It’s party time and I will have no party without proper music. So here we go, bridging the nowadays-not-so-large-anymore gulf between classical music and jazz. I invited my very good friend Dmitry to this occasion, so please, take a few minutes, and with his Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1 we will celebrate the fact that another year of a thrilling life – mine – has gone by. May there be many more. Here’s a toast to Dmitry Shostakovich, one of my favourite composers, and to Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who have recorded the piece!
Shostakovich wrote the suite in 1934; it was one of his contributions to advance “Soviet jazz” so that it could compete on the world stage with its capitalist brother. After all, the Soviet Union presented itself as a progressive, modern country. Shostakovich had joined the official Jazz commission of the Soviet Union, and if the creation of such a commission is not progressive, than I don’t know. No other country ever had a governmental jazz commission!
“Russia was a regressive and disconnected country at this time in its history, deeply unaware of […] most social, cultural and musical developments taking place in the West”, a contributor for the radio Classic FM notes. And he goes on: “Consequently, by the time any appreciation of jazz existed on Russian soil, the bars of new Orleans had been ringing out with the sound of such music for years. […] This is deeply sugary music, created in direct response to the Soviet government’s demand that more be done to reflect this emerging genre.”
Certainly, Shostakovich was aware of the fact that his suite bore little resemblance to American jazz. As disconnected the Soviet Union might have been, people did have record players. And in Moscow and Leningrad they craved for anything from the West. Western music has been smuggled into the Soviet Union from the first day of its existence on. No revolution without a counter-revolution! And I would bet that Shostakovich wrote this piece in a deliberately tongue-in-cheek way. He was a sharp observer and a clever mind with a penchant to acid irony.
What I like best is the fact that this is a simple yet clever miniature, written in three movements, entertaining without being superficial, a small, condensed, light-hearted and spirited form. The most difficult in my opinion. By using a fancy and witty instrumentation, he created a small piece that has become one of the most popular works of Shostakovich, easily accessible even to people who have no inclination for either jazz or classical music. It’s simply fun. And now, without further ado: Let’s drink, let’s dance, let’s celebrate with Soviet jazz! Будем здоровы!
© Charles Thibo