Opus 7: Scherzo in E-flat Major (1924)

Scherzo in E-flat Major, Op. 7 (1924)
CD:  “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 1982 (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)

Here’s a weird little piece, weird because it doesn’t sound like any of Shostakovich’s other student pieces so far and it doesn’t particularly sound like anything I’ve heard that he wrote later.  Its closest affinity is to the first symphony — I don’t know whether it’s literally a sketch for the larger work, but it’s the orchestral piece the composer wrote immediately prior to it — but the first has a brash and skittish edge to it that’s missing from the scherzo.  The opus 7 sounds like …  like what?  More than anything its zaniness reminds me of the Looney Tunes music that Carl Stallings would start to write about a decade later, though it’s far less of a stylistic melange.

The scherzo’s rather forgettable first theme is sounded by the piano and bounds along over an oscillating figure in the orchestra.  Shostakovich, developing the characterful solo woodwind passages that are a hallmark of his symphonic style, gives the introduction of the carnivalesque second theme to the clarinet; in the excerpt below, the flute takes up the tune as well, and after it’s whipped up a bit the full orchestra lays into it with madcap energy:


The first theme returns, some contrastingly softer development occurs along with further musical tumbling, and the work ends theatrically with a quick drum roll and last orchestral expectoration.  I’m reminded somehow of the fossilized invertabrates of the Burgess Shale (memorably and lovingly described by Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life), whose body plans seem alien and bizarre because they have had no living descendents for eons, no evolutionary connection to any of the diversity of modern animal life.  I don’t want to put too fine a point on it:  Shostakovich’s stylistic development was a consciously directed process, unlike Darwinian natural selection, and besides that the scherzo is an exercise on the path to his early mature style more than it is a stylistic dead end.  Still, there’s something in this music that makes it stick out for me from his later output, a three-and-a-half-minute fossilized oddity.  Or perhaps I’m overthinking it because I’m locked into it today, and it will make sense with the whole progression of Shostakovich’s output in mind.

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