Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

When listeners think of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–75), they are likely to envision a composer whose music is as close as music gets to bipolar, ricocheting from unbridled euphoria to despondency and terror, often settling on the latter. Such music is often encountered in the composer’s symphonies and string quartets, but the Five Pieces performed here are not that kind of music. They aspire only to entertain, to elicit a nod of agreeable connection, to prompt a welcome smile. The movements trace their ancestry to scores Shostakovich originally composed for film, ballet, and theater productions, with one questionable exception. But although he invented all the music, the performance as presented here is twice removed from the composer.

The recasting of the Five Pieces from their original versions was done by Shostakovich’s friend Levon Atovmyan (1901–73), a Turkmen composer, arranger, and man-about-the-music-industry. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, Atovmyan created many composer-approved suites comprising movements from assorted Shostakovich works, including the four Ballet Suites and the suites from the film scores for The Gadfly (1955) and Hamlet (1932). Atovmyan apparently assembled the Five Pieces by 1970, and they were published under the rubric Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano. The parts can also be played by two violas, and that is how the set is performed in this concert—an adaptation of an arrangement of original movements by Shostakovich.

The Prelude derives from Shostakovich’s music for The Gadfly, where it is titled “Guitars” and was to be played by two guitars. Atovmyan had already transcribed this movement in his orchestral Suite from The Gadfly (Opus 78a), in which guise it may be familiar to some listeners. In that setting, he mixed in some music from a separate Gadfly section, but in the Five Pieces he reverts to the text Shostakovich originally wrote (though with bowed strings instead of plucked ones). It balances on the thin boundary between pensive Russian melancholy and genial Viennese good cheer. The two string instruments track each other almost always in the same rhythm, though in harmony, a characteristic that maintains for nearly the entire suite.

The Gavotte and the Elegy are both taken from Shostakovich’s incidental music for a production of the play The Human Comedy, based on episodes from Balzac’s novels; the play was introduced in 1934 at Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre. The Gavotte (a French courtly dance), is a lighthearted movement, here one that chuckles and perhaps even hiccups; and the Elegy assumes a pose of unruffled peacefulness. Atomyan used orchestral settings of both of these movements in the 1951 Ballet Suite No. 3.  

The Waltz robes the flowing dance in a lightly mournful, minor-key sensibility so often encountered in Russian light music. This movement’s source remains a mystery, but this music does appear in a collection called Shostakovich: Easy Pieces for the Piano, issued by publisher G. Schirmer; that volume does not identify the source. It may possibly have been an original composition by Atovmyan.

The set concludes with a giddy Polka, which originated in the 1935 comedy-ballet The Limpid Stream, where it appears as the “Dance of the Milkmaid and the Tractor Driver.” Atovmyan also used it in the Ballet Suite No. 1 (published in 1949). Aficionados of song recitals may join me in believing that William Bolcom must have had this polka on his mind when he composed his evergreen encore “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.” —James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.