Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Six Romances on Lyrics by British Poets, Opus 62/140 (1942)

Program Notes Home

Dmitri Shostakovitch (September 25, 1906–August 9, 1975)

1. To a Son—Largo
Original Poem Title: The Wood, the Weed, the Wag
Text: Sir Walter Raleigh. Translation: Boris Pasternak. Dedication: Lev Atovmyan

2. In the Fields—Moderato
Original Poem Title: O, Wert thou in the Cault Blast
Text: Robert Burns. Translation: Samuil Marshak. Dedication: Nina Shostakovitch

3. Macpherson before his Execution—Allegretto
Original Poem Title: Macpherson’s Farewell
Text: Robert Burns. Translation: Samuil Marshak. Dedication: Izaak Glikman

4. Jenny—Moderato
Original Poem Title: Coming thro’ the Rye
Text: Robert Burns. Translation: Samuil Marshak. Dedication: Yuri Sviridov

5. Sonnet #66—Lento
Original Poem Title: Tired with all these
Text: Shakespeare. Translation: Boris Pasternak. Dedication: Ivan Sollertinsky

6. The King’s Campaign—Allegretto
Also called: The Grand Old Duke of York or The King of France went up the Hill
Text: Nursery rhyme. Translation: Samuil Marshak. Dedication: Vissarion Shebalin

When Hitler’s troops invaded the USSR and laid siege to Leningrad, thousands of Soviet citizens, among them Shostakovitch and his family, were forced to evacuate. During the 17 months away from home in Kuibyshev, Shostakovitch finished his Symphony #7 Leningrad, worked on a never-completed opera, The Gamblers, composed Six Romances, and began his second piano sonata.

An extremely well-read person, Shostakovitch was able to read a page of text at a glance. His literary bent created difficulty for him in selecting text for his songs, for he had to find poetry that both had impressive content and was suited to his compositional style. Prior to Six Romances, Shostakovitch had not composed much vocal music. His music is primarily instrumental, rather than vocal, in idiom; instruments can more easily negotiate the tremendous range and key changes required by his music.

The Six Romances for Bass, as the piece was titled on the autograph score, was originally scored for low voice and piano. A fast worker, these six pieces probably took Shostakovitch no more than a few days to compose. Shostakovitch accompanied baritone Efrem Flaks in the work’s premiere at the Moscow Conservatory on June 6, 1943. A year later, Shostakovitch published a symphonic accompaniment to replace the piano. It was then titled Six Romances on Verses by English Poets. In 1971, towards the end of his life, Shostakovitch, busy with other vocal cycles, retrieved the Six Romances and re-scored them for chamber orchestra, republishing the result as opus 140. The new opus number indicates that these songs fit into his late period song-cycles. Six Romances was premiered on November 30, 1973 at the Moscow Conservatory.

Each of the six songs is dedicated to an important person in Shostakovitch’s life. Three songs (1, 3, and 4) are memorials for friends who died. The second, dedicated to his first wife, is the most personal; the music communicates pervasively intimate and profoundly personal sentiments. The third is about a prisoner who dances in the presence of death. It prefigures the second movement of his Symphony #13 (Babi Yar), which is a memorial to the Jews slaughtered by Nazis at Babi Yar. The Shakespeare text (#5) despairs bitterly over worldly vice. The music visits a theme close to Shostakovitch; dark meditations on suicide impelled by a world of twisted values, with salvation only through friendship and love. The music, though retaining an inner reticence, is laconic and expressive. The last setting is on a children’s rhyme that, while superficially jesting, responds to the war on a deeper and subtler level.

Dark, spare and expressive, this music fits well with Shostakovich’s last works. Deeply personal, it expresses an anguish salved only through human warmth.