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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) has long been established as one of the most important and performed composers of the 20th century. The 50th anniversary year in 2025 offers the opportunity to explore his more experimental symphonies, intriguing miniatures and works for voice and orchestra ripe for rediscovery.

Symphonic avant-garde

Most of Shostakovich’s symphonies are performed frequently. However, two of the most remarkable and surprising are rarely heard: the Second and the Third Symphonies. They bear testimony to the experimental spirit of optimism of the young Soviet avant-garde era, which manifested itself in all the arts.

Symphony No.2
in B major ‘To October – A Symphonic Dedication’,
Op. 14 (1927) | 20 min.
for chorus and orchestra
Text: Alexander Bezymensky

It is astonishing that one of Shostakovich’s earliest ‘official’ scores, which was composed for a special concert in honour of the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, is also among his most original and modern scores. The glaring colours and wild experimental textures of this one-movement symphony, its avant-garde dissonances and dashes of colour, which blend with the ardent late-romantic harmonies, make it one of the most unusual choral and orchestral works of the early twentieth century.

Symphony No.3
in E flat major ‘The First of May’,
Op. 20 (1929) | 30 min.
for chorus and orchestra
Text: Semyon Kirsanov

The Third Symphony extols the revolutionary holiday of 1 May with a triumphant chorus. However, beneath the dazzling festival atmosphere, its haunting melodies, broken marches, and satiric moments allude to the familiar language of Shostakovich’s later symphonies.

Symphonic miniatures

Whether encores or concert openers, Shostakovich’s short orchestral works are the ideal introduction to his cosmos. The early works additionally offer exciting glimpses into his musical development.

Scherzo No.1
in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1920) | 5 min.

At the age of only 13, Shostakovich was accepted at the Petrograd Conservatory. His earliest preserved orchestral piece is a wonderful sample of his talent and reflects his roots in the Russian classical tradition.

Theme with Variations
in B flat major, Op. 3 (1921–1922) | 16 min.
3(III=picc).2.2.2––timp.perc–cel(ad lib)–pft(ad lib.)–strings

These charming variations on his own theme show the 15-year-old’s remarkable mastery of the orchestra. At the same time, they contain several surprises that must have shocked his conservative teacher.

Scherzo No.2
in E flat major, Op. 7 (1924) | 4 min.

The first orchestral work of the young composer that actually sounds like Shostakovich. As a witty and cheeky miniature, it is an ideal encore piece with a spectacular solo part for piano in which Shostakovich’s work as silent movie pianist can be discerned.

Five Fragments
Op. 42 (1935) | 9 min.

These five little orchestral sketches number among the most mysterious and unknown of Shostakovich’s orchestral works. Written around the time of the Fourth Symphony, they are influenced by its gloomy and tragic soundscape.

Voice and orchestra

Shostakovich wrote orchestral song cycles throughout his entire life. Later cycles, such as the Fourteenth Symphony and the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, are world-famous. However, the less-known early cycles likewise deserve to be performed. They reflect an abundance of different musical approaches and a fascinatingly broad range of texts.

Two Fables of Krylov
for mezzo-soprano (no. 1), female choir (no. 2) and orchestra, Op. 4 (1922) | 15 min. 3(III=picc).2.2.3(III=dbn)––timp.perc–cel–harp–strings

Shostakovich was still emerging from childhood when he composed these enchanting and somewhat acerbic orchestral songs on texts by the author Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (1769–1844). The writer penned over 200 fables which entered the canon of Russian literature. Everything began with Krylov’s translation of a handful of fables by La Fontaine and Aesop, which then led to a real frenzy of creativity – and even today, his fables, which earned him the nickname of the ’Russian La Fontaine’, are familiar to every Russian child. This was also the case for the then 16-year-old Shostakovich, who for his Opus 4 selected two poems: one compares the industrious ant with the lazy but beautiful dragonfly, the other the bellowing of a donkey with the song of a nightingale.

Six Romances on words by Japanese poets
for tenor and orchestra, Op. 21 (1928–1932) | 13 min.

These evocative and ethereal songs on Russian translations of Japanese poetry are among the strangest and most fragile pieces in Shostakovich’s oeuvre and have nothing in common with the powerful and famous song cycles of his later years.

Taking the form of miniatures, dedicated to Nina Varzar, the composer’s first wife, they are at the same time modernistic and wistful, rough and haunting. In their short span, they make great demands on the singer, who from phrase to phrase must capture a variety of moods. The delicate orchestral accompaniment is handled with almost impressionistic subtlety.

Four Romances on poems by Alexander Pushkin
for bass and chamber orchestra, Op. 46a (1936) | 12 min.

These songs were almost the first serious music that Shostakovich wrote after the devastating political attacks on him in 1936 and the prohibited publication of his Fourth Symphony. They set the moving words of the greatest of all Russian poets and reflect in a fascinating manner both his dark personal situation as well as his struggle for a new and simpler musical style. Immediately after the composition of these songs, Shostakovich began work on his Fifth Symphony, in the last movement of which he actually quotes from this cycle, achieving a strong linked effect.

After his death, this transparent orchestration, for clarinet, harp, and strings, of the first three songs of the cycle was found in Shostakovich’s estate. Gerard McBurney added an orchestration of the last song in order to complete the cycle.

These songs are suitable for both a contemplative concert as well as for an intriguing prelude to a performance of the Fifth Symphony.

Suite on Finnish Themes
Seven arrangements of Finnish folk songs for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra (1939) | 12 min.––perc–pft–strings

This suite was commissioned directly by the political directorate of the Leningrad Military District. The cycle was to be first heard at a ceremony as soon as the Russian army had captured the capital city of Helsinki in the war against Finland. Since Helsinki was never taken by the Russians, this song cycle was never performed and fell into oblivion. Shostakovich never revisited the arrangement in his lifetime – only 60 years later, in 2001, was this very appealing work given its premiere in Finland.

Eight British and American Folksongs
for low voice and orchestra (1943) | 18 min.

This little-known cycle of British and American folksongs was compiled during World War II, apparently as a gesture of solidarity with the Allied nations. In the framework of programming a concert – which may have nothing at all to do with Russian music – this collection of songs could be a rewarding surprise. Among the melodies selected by Shostakovich are several very well-known tunes, including Blow the wind southerly (No. 1), Billy Boy (No. 3), and Come, lasses and lads (No. 7).

Annie Laurie (Lady John Scott)
Arrangement of a Scottish song for voice and chamber orchestra (1944) | 4 min.––strings

A collection of British songs, which was published in 1942 by Nazari Raisky, served Shostakovich as the basis for this arrangement. The style of the orchestration is strongly reminiscent of the Eight British and American Folksongs from 1943, with which this very rarely performed arrangement could be readily combined.

Six Romances on words by Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare
for bass and large orchestra, Op. 62a (1943) or bass and chamber orchestra, Op. 140 (1971) | 14 min.
Large orchestra: 3(III=picc).3(III=corA).4(III=Ebcl,IV=bcl).3(III=dbn)––timp.perc–2harp–strings
Chamber orchestra:––timp–tgl–cel–strings(

These settings of English and Scottish poetry came into being at the beginning of World War II. Shostakovich himself loved this cycle. He chose the texts with great care in order to reflect private and public feelings during one of the most desolate times of the war, and he dedicated each song to one of his closest friends. He frequently quoted from this music in his other works and orchestrated the whole cycle twice. The first orchestration, op. 62a for large orchestra, stems from 1943. The second, op. 140 for chamber orchestra, came into being in 1971, towards the end of his life.

It is a dark, angry, sometimes vulgar, sometimes violent piece, permeated by irony, derision, and wrath. A charismatic singer can make an overwhelming impression with this powerful music.

Shostakovich resources
Our full Shostakovich 2025 guide for programmers is available for free download:
> View the booklet as PDF

For further information on Dmitri Shostakovich visit:
> www.boosey.com/Shostakovich

View our constantly updated complete catalogue of Shostakovich works at:
> www.boosey.com/downloads/shostakovich_worklist.pdf

Please let us know of your Shostakovich anniversary plans and request perusal copies of rare repertoire by contacting us at:
> [email protected]

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