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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) has long been established as one of the most important and performed composers of the 20th century. The 50th anniversary year in 2025 offers the opportunity to explore the wide range of his operas, ballet and incidental music for the stage, both complete in the theatre and as suites in the concert hall.


The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk have found a place in the repertoire of international opera houses. But among his unfinished operas there are also rarities that complete the picture of Shostakovich as a genuine musical dramatist – with music that is always worth being played and heard.

The Gamblers
Opera fragment (Act I) and completion by Krzysztof Meyer (Act II), libretto by the composer after Nikolai Gogol’s play (1941–1942) | 50 / 136 min.
3T,2Bar,4B; 3(II=picc,III=afl).3(II=corA).4(III=Ebcl,IV=bcl).3(III=dbn)––timp.perc-bass balalaika–2harp–pft–strings

All his life, after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich dreamt of writing another full-length opera. At the beginning of World War II, he believed to have found the appropriate text: Gogol’s satirical comedy about a sinister group of card sharks. He decided to set every word of Gogol’s text, but soon realised that his opera would be too long, and so he abandoned it.

Preserved is the first act, a dark and bitter drama about a group of shady characters who want to outsmart each other. This fragment was successfully staged but it would also be an impressive concert piece, providing a fascinating glimpse into Shostakovich’s world of ideas in the period between the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

In addition to the fragment in eight tableaux left behind by Shostakovich, since 1981 there is a version available in 22 tableaux, including a second act completed by Krzysztof Meyer. It transforms the piece into a full-length, rounded-off version for the stage.

Unfinished satirical opera, libretto by Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov (1932) | 32 Min.
S,A,5T,Bar,2B, mixed chorus, ballerina, corps de ballet; 2.picc.2.corA.2.Ebcl.ssax.asax.2.dbn––perc–banjo–strings

Within the framework of the celebrations for the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre planned an opera, finally agreeing upon a libretto that combined criticism of capitalism, science fiction, dance, and music hall entertainment. This resulted in a wild story about Orango, the half-man, half-monkey who turns into a ruthless capitalist and communist-hater and, after a series of bizarre adventures, ends up behind the bars of a Moscow zoo. For unknown reasons, the project was cancelled in its initial phase, and Shostakovich put aside the already composed prologue. In 2006 musicologist Olga Digonskaya discovered the complete piano reduction of the prologue in the archives of the Shostakovich family. Gerard McBurney orchestrated the piano reduction and translated the text into English.

The Great Lightning
Unfinished comic opera, libretto by Nikolai Aseyev (1932) | 16 Min.
S,4T,Bar,3B, mixed chorus; 2.picc.2.corA.2.Ebcl.ssax.2.dbn––timp.perc–harp–strings

Popular music was always an important element of Shostakovich’s work. In 1932 he decided to try his hand at a comic opera. The project The Great Lightning was abandoned shortly after it was started, and all that survives are nine numbers from the first act. They show that this was to be a lively and satirical piece about the visit of a Soviet delegation to a corrupt capitalist country.

The music that has come down to us displays the young Shostakovich in his most light-hearted mood. It is full of witty parodies and catchy melodies with echoes of the popular songs and dances of the 1920s and ’30s. The last, purely instrumental number is a procession of dancing models on the catwalk of a fashion show. The whole sequence lasts about a quarter of an hour and can enrich concert programmes in a very entertaining manner.

Poor Columbus
Two orchestral pieces for insertion in Erwin Dressel’s opera ‘Armer Columbus’ (1929) | 7 min.
mixed chorus; 3(II,III=picc).3(III=corA).4(III=Ebcl,IV=bcl).4(IV=dbn)––timp.perc–strings

During the preparations for The Nose, Shostakovich was invited by Leningrad’s Maly Theater to expand the opera Poor Columbus by German composer Erwin Dressel. Dressel’s opera is about a modern Columbus, a poor European, who sets off to discover the rich capitalist America of the 1920s. Shostakovich’s contribution was to underscore the communist perspective. To this end, he composed two of his most whimsical early orchestral pieces. The energetic overture is followed by a cheeky finale with American dance music.

The Tale of the Priest and his servant Balda
Opera in 2 acts after a tale by Alexander Pushkin arranged by Sofia Khentova (1980) | 75 min.
S,2M,2T,3B, minor roles, mixed chorus with soloists, ballet; 4(II,III=picc).3(III=corA).4(II=Ebcl,III=bcl).2ssax.2tsax.3(III=dbn) –4.3.barhn.3.1–timp.perc–harp–acc–bayan–gtr–balalaika–strings

To arrange this operatic version, Sofia Khentova authored a libretto after Pushkin’s story, used Shostakovich’s music to the eponymous unfinished cartoon op. 33, and supplemented it with material from the ballet The Limpid Stream and Ten Russian Folksongs.

The servant Balda seeks work, the Priest a servant. As wages for a year, the servant demands to be allowed to give his master three sharp blows to the nose. The Priest and Balda come to an agreement. The year goes by, the servant eats for four, works for seven, and always remains in good spirits. As the end of the year approaches, the Priest sends his servant to the Devil to claim the refused tribute, knowing full well that no-one ever returns. However, Balda succeeds in outwitting the Devil and brings the due tribute back to the Priest. At the end, the Priest receives the three overdue blows to his nose, the effect of which is stupendous.


In his ballet music, Shostakovich’s special talent for thrilling dance elements, combining bold contrasts and vital drive, is wonderfully apparent. Some of the most effective numbers are compiled into entertaining suites.

Suite from the ballet The Golden Age
Op.22a (1930) | 16 min.

In 1930 Shostakovich himself put together this ’evergreen’ suite from his first ballet, which also contains the most popular number of the whole work, the Polka from the third act.

The Bolt
Ballet in 3 acts (7 scenes) to a libretto by Vladimir Smirnov and Fyodor Lopukhov, Op. 27 (1930–1931) | 147 min.

Shostakovich’s second ballet is likewise a piece of brightly colored Soviet propaganda, which moves with the speed and the absurdity of a cartoon. The entertaining numbers are also well-suited for programming in the concert hall.

The story of The Bolt is set in a new Soviet factory and depicts the struggle between the heroic figures of the new working class and an array of shady counterrevolutionary figures. Its playful choreographic style as well as Shostakovich’s ironic, droll music stood in blatant contradiction to the politically correct content of the ballet. Receiving harsh criticism from the authorities, the piece disappeared from the repertoire after only one performance.

Suite from the ballet The Bolt
Op. 27a (1931/1934) 27 min.
Compiled by Alexander Gauk

In the early 1930s music from The Bolt was frequently performed and in 1936 the score was prepared for publication. After the blatant failure of the ballet, Shostakovich used the opportunity to supply the numbers of the suite with neutral titles, which did not allude directly to the content of the ballet. However, once again, the music of The Bolt did not have any luck. The project was terminated at the last minute – apparently due to the infamous Pravda editorial about Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – and the suite fell into oblivion for many years.

The Limpid Stream
Comedy Ballet in 3 acts (4 scenes) to a libretto by Fyodor Lopukhov and Adrian Piotrovsky, Op. 39 (1934–1935) | 120 min.
2.picc.2.corA.2.Ebcl.bcl.3(III=dbn)––timp.perc– harp–strings–banda

Shostakovich’s third and last ballet is again a typical propaganda piece of this era, full of colourful and often satirical music. There are moments that surprisingly sound like famous numbers from ballets of the nineteenth century, and others that echo folklore and the optimistic film music of the time. The Limpid Stream counts among Shostakovich’s least well-known theatre scores. As with the first two ballets, each of the three acts can be performed on its own.

This cheerful, revue-like piece is set on a kolkhoz. When an itinerant troupe of dancers stop there in order to give a performance, the agronomist Pjotr falls in love with the ballerina. However, he does not know that his wife was a dancer earlier in her life and has long been friends with the artist from the city. With amusing intrigues, the two women bring him back to his senses.

Suite from the ballet The Limpid Stream
Op. 39a (1935) | 18 min.

After the performance of the ballet The Limpid Stream in 1935, a six-movement suite was made from the score, apparently by the composer himself. This charming series of orchestral tableaux begins with a catchy waltz, which is better known as the opening movement of the Suite for Jazz Orchestra No.1. The fourth number, the Adagio, contains an artful cello solo that affectionately parodies the style of a Tchaikovsky ballet.

Incidental music

Shostakovich’s superlative theatrical instinct finds expression also in his contributions to stage productions: from the early experimental pieces to the powerful music for Shakespeare’s King Lear.

The Bedbug
Incidental music to Vladimir Mayakovsky’s comedy, Op. 19 (1929) | 29 min.––3saxhn–perc–balalaika–gtr–strings

Shostakovich wrote his first incidental music for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s notorious avantgarde production of The Bedbug. The story plays in a paradisiacal future in which all communist ideals have been realised. At the climax, within the framework of a museum exhibition, two living specimens of the bourgeois way of life are presented: a bedbug and a ‘bourgeois’.

Mayakovsky is supposed to have expressly requested that the young composer should make the music sound preferably like a fire brigade band. The colourful result is a cross between Kurt Weill and an American marching band.

Rule, Britannia!
Incidental music to Adrian Piotrovsky’s play, Op. 28 (1931) | 10 min.
chorus; 1(=picc).0.0.bcl.1––timp.perc–pft–strings

The young Shostakovich wrote a number of scores for political theatre pieces, often for performance by amateurs. In this piece, the subject is apparently the class struggle in the despicable capitalistic West (to judge by the title, presumably in Great Britain). The five buoyant movements that have survived resemble the colourful political posters of the time. They are composed for small orchestra and include a simple choral movement that contributes two well-known revolutionary songs, including The Internationale.

Incidental music to William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Op. 32 | (1931–1932) 45 min.
S, M, bass chorus; 2.picc.1.1.1––timp.perc–strings

For an avant-garde _Hamlet- staging by director Nikolai Akimov, Shostakovich created a score that congenially reflects the intentions of an unusual Moscow production. This Hamlet was not a noble tragedy, but rather a dark, absurd satire.

Shostakovich’s incidental music consists of 50 individual musical numbers – a rich score with reminiscences of Offenbach and cabaret music, but also with moments of surprising and true pathos. At the time he was working on this theatre music, Shostakovich also wrote his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and he used Hamlet in order to try out many of the new dramatic ideas and techniques which were to be so important in the opera. Hamlet can be performed either complete, with voices that sing and speak Shakespeare’s text, or as the brilliant Suite from the Incidental Music to Hamlet op. 32a (20 min.), which the composer put together in the year of the premiere.

The Human Comedy
Incidental music to Pavel Sukhotkin’s play adapted from Honoré de Balzac, Op. 37 (1933–1934) | 23 min.–2.2.barhn.1.1–timp.perc–pft–strings

This is one of Shostakovich’s most attractive and catchy theatre scores, composed for small orchestra. It sparkles with French melodies and is full of mellow neoclassical elements that are reminiscent of the music of the young Prokofieff or Poulenc. Thus, this Balzac staging arguably anticipated the spirit of Marcel Carné’s famous movie Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). The charming main melody, which symbolises the city of Paris, proves to be a tender imitation of a typical French chanson from the period between the wars.

Salute to Spain
Incidental music to Alexander Afinogenov’s play, Op. 44 (1936) | 9 min.––timp.perc–strings

Shostakovich’s incidental music for this drama about the Spanish Civil War came into being during one of the darkest periods of his life: between the composition of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, when he lived under a politically threatening sword of Damocles. The largest part of this score was lost. Preserved are five movements, including two dark-heroic marches, which look ahead to the weighty, popular style of the Fifth Symphony, and to the nostalgic and quasi-Hispanic Song of Rosita.

King Lear
Incidental music to William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Op. 58a (1940) | 25 min.
M, B; 1.picc.1.1.2––timp.perc–pft–strings

The sombre music for King Lear, written in 1940 for a stage production by the famous film director Grigori Kozintsev, differs distinctly from the parody and irony of the earlier music for Hamlet. In its severity and dark drama, it perhaps reflects Shostakovich’s recent experience with the re-orchestration of Moussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov.

Besides a number of orchestral pieces, this suite also contains two vocal numbers. Cordelia’s ballade for mezzo-soprano and orchestra forms the second part of the opening prelude. Since the vocal line is doubled throughout by wind instruments, it can also be performed without voice. The little cycle of Ten Songs of the Fool for bass and orchestra has established itself as an independent concert piece (9 min.) In these bittersweet Songs of the Fool, Shostakovich surprisingly quotes Jingle Bells.

Shostakovich resources
Our full Shostakovich 2025 guide for programmers is available for free download:
> View the booklet as PDF

For further information on Dmitri Shostakovich visit:
> www.boosey.com/Shostakovich

View our constantly updated complete catalogue of Shostakovich works at:
> www.boosey.com/downloads/shostakovich_worklist.pdf

Please let us know of your Shostakovich anniversary plans and request perusal copies of rare repertoire by contacting us at:
> composers.uk@boosey.com

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