Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1930-1932

Length: c. 17 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, wood block, xylophone) 2 harps, celesta, and strings (+ banda of cornetti, trumpets, and alto, tenor, baritone, and bass horns)

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

As disappointed as he was by the criticism of The Nose, Shostakovich did not turn his back on the musical theater. Instead, in his second opera, an adaptation of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a popular 1864 horror story by Nikolai Leskov, the composer deliberately moderated the radicalism of The Nose to create an opera more realistic in its dramaturgy and more lyrical and accessible in its musical idiom.

Where Leskov's heroine, the provincial merchant's wife Katerina, commits serial murders in order to safeguard the object of her passion, the hired laborer Sergei, Shostakovich's aim was to transfigure her from a repulsive murderess into a woman for whom the listener would feel sympathy, a woman of spirit and unfulfilled potential, a victim of her violent and repressive social environment. He called his opera a "tragedy-satire." Turning a merciless lens on Katerina's surroundings - exploiting his hallmark style of musical "grotesque" and drawing the satire in bold strokes with parodied references to music from operetta, music hall, and circus - he reserved for his heroine his most heartfelt lyricism, the music of greatest emotional depth and genuine warmth.

Katerina's poignant aria - "The foal runs after the filly" - in Act I, Scene 3, is a key ingredient in Shostakovich's humanizing of his heroine. From this moment her downfall is set in motion. Knowing that Katerina's husband is away, the smooth-talking seducer Sergei gains entrance to her bedchamber on a lame pretext. He probes her every vulnerability as the tension steadily mounts. The graphic orchestral interlude at the climax leaves no doubt what is taking place; in the original Leningrad production the singers repaired behind a screen leaving it to the listener's imagination. For the Moscow and foreign productions, Shostakovich made discreet cuts.

We do not know with any certainty what Stalin found most objectionable when he finally went to see Lady Macbeth in January 1936, two years after it had begun running with extraordinary success in Russia and abroad. Its uninhibited sexual naturalism actually seemed to have been more offensive to American critics than to Russians in the 1930s, although Act I, Scene 3 is the scene that underwent the most far-reaching revisions of text and music when Shostakovich revised his opera (1954-1963) - as Katerina Izmailova, Op. 114 - and it returned to the stage.

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