Dmitri Shostakovich: Waltz No. 2
Composed as part of Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra – Waltz No. 2 is one of the composer’s most famous works. The suite was composed post-1956, and was subsequently used as part of the soundtrack for the Russian film The First Elechon. The suite itself is comprised of eight small movements, all of which are scored for a large orchestra. The ‘variety’ element is supported by Shostakovich’s addition of a full saxophone section, a celeste and two pianos. In the composer’s note at the start of the score, Shostakovich writes that the movements can be played in any order, and they do not all have to be played in one performance. You can hear the full suite in order here:
Waltz No. 2 is certainly the most famous from the suite, largely due to its affiliation with The First Elechon. This particular composition by Shostakovich is in ABA form, with the outer sections being firmly rooted in C minor. Throughout the short work Shostakovich moves between Eb major and C minor (relative major/minor keys), which creates a certain unsteadiness to the piece.
Beginning with a march-like 3/4 accompaniment from the drums and strings, the tempo and character of the piece is soon set. The main melody is first played by the alto saxophone, which highlights the ‘variety’ aspect of the orchestration. The timbre of the alto saxophone with the sparse march accompaniment creates the signature uneasy atmosphere that this waltz is so well-known for. On face value this could be read as a romantic waltz, however the dichotomy between the lightness and darkness within the music is what gives this waltz the edge.
Shostakovich’s use of tuned percussion and bells accentuates the alluring drama that is created as the main melody is passed around the orchestra. The role of the strings is either accompaniment and keeping the ‘oom pah pah’ rhythm driving, or they are leading the tonality into the major with long flowing melodic phrases. The role of the winds sees them accentuating the melodic structure and using their extreme ranges to sound similar to the tuned percussion. The brass take on both melodic and solo roles. The trombone solo in the middle of the work is perhaps one of the most sought after classical trombone solos. The addition of the trumpets at the end of this solo highlights some of the comedic readings you could take from this piece.
The unrelenting bass line is prominent throughout the work, with the double basses and snare drum being the consistent parts on this line. The construction of this work is certainly reminiscent of a toy solider march, and the lightness of the melody creates even more of a haunting beauty within. Although only a short waltz, this work has stood up to the test of time and its immediate success has not wavered in the modern day.