Eight British and American Folk Songs. Instrumentations
In Dmitri Shostakovich’s Archive there is a printed program of the Concert of British Music held in Moscow in the Tchaikovsky Hall on 25 May 1943. Alexander Orlov conducted the USSR State Symphonic Orchestra.
DSCH Publishers, Moscow, 2009
Russian National Museum of Music (rec. gr. 32, f. 96)
Eight British and American Folk Songs
Instrumented by Dmitri Shostakovich
The cycle of instrumentations of English (or to be more precise, British) and American folk songs appeared during the Second World War.
It is common knowledge that when the hostilities began between Germany and the Soviet Union, the USSR and US and the USSR and Great Britain decided to enter ally agreements, as well as create an anti- Hitler coalition and open a second front.
The diplomatic efforts were accompanied by several cultural campaigns. In particular, several concerts were held in Moscow, the repertoires of which included the works of American, British, and Soviet composers.
Soviet composers showed a perceptibly greater interest in English-language poetry. Romances by Yuri Levitin and Tikhon Khrennikov appeared to the words of Robert Burns and by Georgi Sviridov to the words of Shakespeare. Dmitri Shostakovich also wrote a cycle to the words of British poets (Op. 62). Anatoli Alexandrov arranged ten American and British folk songs for voice and piano.
Music publishers put out collections of British and American songs.
The immense public response to the performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in several countries, primarily in the US, brought with it an enormous interest in his creative work as a whole and made the composer the most famous creative figure of Soviet music art in the world. So it stands to reason that the All-Union Society of Overseas Cultural Relations (VOKS) asked Shostakovich to orchestrate several songs that were popular in Great Britain and the US.
The precise time the instrumentations were done is not known. The author’s manuscript of Eight British and American Folk Songs is not dated. The only document we know of that contains information about the composer’s work on this score is Shostakovich’s letter to Grigori Shneerson, head of the music department at VOKS, of 12 May 1943: ‘Dear Grigori Mikhailovich, I have instrumented 7 songs. Please would you be kind enough to insert the tempos since I did not always understand the tempo designations in English. Greetings, D. Shostakovich.’
Shostakovich instrumented the eighth song (‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’) separately, some time later. It is possible that this song, which enjoyed great popularity in the US, was needed for the ‘American’ part of the cycle. The score of the song comes at the end of the author’s manuscript and was clearly intended to complete the entire cycle. It is noticeably grander than the rest. A fuller orchestra is used, including kettledrums, a triangle, a tambourine, and even a glockenspiel. This is the only part of the cycle in which a bass performs the solo instead of a soprano.
The literature contains different information about the premiere of the Eight British and American Folk Songs Instrumented by Shostakovich. For example, Efim Sadovnikov’s well-known reference book dates the creation of the cycle of instrumentations as a whole to 1944. The reference book contains no information about the date of the premiere, but it is clear that it could not have taken place before 1944.
In Dmitri Shostakovich’s Archive there is a printed program of the Concert of British Music held in Moscow in the Tchaikovsky Hall on 25 May 1943, that is, two weeks after Shostakovich sent the score of the seven songs to VOKS. It was precisely during this concert that the premiere of the seven songs instrumented by Shostakovich took place, and the composer, who was in Moscow at that time, was most probably present in the hall.
On 4 July 1943, the song ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ (entitled ‘Return of a Hero’) instrumented by Shostakovich was performed for the first time in the program of the Concert of American Music in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The song was performed by Pantheleimon Nortsov, and Nathan Rakhlin conducted the USSR State Symphonic Orchestra.
Establishing the precise date of the first performance of the song ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ makes it possible to date the completion of the entire cycle of instrumentations (keeping in mind the time needed to rewrite the orchestral parts and for rehearsals) to the last days of June or, at the very outside, the beginning of July 1943.
On 26 May 1960, Vladimir Matusov accompanied by the Symphonic Orchestra under the baton of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky performed the Eight British and American Folk Songs Instrumented by Shostakovich in the Concert Hall of the Glinka Leningrad Academic Choir. On 10 June of the same year, the composition was repeated by the same performers at the Leningrad House of Culture of Industrial Cooperation and on 25 July at the Park of Culture and Recreation.
On 26 August 1983, the British premiere of Shostakovich’s score (with English texts) was held in London at a BBC studio. Ameral Gunson sang the mezzo-soprano accompanied by the BBC Orchestra under the baton of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
In 1985, the Eight Songs were recorded for the first time by Elena Ivanova (soprano) and the USSR Symphonic Orchestra of the Minister of Culture under the baton of Rozhdestvensky at the House of Sound- Recording (Moscow). On 4 January 1989, the Russian premiere of the composition with English texts was held at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow.
On 27 November 2006, the cycle was performed (in English) in Munich at the Philharmonie am Gasteig. The soloist was Christian Gerhaher, baritone; the symphonic orchestra of the Bayerischen Rundfunks was conducted by Thomas Sanderling. This was the first performance of the Eight British and American Folk Songs in Germany.