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Shostakovich was most definitely a light-and-shade composer. On the one hand, we have the intense, expansive orchestral works, full of grand political gestures and complex musical ideas. On the other, we find the many film scores and the light, jolly Jazz Suites, both composed in the 1930s.
Russia was a regressive and disconnected country at this time in its history, deeply unaware of (and unaffected by) most social, cultural and musical developments taking place in the West. 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.
Both of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites have a sort of end-of-the-pier quality to them. In truth, they bear the same relationship to authentic jazz as socks and sandals do to high fashion. This is deeply sugary music, created in direct response to the Soviet government’s demand that more be done to reflect this emerging genre.
Did Shostakovich compose these suites in a deliberately tongue-in-cheek way, aware of the fact that they contain the kind of jazz that would make Miles Davis turn in his grave? Or was he musically naive, limited by the Russian communists from the true sound of what he was meant to be emulating? We’ll never know for sure – but what we can be certain of is that these tuneful and wholly inoffensive ditties still find an appreciative audience today.
Philadelphia Orchestra; Mariss Jansons (conductor). EMI Classics: CDC 5556012.