The Golden Age, op. 22 (1930)
CD: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier (Naxos 8.570217-18)
The polka from The Golden Age — within the ballet, a parody of Western decadence that pops up in the middle of the third act — is one of Shostakovich’s most enduring numbers. I was thinking the other day that the intermezzo from The Bedbug would be a more varied replacement but, really, it doesn’t outshine the polka’s wrong-note charm:
Besides the polka, which multiplies tribble-like within any growing Shostakovich collection, in the form of album fillers and transcriptions for other instruments, I was already familiar with the concert suite from the ballet (just as often translated as The Age of Gold), which presents some highlights but doesn’t hint at the vast and wild expanse of the full score.
Following the path of The Nose, the New Babylon score, and The Bedbug, the ballet continues to lean on what you could call the three Fs of Shostakovich’s late-1920s style: feistiness, fretfulness, flexatones. The only well-known ballet close to it stylistically is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (which you’ve likely heard some music from), written about five years later as that composer was transitioning back into the USSR, and superficially the scores have a similar Soviet-modernist shine. Shostakovich even makes some incremental approaches towards Prokofiev’s melodic accessibility and lightness of touch, most winningly in the brief third scene:
Despite Shostakovich’s marginally greater generosity with grabby melodies and harmonies, as well as a larger rhythmic crumb (perhaps for the sake of being able to dance to it), the complete Golden Age is an equally brilliant and exhausting two and a half hours of music. Scurrying episodes build violently into orchestral gigantism; the music veers between parodying the bourgeoisie and giving into its own giddy enthusiasm. The “Tahiti Trot” gets an encore as the Act 3 entr’acte, with added saxophones.
Indeed, saxophones dominate Shostakovich’s orchestration, tying it back to dance hall music and that peculiar Soviet conception of jazz. Shostakovich seems to enjoy mapping out the instrument’s possibilities: In one striking and rather bizarre usage, the “Dance of the Black Man and Two Soviet Football Players”, a breathtakingly percussive sequence drops off to a leisurely, dimly American-folksy passage for saxophone and banjo:
A saxophone also opens the Adagio in Scene 2, carrying the ballet’s most extended moment of tenderness and sentimentality:
For stretches the music can sound like perpetually moving underscoring for the action onstage, but highlights abound as well. The greatest joys for me lie in Shostakovich’s longer dramatic climaxes, when the music starts light but, gaining mass and momentum, barrels into a chaotic and unexpected place. For example, the Act 1 conclusion (the track carries the evocative name “Foxtrot… foxtrot… foxtrot”) begins with the composer’s most literal representation of cabaret music yet:
But the textures thicken over the next minute or so into a pile-up like that in the second symphony. Fans of Shostakovich’s first piano concerto will recognize the tune which emerges from the cacophony, as he reuses it less grandiosely in that later work:
Similarly, the Can-Can that ends Scene 5 begins nimbly:
And then, following up a crescendo and a dark turn at about the four-minute mark, it rushes into an almost perversely exuberant, minor-key finale:
The music in the final, sixth scene is generally weightier than what came before it, or perhaps by that point I was just worn down as a listener. But even then the music has its charms — the “Scene of the Freeing of the Prisoners”, for one, features a nice transformation of the earlier foxtrot / eventual piano concerto theme. The ballet perks up for its final dance, too, and ends in a characteristic, supersaturated whirlwind of sound, with just a touch of the major-key jubilance and triumphalism that would come to define (and be imposed upon) Soviet music through the coming decades.
The plot of the ballet concerns a Soviet football team that visits a “Golden Age of Industry Exposition” in the nonspecific Western city of U-town and, in between sporting events, apparently thwarts and/or is thwarted by Fascists, the Bourgeoisie, Agents Provocateurs, etc. According to Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay for the Naxos disc, Shostakovich and the ballet’s original choreographer never precisely agreed on a scenario; the album’s synopsis and track titles draw from both schemes without providing any real detail. (I’m not sure whether it’s more a sign of the times or of the youth of the artists involved, but a number of Shostakovich’s early collaborative efforts — see also New Babylon — seem more or less to have been disasters.) In shopping for this work I saw a used VHS release of an ’80s-vintage Bolshoi Ballet production for sale, though Whitehouse notes that it featured a cut and re-edited score and (in an unpromising and oddly amusing phrase) “attempted a different, non-football approach”, so I’m happy to have run with this audio-only release. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra sounds strong throughout — they also cut several excellent Shostakovich albums under Neemi Järvi a couple of decades ago — and José Serebrier directs with the necessary high energy and punch.
I recommend the disc, and the music: Again, I found it hard to process, at least all at once and with my undivided attention, although there is a wealth of ingenious and extraordinary material here. (Based on seeing The Nose live I suspect it would get the usual lift from an in-person performance, too, but still groan under its own weight by the end.) I don’t subscribe to Naxos’ online music-streaming service — I spend too much of my daily life behind a corporate firewall to use it, although I’ve heard good things about it — but if you belong I suspect that would be an ideal way to listen through this album, since despite the abundant highlight’s it’s not likely to be a frequent or casual go-to. I did find that I got more simple pleasure out of the music when I ran parts of it in the background of other tasks at the end of last week — while working, or washing the dishes — so although it feels wrong to say so (one should seek to be attentive and not distract oneself from their chosen task, etc.) the most effective place for this music may be in the background, or at least in the middle distance of some otherwise less interesting time.
A final point: By now I have trouble imagining what this all sounds like to a non-fan of Shostakovich’s music, or someone not already deeply acquainted with his work. To draw the analogy to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet again, I can remember first listening to that music in high school and finding it scintillating yet not very gripping, sometimes charming yet maddeningly willing to let an incipient big tune or juicy harmonic progression dissipate back into the musical ether before fully materializing; I suspect The Golden Age would have sounded like that and more so. For my own part, it’s sheer pleasure to listen to a serious, large-scale Shostakovich work that’s essentially brand new to me. Additionally, I love hearing how the abrasiveness and vitality of his early work — largely missing from his later, more familiar output, due largely to increasingly reactionary official tastes and, I think, to his own maturation as well — fits in with his stylistic development and his more popular style. As a closing example, Shostakovich’s traditionally structured fifth symphony is typically taken as an aesthetic reversal in the face of ominous criticism from the state, and based on isolated musical examples it’s easy to find little connection between the frenetic, grenade-lobbing spirit of his early works and the famous symphony’s expressive, Mahlerian solidity. Yet in listening closely through the course of Shostakovich’s early career, I hear the elements of his style which, pared down and finally invested with the tragedy of his experience, characterize his music after his supposed about-face. I pointed out such a passage in the third symphony; here, as a closing example, is a moment within a Scene 4 dance in which the rhetoric of the fifth symphony begins to take form.