This most controversial of 20th-century Russian composers had a substantial grounding in the world of popular music; at age 18 he began playing piano in silent movie houses, where his gift for parody was a valuable asset. By this time he had completed several sets of short works for piano; his official Opus 1 was a Scherzo for orchestra dating as far back as 1919.
His hugely accomplished Symphony No. 1, which received its premiere under the direction of conductor Nikolai Malko in 1926, soon became an international sensation. The composer’s witty and ironic style was already fully in evidence.
When the satirical ballet, L’age d’or (The Golden Age), was introduced in Leningrad in 1930, it included an entracte that was not entirely original, although it was pure Shostakovich. The hybrid work, first heard in 1928 and called Tahiti Trot, was the result of a challenge from Malko. The conductor had bet Shostakovich that he could not complete an orchestration of the song “Tea for Two,” by Vincent Youmans, within less than an hour. Shostakovich, who finished the assignment in about 40 minutes (winning the bet with Malko), must have been chagrined that the number from The Golden Age that was the favorite encore was his setting of Youmans’ biggest hit. It came from a show endearingly titled No, No, Nanette, which had been successfully produced in London even before it reached Broadway in 1925.
Shostakovich treats his material faithfully, including the verse (twice) in his setting, but the mock heroic opening for muted brass lends a swagger that provokes the first of many smiles during Tahiti Trot. The famous melody is entrusted to various percussion instruments, then to alternately sleek and syrupy strings. The capricious scoring, which calls for glissandi in trombones, then piccolo, ensures that the mood is more than a bit silly.
— Dennis Bade