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Shostakovich (1906-75) - Suite: The Bolt (excerpts)

The glare of all the talk about Shostakovich's subversive struggle against Stalinist shackles somewhat blinds us to the fact that it wasn't always so. He wrote his three-act ballet The Bolt in 1930-1, when he was still bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and revelling in the brave new world of Soviet artistic freedom, ready to try his hand at anything from symphony to circus. The ballet's about a worker getting back at his former employers, after he and his cronies are sacked for being drunk, by persuading an operator to drop a bolt into his lathe. At the eleventh hour the operator has a rush of conscience, blows the gaff, and the saboteur is arrested (quite right, too). The Bolt, which hereabouts would have been entitled “The Spanner”, is exemplary Soviet Realism - top-drawer music-hall farce, a Red response to Les Six at their most outrageous, in which Shostakovich's already scathing wit is directed at the despised petits-bourgeois. The technique, though, is the very same that would soon find far more serious application. 

In 1931, Shostakovich extracted an orchestral suite of eight numbers. Following its first performance a couple of years later, he revised it for publication, removing the Dance of the Colonial Woman Slave and The Appeaser altogether, and substituting less contentious titles for the remainder, so maybe he'd already felt the first chill of the winds of change. Anyhow, censorship is not a problem for us - everything is unexpurgated, as per the original, and with substitute titles in brackets for your amusement: 

3. The Dance of the Drayman [“Variations”].  Jovial but heavy stomping and ripe rhubarbing hint ever so subtly that the chap might - just might - be in the habit of testing out his employer's wares. The glittering central variant is a joy to behold. 

2. The Bureaucrat [“Polka”]. One of Shostakovich's most brilliant caricatures: not just the ink of squeaky piccolos and gruff bassoon, but the lines they draw conspire to conjure the image of a wheedling, scrooge-like figure with the finger ends cut from his grubby gloves - an ineffectual “job's worth” whose quavering quill pen can nevertheless transform itself, Donald Duck fashion, into a murderous, bloody axe. This is hilarious and - with hindsight - chillingly prophetic music. 

4. Kozelkov's Dance with Friends [“Tango”]. It's numbers like this one that make you yearn for the whole ballet, if only to find out the true nature of Comrade Kozelkov and his “Friends”. The variations on this incredible “tango” run the entire gamut from sleazy debauchery, through a gay galop, to uproarious, uninhibited partying. 

5. Intermezzo. “Does exactly what it says on the tin”: this interlude, in the form of a wonderfully air-headed “slow polka”, trips innocently along, occasionally drifting carelessly into clarinetty whimsy. 

7. The Appeaser. Enter the obbligato xylophone to portray, with biting accuracy, a fawning “yes man”, a corporate courtier forever tip-toeing around after his betters, and swelling pompously whenever he gets noticed by anybody (anybody at all). 

8. General Dance and Apotheosis. The single, lengthy theme at first saunters on solo trombone, in a style vaguely reminiscent the start of the final tableau of Petrushka. Eventually, it's grabbed by the orchestra and bashed out at double speed, running riot in a raucous romp that sweeps all before it - including any silly questions about the metaphysical import of the term “apotheosis” and its relevance to the human condition as expressed by this music. 

Footnote: If you want to use this for the full suite, I can concoct the rest of it! 


© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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