. The original version (which is what I’ll dissect later) has a section in the middle that’s cut for the band version. This section is a vamp that accompanies a pre-recorded tape of parodied political speeches. I had no idea this part existed until now. If you’d like to read some more of the background of the piece, head over to the Kennedy Center’s website.

 

Bernstein sure knows how to start with a bang! We start with a rush down through the orchestra that ushers in an accompaniment. The basses aren’t content with their usual “oom” to someone else’s “pah,” so they add in a run of notes every few beats. The lead trombone starts the melody at 0:08, a jaunty tune that slides around a bit. Another brass voice takes over at 0:15, followed by a muted trumpet. The accompaniment punctuates each shift. More voices join the fun at 0:20, continuing the theme through its first half. (Note: Composers are great recyclers. To hear a previous incarnation of this theme, head over to this video around the 4:15 mark to hear “Grand Old Party” from the Broadway flop “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”). Composers are great recyclers. Click To Tweet

At 0:26, most of the group is in on the action to begin the second half of the theme. It starts out very similar to the first iteration, with different voicing and some other little differences (I love how at 0:31 it sounds like the trombone is laughing). The tune gets passed around some more and we build toward the end of the theme. There’s a great horn line starting at 0:41 that echoes the melody. The final lick (0:44) makes you think it will end on a nice chord, but instead it immediately rushes headlong into a recap of the intro.

However, Bernstein being Bernstein, he doesn’t continue into a repeat of Theme A. He takes through a busy, helter-skelter type of transition to lead us into the next theme.

“Pooks!”

(“Pooks” was the name of Rostropovich’s beloved dog. This particular outburst is omitted from the band version)

Now we settle into an active, yet constrained, accompaniment (1:05) compared to what was happening during Theme A. We’ve moved into 7/8 time. There are seven eighth notes per measure, but at this speed, we hear it as a lopsided three beats (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Once the soprano sax solo* begins Theme B (1:11), it’s easier to hear those three larger beats. There’s an undulating accompaniment pattern underneath the soloist. (*Thanks to a keen-eared reader that also heard another instrument playing the theme with the sax. I thought I heard something, but couldn’t quite tell. Based on the instrumentation, I’m wondering if it’s electric guitar. Have any of my reader played this in orchestra to know for sure?)

(Once again, Bernstein pillages material from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” though I think it’s rather evident that this music was worthy of receiving new life. This time the source song was called “Rehearse.” Check out this video around 8 minutes in for the full song, although it’s also part of the overture)

At 1:36, we modulate abruptly and get the accompaniment in a new key. The melody is now in the upper voices; but as usual, the horns steal the show with their echo starting at 1:40. We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). The two lines converge at the end, then the trumpets barge in at 2:03 with a call back to the intro. There’s some back and forth between various instruments, ended by a snare drum hit that comes across as a parental, “Enough!” (2:08). There’s one final burst from the other instruments to finish their thought.We continue through the entire theme (because, why wouldn’t we? It’s an awesome theme!). Click To Tweet

Immediately we jump back to the intro, but with different and reduced instrumentation that leads us to the vampy, political section (2:10). We hear various snippets of fake political speeches, which are appropriately capped off with a blow from a siren whistle (the instrumentation lists I’ve found show slide whistle, but this recording sure sounds to me like a siren whistle is being used).

The full orchestra comes in joyously with Theme B (2:46), including the horns’ echo, though this time there’s more of a balance between the primary line and the echo. At 3:09, we shift immediately into Theme A, with a vastly different group of instruments than what we heard at the beginning of the piece. More folks join in at 3:20, filling out the sound, and pretty much everyone is in by the time we get to the last bit of the first half of the theme (3:26) and the start of the second half.

Bernstein dials it back a little so that we get the same type of interplay between voices at 3:32 as we did the first time through all of this. But the rest of the group isn’t content to remain on the sidelines, and they join the party again at 3:39. They get to the last phrase of the theme, repeat it, but then give us a third time that’s altered just a bit rhythmically. There’s the briefest moment of silence before everyone brilliantly and enthusiastically gives us a final taste of Theme B (3:51). The tune is altered ever so slightly, but to me it’s just enough to give this last bit some extra oomph and sound rather triumphant. We get one last quick change back to a itty bitty part of the intro (3:57), then a sudden, quiet, sustained chord for a few beats until the musicians shout out, “Slava!”, and then the final, quick notes of the piece.

Thanks for joining me for Bernstein’s rousing overture. See you next time!

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