Dmitri Shostakovich: Jazz Suite No.1

Context

Composed in 1934 when Dmitri Shostakovich was 28 years old, his Jazz Suite No.1 was part of his genre-bending stage. The first performance of the work took place on March 24th, 1934 in Leningrad.

The orchestration is not for a regular orchestra. Shostakovich handpicks instruments to build a jazz orchestra for this suite. He uses these instruments:

  • Three saxophones (soprano, alto and tenor)
  • Two trumpets
  • Trombone
  • Wood block
  • Snare drum
  • Cymbals
  • Glockenspiel
  • Xylophone
  • Banjo
  • Hawaiian guitar
  • Piano
  • Violin
  • Double Bass

The quirky orchestration of this jazz suite is what accentuates the unique character of Shostakovich’s music. Although Shostakovich is known for his intense, serious and emotional large-scale works, he was also very in tune with popular culture. He jumped at the chance to compose a Jazz Suite, and actually ended up composing two!

The Music

The suite is in three short movements:

  • Waltz (G minor)
  • Polka (C major)
  • Foxtrot (F# minor)

 

Movement I – Waltz

The opening waltz is opened by banjo and piano, with a muted trumpet taking over the main melody. The soprano saxophone joins in and the melody is soon passed around more of the instruments. Shostakovich’s use of comedic timing makes this movement light-hearted. 

The percussion accentuates the melody both in terms of timbre and harmony. The saxophones and violin intertwine in the melody, creating a jaunty duet between the two. The reflective end of this movement is tinged with magic by the glockenspiel.

 

Movement II – Polka

The second movement highlights the xylophone, trombone and banjo. Muted trumpets mimic the saxophones above off-beat strums from the banjo. The violin plays quick slides to mimic the trombone which creates a real comedic feel to this movement.

A snare drum enters to give a more march-like feel to the polka. This is the shortest movement of the three and finishes with a cheeky slide up from the violin and a strike on the xylophone.

Movement III – Foxtrot 

The final movement emphasises the sax, Hawaiian guitar, trombone and glockenspiel. Opening with a jazzy motif from the trumpets and saxophones, the start is much more ‘big band’ in style. The sultry accompaniment gives room for the soloists to shine above. There is a march-like feel in this foxtrot, with the piano playing a short chordal accompaniment. 

The trumpets and saxophones return with their opening motif bringing jazz back to the forefront of this movement. The Hawaiian guitar interlude is accompanied by the plodding piano and a rogue trombone comedically sliding in the background. The section certainly offers some rest bite from other sections.

Cymbal crashes signify the change in chords from the saxophones and trumpets, who are leading the way at this point. A saxophone solo leads the music into the final phrases of the movement, with a swelling chord from the muted trumpets, trombone and accompaniment shining through to reflect the end of the suite.

Final Thoughts

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.1 is one of his most comedic works. It is brilliantly ironic, because actually it’s not really jazz. Shostakovich attempts a blues-inspired foxtrot at the end, however the music is ironically not jazz per se at all. There is nothing wrong with that, however, as it doesn’t detract from the charismatic music that was produced in this really experimental time for the popular composer.

Happy Reading!

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