25 August 2011

Dmitri Shostakovich - The Execution of Stepan Razin

I actually have a favourite piece of music. My all-time, absolute, undisputed favourite piece of music. Unsusprisingly it's a Shostakovich piece, but it's one that's not heard nearly as often as it should be: The Execution of Stepan Razin. It's a cantata for bass soloist, male and female chorus and orchestra. It's one of those works that I keep going back to, it doesn't matter what kind of mood I'm in or even if I'm keen on listening to music at that moment: I will always love it. There's probably quite a big risk with presenting a piece as your all-time favourite, expectations will be high and I'll probably be slightly offended when people don't like it (though this is always the case with Shostakovich pieces, I can't help it!), but I think it's important to emphasize just quite how much this work means to me. I think it might very well be the most-listened-to piece of music in my entire life.

In a way, it's surprisingly simple for a Shostakovich piece. It's not *that* loud, it has quite basic rhythms and beautiful but understated melodies. But it's just so incredibly good, especially the vocal lines, for both the bass and the chorus and it does have a few wonderfully spastic moments in the music that always put a smile on my face. The story tells of Stepan Razin, a Cossack leader in the 17th century. He led an army of peasants against the Tsar and captured a few cities before being defeated and eventually executed in Moscow. The particular words Shostakovich uses are a poem by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, who we also know from, among others, his beautiful Babi Yar which Shostakovich used in his 13th Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich - The Execution of Stepan Razin (composed in 1964)
Performed by the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, cond. Gerard Schwarz and bass Charles Robert Austin (my favourite recording is the world premier recording of Kondrashin with Gromadsky, which is also on youtube but that one's cut into bits and also the sound quality of this one is a tiny bit better. But if you're interested in getting the work, get the Kondrashin LP!).

The work lasts around 28 minutes (depending on the recording) and I really would recommend you listen to its entirety. My favourite part is after about 20 minutes, when the entire chorus sings "Not for nothing! Not for nothing!" (Nye zazrya!), it gets me every single time. Because the work very clearly tells a story, I will post the words here in English, with a little note saying who's singing, so that you can keep track while listening (when it's a soloist and chorus the italics specify when it's just the chorus singing):

The Execution of Stepan Razin
By Yevgeny Yevtushenko (translated by Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton, and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin)

Soloist & Male Chorus
In Moscow, the white-walled capital,
a thief runs with a poppy-seed loaf down the street.
He is not afraid of being lynched today.
There isn’t time for loaves...
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
The tsar is milking a little bottle of malmsey,
before the Swedish mirror, he squeezes a pimple,
and tries on an emerald seal ring-
and into the square... They are bringing Stenka Razin!
Like a little barrel following a fat barrel
a baby boyar rolls along after his mother,
gnawing a bar of toffee with his baby teeth.
Today is a holiday! They are bringing Stenka Razin!
A merchant shoves his way in, flatulent with peas.
Two buffoons come rushing at a gallop.
Drunkard-rogues come mincing...
They are bringing Stenka Razin! !
Old men, scabs all over them, hardly alive,
thick cords round their necks,
mumbling something, dodder along...
They are bringing Stenka Razin!

Women's Chorus
And shameless girls also,
jumping up tipsy from their sleeping mats,
with cucumber smeared over their faces,
come trotting up- with an itch in their thighs...

Full Chorus
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
And with screams from wives of the Royal Guard*
amid spitting from all sides
on a ramshackle cart
he comes sailing in a white shirt.

Soloist & Chorus
He is silent, all covered with the spit of the mob,
he does not wipe it away, only grins wryly,
smiles at himself: 'Stenka, Stenka, you are like a branch
that has lost its leaves.
How you wanted to enter Moscow!
And here you are entering Moscow now...
All right then, spit! Spit! Spit!
after all, it’s a free show.
Good people, you always spit
at those who wish you well.
The tsar’s scribe beat me deliberately across the teeth,
repeating, fervently:
‘Decided to go against the people, did you?
You’ll find out about against! ’

I held my own, without lowering my eyes.
I spat my answer with my blood:
‘Against the boyars- true.
Against the people - no!
I do not renounce myself,
I have chosen my own fate myself.
Before you, the people, I repent,
but not for what the tsar’s scribe wanted.
My head is to blame.
I can see, sentencing myself:
I was halfway against things,
when I ought to have gone to the very end.

No, it is not in this I have sinned, my people,
for hanging boyars from the towers.
I have sinned in my own eyes in this,
that I hanged too few of them.
I have sinned in this, that in a world of evil
I was a good idiot.
I sinned in this, that being an enemy of serfdom
I was something of a serf myself.
I sinned in this, that I thought of doing battle
for a good tsar.
There are no good tsars, fool...
Stenka, you are perishing for nothing!

Bells boomed over Moscow.
They are leading Stenka to the place of execution.
In front of Stenka in the rising wind
the leather apron of the headsman is flapping,
and in his hands above the crowd
is a blue ax, blue as the Volga.
And streaming, silvery, along the blade
boats fly, boats like seagulls in the morning...

Soloist & Chorus
And over the snouts, pig faces, and ugly mugs
of tax collectors and money changers,
like light through the fog,
Stenka saw faces.
Distance and space was in those faces,
and in their eyes, morosely independent,
as if in smaller, secret Volgas
Stenka’s boats were sailing.
It’s worth bearing it all without a tear,
to be on the rack and wheel of execution,
if sooner or later
faces sprout threateningly
on the face of the faceless ones...
And calmly (obviously he hadn’t lived for nothing)
Stenka laid his head down on the block,
settled his chin in the chopped-out hollow
and with the back of his head gave the order:
'Strike, ax...'

Off rolled the head, burning in its blood,
and hoarsely the head spoke: 'Not for nothing...'
And along the ax there were no longer ships-
but little streams, little streams...
Why, good folk, are you standing, not celebrating?
Caps into sky-and dance!
But the Red Square is frozen stiff,
the halberds are scarcely swaying.
Even the buffoons have fallen silent.
Amid the deadly silence
fleas jumped over
from peasants’ jackets onto women’s robes.
The square had understood something.
The square took off their caps,
and the bells struck three times seething with rage.

Soloist & Chorus
But heavy from its bloody forelock
the head was still rocking, alive.
From the blood-wet place of execution,
there, where the poor were,
the head threw looks about like anonymous letters...
Bustling, the poor trembling priest ran up,
wanting to close Stenka’s eyelids.

But straining, frightful as a beast,
the pupils pushed away his hand.
On the tsar’s head, chilled by those devilish eyes,
the Cap of Monomakh, began to tremble,

and, savagely, not hiding anything of his triumph,
the head burst out laughing at the tsar!

Other YPGTCM on Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet No.8, 24 Preludes and Fugues, Violin Concerto No.1, Symphony No.10


  1. Just heard this for the first time today, in the Kondrashin version. I endorse your enthusiasm!

  2. The Kondrashin version is by far the best, now available on CD as part of the complete symphonies, plus a priceless 2nd Violin Concerto with Oistrakh as soloist. However it's "The Execution" which makes the set unmissable!

  3. Just heard the Paavo Järvi/ENSO-version, looking for the text I found your piece about this music.
    Thanks. First thing that struck me was the almighty opening, if ever there was an intro, this is it.

  4. Very much in line with this work is op.79/From Jewish Folk Poetry.
    These are 11 deep dramatic songs/laments.
    The version that rips me apart is the KCO/Haitink one with the great voices of Söderström, Wenkel and Karcykowski. The music lifts the text right into the corridor between heaven and hell.

  5. I'm an old person--73 years old--who just came across this in an album SHOSTAKOVICH CATATAS by the Estonian Concert Choir and wanted a translation of the lyrics. I thank you for that. This is not my favorite piece of music--mine would be any of a number by Bach--but it is powerful and beautiful and I can understand how it can be yours.

  6. Wow, this is one of my favorite Shostakovitch pieces too. I have Andreev's version and I love it. Such a great story.

  7. One of my favorite pieces also, having practically grown up with the Vogel/Kegel/LRSO vinyl on Philips International.

  8. One of my favorite pieces also, having practically grown up with the Vogel/Kegel/LRSO vinyl on Philips International.

  9. I had the Kondrashin LP back in the 70's and this was always one of my favorite compositions. I recall with the advent of compact discs eagerly awaiting the arrival of this performance but always grew restless at the wait. Then I thought that Neemi Jarvi was sure to record this for either Chandos or DG because after all, he records everything! And yet, he never did. I finally found a cd from Koch Schwann which I thought was utterly terrible. Hearing the Kondrashin made future versions a tough act to follow. The Kegel was good but I felt that Vogel sounded a bit undernourished. An Ashkenasy and Polyanski (sic) followed and were fine but not Kondrashin. Schwartz in Seattle came the closet to Kondrashin and the recent P. Jarvi is very good too. Finally though as mentioned above, the Kondrashin finally made it to CD in a box set so I am content.