Composer Profile: Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Festive Overture in A major, Op. 96 – Orchestra Vitae, 7.30PM 16th October 2014, St John’s Smith Square

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) Festive Overture in A major, Op. 96

Dmitri Shostakovich was arguably one the most versatile of the 20th century’s composers, despite spending his entire career within the Soviet System. Educated at the Conservatory in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) his style cultivated a combination of traditional discipline with experimentation.  Heroic symphonies, modern operas, Bach-inspired counterpoint in a neoclassical style, light film and theatre music, meditative string quartets — all these and more flowed from his pen with apparent ease. The première of his First Symphony in 1926, when he was just nineteen, and its subsequent performances in the West, catapulted him to international prominence. His stylistic fluency was matched by an extraordinary compositional facility, as the genesis of his Festive Overture attests.

The Festive Overture was composed in 1954 and premièred the same year. During the Autumn Shostakovich had received an unexpected visit at his Moscow apartment from Vasily Nebol’sin – the conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre. A concert scheduled to take place within a few days coincided with the anniversary of the October Revolution, in which Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized control of Russia’s government in 1917. Such Communist anniversaries were customarily observed at the Bolshoi with the performance of a new musical work, something in the vein of a celebration. However, unaccountably, nothing had been arranged for the approaching concert. Nebol’sin therefore appealed, somewhat desperately, to Shostakovich.

The composer set to work on the overture with great speed, completing it in just three days. Apparently it is based on Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture from 1842 – it features the same lively tempo and style of melody. Whilst the style reflects Shostakovich, the piece as a whole uses conventional classical devices of form and harmony.

The overture begins with a fanfare in the brass, followed by a fast melody in the winds. The strings take up this melody and the piece reaches a climax with a four-note motif. Suddenly, the music reaches a more lyrical melody in the horns and cellos, although the tempo remains the same. Shostakovich develops this material in his typical style, using both themes in counterpoint, before the fanfare returns and leads to a rousing conclusion.

Today the overture is regarded as a standard piece of the orchestral repertoire. It featured in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the 2009 Nobel Prize concert.