Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is one of the most celebrated composers of 20th-century symphonic works. Despite that reputation, his ballets receive less attention and that is a major oversight in music history. His failure on the ballet stage has nothing to do with the quality of the music in the ballet, but around the volatile political climate of the early Soviet Union. No other ballet represents to tension between the struggle of the proletariat against the excesses of bourgeoisie than Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet, The Golden Age.
The Golden Age tells the story of Soviet soccer team visiting a Capitalistic society and running into various antagonistic characters like fascists, a diva, a black boxer, and match fixers. The Soviet soccer team prevails in the end, Shostakovich delivers a ballet that fulfills the propaganda purposes expected of Soviet artists at the time. However, the music strays far from the Russian styles. While Shostakovich was writing this ballet, the Soviet music organization Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) took control over the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM), which was friendly to composers who were influenced by music from the West. This tension between Soviet homogeny and perceived Western decadence plays out in The Golden Age.
The Golden Age is filled with Western-styled popular music, most notably the Tin Pan Alley hit “Tea for Two” in Act II. The same year that The Golden Age premiered, Shostakovich spoke out “against the supposed bourgeois delinquency of jazz and ‘light genres’ and ‘apologized’ for his own contributions, such as his famous arrangement of ‘Tea for Two’, tossed off for a bet in 45 minutes in October 1928.” Is this denial of his own music, represented in the ballet, an attempt to stay on the good side of RAPM which was cracking down on Western influences? Given Shostakovich’s later forays in his jazz suites, this proclamation feels more politically motivated than sincere.
Shostakovich’s statements against Western music did not quell the controversy around the ballet. The Golden Age was effectively banned not long after its premiere. In 1982, The Golden Age was revived by the Bolshoi Ballet under the direction of Yuri Grigorovich with a new libretto that eliminates the politically charged characters in the original. Now the ballet is set in “The Golden Age” night club in the 1920s, embracing nostalgia for the jazz age. Although the ballet still promotes an overall pro-Soviet agenda, the political messages are muted from the original.
In this 2016 production by the Bolshoi, we can hear how the saxophone represents Western music and the decadence of the bourgeoise. Since I don’t have a score to this, I can’t say for sure if the saxophone was intended for some of these solos, earlier productions use the Eb and Bb clarinet for some of these soprano saxophone solos. In this new staging, Grigorovich also adds some other pieces by Shostakovich that aren’t in the original ballet. All I can do is examine the solos as they are presented.
This first solo in Act I introduces the characters Lyuska, the flapper who is flirty with multiple men and the Master of Ceremonies at the club The Golden Age.
The saxophone flirts back with Lyuska, as she does an impressive Leslie Caron impression. Speaking of, the choreography of Gene Kelly is present throughout this production. The Kellyisms that he made so famous on the big screen pair well with Shostakovich’s jazz score. The Master of Ceremonies character has one of the most famous works from this ballet, “Polka” which is the 3rd movement of “The Golden Age Suite.” The polka starts at the xylophone solo. The jazz influences are heard in the soprano sax cadenza, glissando trombone, clarinet, and xylophone.
This next solo happens as club dancers, Yashka (a member of a criminal gang) dances with Rita, who is attracted to Boris, a pure-hearted prole. FYI none of these clips feature Boris.
The soprano saxophone solo could be two sopranos, or soprano and oboe. This score has many high pitched reed instruments and it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes. The solo starts at 1:54 in the clip above. The soprano solo takes on a more intimate feel from the the decadent strings that open the number.
The next video is the meeting of Lyuska and Yashka. Yashka has organized his criminal gang and Lyuska sets the trap.
The music lines up with the characters, as Lyuska continues with the high flirty winds and Yashka has a significant bass trombone and contrabassoon solo.
After the plan is set, Lyuska returns with her marks. She seduces them with a Habanera, yes a Shostakovich Habarena.
The soprano saxophone plays is heard fluttering above a contrabassoon solo after the bourgeois man is murdered. This motif will return in Act II.
The first soprano solo of Act II standout for its sultriness. Yashka and Lyuska’s criminal relationship is also a physical relationship.
As the ballet progresses, the amount of Western influences becomes overwhelming. Act II starts with “Tea for Two” and is outdone by this next dance, an incredibly seductive Tango featuring Yashka and Rita.
This is the only tenor saxophone solo in the ballet. The instrumentation actually calls for two tenors but you can hear an alto included in this dance. The alto makes it more period appropriate for this style of music. A new instrument that we haven’t heard yet is the steel guitar. The solo was probably meant for banjo or accordion, but given the 20s and the popularity of Hawaiian music, the steel guitar places it in the popular musical style of that period.
The Master of Ceremony returns for one last number. The ragtime influenced number has an extensive soprano feature.
The climax of Act II is when Lyuska attacks Yashka when she realizes he has feelings for Rita. Yashka turns Lyuska’s knife on herself. The soprano saxophone returns for Lyuska’s death.
These are just the solos that stand out. The soprano saxophone throughout the entire score. I hope this gives you an idea on how Shostakovich used the saxophone in his ballets. This ballet is streaming right now on MediciTV. You need a subscription to access that, luckily I found the same production on YouTube. If you liked what you saw above, you should make the effort to watch the entire ballet.
Before I finish, the music of The Golden Age was turned into an orchestral suite with the soprano saxophone playing a solo in the second movement, “Adagio.” Oddly, the saxophone solo was not in this production of the ballet. Here is a recording of the suite below, the video starts right at the saxophone solo in mvt. II.
 Fay, L., & Fanning, D. Shostakovich, Dmitry. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 14 Mar. 2023, from https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000052560.