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Waltz No. 2 from Suite No. 1 for Variety Orchestra

The “variety” in the orchestration comes from the inclusion of instruments associated with a dance band—four saxophones, guitar, and accordion, creating a casual, circus-like atmosphere.

Composition and premiere: Shostakovich originally composed what has become known as the Waltz No. 2 in 1955-56 for his score (Op. 99) for the film The First Echelon (Pervyi eshelon), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, which had its premiere on April 29, 1956. The waltz was also included in the Suite from The First Echelon (Op. 99a) arranged by Shostakovich and Levon Atovmyan in 1956. The BSO has never performed the Waltz No. 2, but Keith Lockhart led a Boston Pops performance of the waltz in a program celebrating the Ballet Russes in May 2009.

In the late 1950s an anonymous person, probably Shostakovich himself, arranged an orchestral suite from ballet, musical theater, and film music of the 1930s to 1950s, that was mistakenly identified for many years as the Suite for Jazz Orchestra, No. 2; it is now known correctly as the Suite for Variety Orchestra. Waltz No. 2 is the seventh of eight numbers in the Suite for Variety Orchestra.

Between 1929 and 1970, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote scores for almost forty films in a variety of genres, from the eccentric silent feature The New Babylon, to hardcore Stalinist propaganda docudramas like The Fall of Berlin, to probing versions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear. The First Echelon (Pervyi eshelon) was Shostakovich’s only collaboration with Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973), a distinguished auteur director best known for his classic World War II film The Cranes Are Flying (1957).

The scenario follows a group of enthusiastic young volunteers who travel to barren, remote Kazakhstan to participate in the campaign launched by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for the settlement and agricultural development of the “virgin lands.” Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, the film depicts their difficulties in adjusting to the harsh climate and primitive living conditions, but in good Socialist Realist fashion focuses on the ability of Communist Party officials to lead the collective and triumph over adversity and human weaknesses (alcoholism, jealousy, romantic misadventures).

Shostakovich’s score includes a cheerful overture, several diegetic (that is, performed within the film’s narrative) “mass” songs, fanfares, and two brief sequences set to the music of Waltz No. 2 playing from a loudspeaker. The first occurs in the opening minutes as the arriving volunteers dance in a blizzard. Its reprise occurs during a summertime celebration of the completion of the first permanent dwellings. The full version included in the First Echelon Suite, Op. 99a, is the source for Waltz No. 2 in the Suite for Variety Orchestra.

The “variety” in the orchestration comes from the inclusion of instruments associated with a dance band—four saxophones, guitar, and accordion, creating a casual, circus-like atmosphere. Following traditional ABA waltz form, the outer sections are primarily in C minor and the middle section (in two short episodes) in E-flat major and A-flat major. A sense of unsteadiness results from the subtle shifting between these related tonalities, as does the contrast between the light, suave, irresistible main theme (with prominent quarter note rests in the last phrase) and the underlying darkness of the surrounding accompaniment. An ironic “oom-pah-pah” beat pulses in the double basses and snare drum. The alto saxophone announces the simple, melancholy theme at the outset, later handed off to crooning trombones.

For the broad public, the unassuming, slightly lascivious little Waltz No. 2 has become one of Shostakovich’s most recognizable (and most frequently rearranged) compositions. Its fame soared when Stanley Kubrick used it to brilliant effect during the opening moments of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), an erotic psychological mystery drama starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Cineaste, and Opera News, and he has written program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.