Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest to emerge from the Soviet Union. His relationship with the Soviet government, especially Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, defined nearly every aspect of his life. He was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the last years of tsarist rule in Russia. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 came when Shostakovich was 11, but its influence stayed with him the rest of his life. His rise to fame came at the hands of an aid to Leon Trotsky, a father of the revolution. Shortly thereafter, Trotsky’s exile and the death of Vladimir Lenin left Stalin in charge, and he ruled with an iron fist and no patience for dissent or criticism of any kind. The arts were to reflect the official reality of Soviet existence, and thus “Formalist” works (that is, any work that displayed hints of modernism or abstract content) were at least frowned upon, if not banned outright. Shostakovich made something of a game of pushing as far towards this line as possible, sometimes even drifting past it. He was officially denounced by the regime twice, only to later rehabilitate his reputation through new, more apparently pro-Soviet works. At times the regime used him as a mouthpiece, and he seemed only too willing to comply. Yet his works often show signs of weariness or outright contempt for his government. His controversial memoir, Testimony, seems to confirm the notion that Shostakovich did not wish to support the Soviet regime. However, the memoir’s emergence 4 years after his death and the murky circumstances of its creation, not to mention its appearance at the height of the Cold War, all call into question its truthfulness. No matter the facts of his life or his political allegiances, Shostakovich undeniably made beautiful music, including 15 symphonies, an equal number of string quartets, large quantities of film music, and 2 operas which he held dear for his entire life.
Folk Dances is a standard repertoire piece for wind bands, but Shostakovich may never have heard it played by a band. It came to the United States in a 1979 edition by H. Robert Reynolds, which remains the standard version today. The previous version was for Russian bands, arranged by Mark Vakhutinskii in 1970. Shostakovich’s original was the third movement of his 1942 suite of incidental music for a musical revue called The Motherland, also known as My Native Leningrad or Otchizna, his opus 63. The suite, written during the bleakest days of World War II, was often somber, ending with a hymn to Leningrad for orchestra and choir. The source material of Folk Dances was the “Dance of Youth,” a purely instrumental movement intended, it seems, to lighten the suite. It includes several Russian folk melodies strung together one after the other as it accelerates to a big finish. It is worth noting that the revue was originally performed by the Song and Dance Ensemble of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s feared secret police that later became the KGB.
Here is Reynolds’s edition:
And the original “Dance of Youth” for orchestra: