Jazz Suites

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Jazz Suite No. 1 (1934)

  1. Waltz
  2. Polka
  3. Foxtrot
Jazz Suite No. 2 (1938)

  1. March
  2. Lyric Waltz
  3. Dance 1
  4. Waltz 1
  5. Little Polka
  6. Waltz 2
  7. Dance 2
  8. Finale


In the 1920s, Jazz was eyed with suspicion by the Soviet authorities as an undesirable import of Western culture. The "Jazz" music played in the Soviet Union’s cafés at the time could better be described as light music than Jazz. The young Shostakovich attended many performances by visiting jazz musicians, but preferred not to include jazz idioms in his work (in the style of Gershwin or Ravel, for example).

This was to change in 1934 when Shostakovich wrote the Jazz Suite No. 1 for a state-sponsored jazz competition. The suite is scored for a small ensemble including saxophones, banjo and glockenspiel in addition to more traditional instruments, and comprises just three short movements.

The opening Waltz features solos by each instrument in turn, accompanied by the banjo. The arrangement is kept simple, but is still very effective. The Polka begins with its main theme played on the xylophone, before progressing to a faster middle section, then ending with the first theme, this time on the violin. The Foxtrot makes use of the whole ensemble, and is much louder than the previous movements, featuring many cymbal crashes. In between these, there are contrasting quieter moments with plenty of opportunities for individual instruments to have their turns – at times, the listener may be tempted to applaud as the soloists come in!

The Jazz Suite No. 2 was completed in 1938 and is even further from true jazz. Historians had cited this as evidence of Shostakovich toeing the Soviet line, but it is now thought that he may not even have written this second suite. At the 2000 "Last night of the Proms" concert in London, they played a reconstructed suite of three movements that more closely resembled the form and style of the first Jazz Suite. What had previously been called the Jazz Suite No. 2 is thought to be a collection of Shostakovich’s film and ballet music which may not even have been arranged by him. (Followers of this debate may like to consider the Waltz from Shostakovich’s first Ballet Suite, which is the waltz from the first Jazz Suite arranged by another composer in a style remarkably like the "phoney" suite.)

Nonetheless, the Suite for Promenade Orchestra, to give it its alternative name, is a masterful piece of orchestration, whether by Shostakovich or anyone else, and its eight movements are well worth a listen. It is written for a larger orchestra than the first suite. The opening March is followed by the first of three waltzes, written in Shostakovich’s usual style (although Waltz 1 probably owes more to the Strausses than to anything). Dance 1 actually reappeared in Shostakovich’s film score for The Gadfly, while Waltz 2 featured rather more recently on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The Finale cleverly rounds off with the fanfare from the March, ending the suite at it started.

One response to “Jazz Suites”

  1. Rex Watson

    You might like to know that Symphony No 11 by Shostakovich is based on the jazz standard All Blues. The first 7 bars are a paraphrase of the 4 bar into to All Blues, then the rest of the first movement consists of Shostakovich playing with the theme of All Blues (including the drum triplets, as All Blues is in 6/8 time).
    I used to be a professional jazz musician, and as a result am rather good at recognising what theme variations are based on. You may not be.


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