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About this Piece

Composed: 1934
Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: soprano saxophone (= alto 2), alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, percussion (drum, woodblock, cymbal, bells, xylophone), piano, banjo, Hawaiian guitar, violin, and bass
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Though Dmitri Shostakovich seemed destined to greatness in the classical tradition, he also loved popular music. He was taken with Jewish folk and theater music, for example, and with the gypsy tunes his father frequently sang around the house. He was also unabashedly in love with the cinema. In fact, he wrote over 30 film scores, many during periods in which he had fallen out of favor with the Soviet authorities and had trouble getting concert performances.

The years 1929-1933 were busy ones for Shostakovich, especially writing music for films. Sound had been recently introduced in cinema, and as dialog and sound effects became more prominent, musical segments began to shrink. Also, directors were searching for new and exotic sounds. The Golden Mountains, a 1931 film by Sergei Yutkevich, was a perfect example. Shostakovich experimented with a variety of unusual and offbeat instruments in his score for that film, including the theremin (an electronic instrument invented by Russian Leo Theremin, forerunner of the modern synthesizer), the flexitone, the American banjo, and the electrified Hawaiian lap guitar. Rather than just writing extended compositions, he also wrote pop-style tunes for the film; the song “If Only I Had Mountains of Gold” became “all the rage” after the film’s release, according to Soviet cinema expert Herbert Marshall.

Shostakovich’s experience in those years certainly influenced the sound of the 1934 Suite for Jazz Orchestra (No. 1), which was commissioned by a Leningrad dance band. His “take” on jazz is whimsical, indeed, reflecting his interest in gypsy music and in the music of the Yiddish theater more than it does the sound of American jazz. It also reflects his penchant for offbeat instruments, not to mention his ability to spin a tune.

The first movement, an upbeat Waltz, opens with a catchy tune in the trumpet, followed by saxophone, then violin. A chirpy middle section features glockenspiel prominently. Shostakovich briefly flirts with the minor mode, then returns to the tunefulness of the opening.

The second movement, a convivial Polka, continues the chirpiness, with xylophone featured first. Muted brass plays next, while the driving banjo plays the off beats. Both alto and tenor sax have their say before the violin has the last word with a chipper solo featuring the spiccato (bouncing) bowing technique.

The Finale, marked “Foxtrot” in the score, starts with a brassy opening, followed by a sinuous melody played by saxophone. The most peculiar section, which hearkens back to his film score from The Golden Mountain, features the Hawaiian guitar taking the melody while a trombone slithers around underneath in accompaniment. Trombone next takes a turn at the melody, followed by another splash of glockenspiel, a return of the saxophones, and an assertive ending by the ensemble.

Dr. Dave Kopplin is an Associate Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona, Director of the Cal Poly Jazz Band, and writes for performing arts organizations across the country.