Let Your Ear Rejoice with Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture”
Now we move to a Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), a Russian composer who had a strained
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.)
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.)
The Trumpets Take Over
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).
Is It a Melody?
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…
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!