Shostakovich’s “The Execution of Stepan Razin”: A Dramatic Cantata À La Russe

In 1670, the Cossack leader, Stepan Razin, led an army of 7,000 oppressed peasants in an open rebellion in southern Russia against the Tsar’s government. The following year, after numerous bloody battles, he was captured, hoisted onto a scaffold in Moscow’s Red Square, and publicly executed by beheading.

Razin’s gruesome demise is the subject of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1964 cantata, The Execution of Stepan Razin, Op. 119. The dramatic work is scored for bass soloist, chorus, and orchestra, with a sardonic text by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Shostakovich drew upon another poem by the young dissident Yevtushenko for the choral Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” completed just two years prior to the Cantata. Shostakovich’s collaboration with Yevtushenko coincided with a brief “thaw” in Soviet cultural censorship which began in the late 1950s. The period, which was marked by official state acknowledgment of Stalin’s crimes, came to a close with Nikita Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964.

The Execution of Stepan Razin is filled with darkness, brutality, primal drones, and haunting remembrances of the music of Mussorgsky. Shostakovich acknowledged the presence of these ghostly strains from Russia’s musical past when, in a letter, he described the Cantata in terms of a “style Russe.” As with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, “the bass soloist and the chorus engage in a multilayered dialogue, at times as Razin’s inner voice, at others as the chronicler.” (

The first scene depicts a plodding yet steady procession. Razin is carried to his Moscow execution on a ramshackle cart while being accosted by a crazed mob which feverishly announces, “They’re bringing Stepan Razin!” Shrill, wailing woodwinds combine with a tambourine and the strains of a grotesque dance, scraped out by a street fiddler. In the second scene, Razin engages in a solemn monologue. Bitterly, he observes that he had dreamed of riding into Moscow, and now he has. “Good people, you always spit at those who wish you well. I so much wished you well,” he laments. Then comes the biting realization, “There are no good Tsars, fool…You are perishing for nothing!” The third scene depicts the execution, which is achieved with an ax “blue as the Volga.” On command, a wild dance erupts which signifies forced “celebration.” Then, the crowd falls silent, and the music trembles. Razin’s head, bloody but still living, falls to the ground and laughs in triumph as the Tsar looks on in horror.

Here is Paavo Järvi’s 2015 recording with bass vocalist, Aleksei Tanovitski, the Estonian Concert Choir, and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra:

This earlier recording, featuring Kirill Kondrashin with bass Vitali Gromadzky, the USSR Radio Choir, and Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, unfolds with a spine-tingling edginess. This clip includes English subtitles:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: “Stepan Razin” (1918), Boris Kustodiev

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

3 thoughts on “Shostakovich’s “The Execution of Stepan Razin”: A Dramatic Cantata À La Russe”

  1. Powerful, tragic, grotesque, sublime… this is one of my all time favorite Shostakovich pieces, possibly the most powerful work in all classical music. Thanks so much for featuring it. Beautiful write up as well.

    Sigh… the unending tragedy that is Russian history.


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