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About this Piece

Composed: 1928

Length: c. 25 minutes

Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), oboe (= English horn), clarinet (= E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), bassoon (= contrabassoon), horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion (bass drum, bells, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, tom-tom, triangle, xylophone), balalaika, 2 harps, piano, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Having launched his career spectacularly in 1926 with the premiere of his First Symphony - his graduation piece for the composition course of the Leningrad Conservatory - Dmitri Shostakovich was eager to throw off the shackles of his fusty academic training and make a name for himself as one of the leading modernist composers of Soviet Russia. At the age of 20 he set about realizing this ambition by composing an operatic version of Nikolai Gogol's 1836 tale about the preposterous misadventure of a Tsarist civil servant (Kovalev) who wakes up one morning to find that his nose has absconded from his face and turned into a civil servant of a loftier rank.

In 1927-28, when Shostakovich composed The Nose, Soviet opera lagged far behind the other performing arts in finding direction and relevance in the new cultural order; its stagnancy was accentuated by performances of modern Western works, including Berg's Wozzeck. Shostakovich's own radical attempt to address the situation found strong support, and, even before the opera was finished, Leningrad's Maly Opera Theater accepted The Nose for production. The obstacles were enormous. In addition to the challenging musical language, largely nontonal and nonlyrical in style, the opera's technical requirements are gargantuan. All involved were well aware that The Nose might prove controversial, that time would be required to prepare the public for the new, "Soviet" opera.

The Suite of extracts Shostakovich compiled for concert performance was one of the trial balloons. It encapsulates the most characteristic musical elements of the opera. In addition to four instrumental numbers, there are three vocal excerpts. The first is the aria the hero sings in Act II when he attempts to place an ad for the return of his nose and the last is the monologue that concludes Act II, as Kovalev contemplates the ramifications of his fruitless search. The ballad accompanied by balalaikas and flexatone that is sung by Ivan, Kovalev's slacker servant, takes its text not from Gogol, but from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. This number proved especially popular with the audience when the Suite had its premiere in November 1928.

In the two and a half years between the time Shostakovich began writing his opera and the time it was finally produced - in January 1930 - the creative atmosphere in the Soviet Union changed markedly. Intended to revolutionize operatic theater along avant-garde lines, The Nose was subjected instead to harsh criticism from proletarian critics who branded it "the infantile sickness of leftism." It played for a respectable sixteen performances in 1930-31, but was not revived again in Russia until 1974.

- Laurel E. Fay is Scholar in Residence for Shadow of Stalin.