Shostakovich: I wish I’d written Jesus Christ Superstar

Shostakovich: I wish I’d written Jesus Christ Superstar


norman lebrecht

March 15, 2018

From the newly published memoirs of Andrew Lloyd Webber:

Among the proudest moments of my career was when one of my heroes, Dmitri Shostakovich, saw the production in 1975, said he wished he’d composed it and really liked the way the rock section underpinned the woodwind and the brass.

DSCH was a very polite man.


  • Lawrence Kershaw says:

    I think we ALL wish Shostakovich had written it!

    • buxtehude says:


      And Shostakovich was notorious for agreeing with everyone about everything. By the end of his life he’d engaged in this strategy for forty years.

      • Christopher Culver says:

        Rather like Olivier Messiaen, who apparently never heard a performance of his work that he didn’t praise enthusiastically. On one hand, this seems to stem from an admirable humility on Messiaen’s part, as he seems to have been grateful that anyone would decide to take up his music. On the other hand, it makes it hard to know which recordings are really that worthwhile for fans and which ones might prove disappointments.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Messiaen got into extasies upon hearing his own works performed. At the première of his crazy ‘Chronochromie’ at the Paris opera (the Palais Garnier), a cabal broke out in the audience during the truly surrealistic episode of a complete bird zoo, upon which M raised from his seat and read – aloud – the text encircling the Chagall ceiling, like a saint being tortured by the pagans and in the same time, receiving the palm of spiritual redemption.

          I once attended a rehearsel where the maitre – in his very late years – had come to, following proceedings with the score, and everything the conductor did, whatever it was, got his enthusiastic approval. His wife played the piano in the ensemble, producing the familiar bird chirping, so maybe that restrained his commentary functions.

  • La verita says:

    Yeah, he saw it in 1975, and he also died in 1975…

  • Charlie Marks says:

    In point of fact it was November 1972, not 1975.

    • La Verita says:

      If you’re referring to Shostakovich’s death date, it was August 9, 1975.

      • Charlie Marks says:

        I am well aware of that. My point is that the final time Shostakovich visited London (on which visit he attended the UK premiere of his 15th Symphony) was in November 1972, when he is also known to have seen Jesus Christ Superstar on two consecutive evenings. It is wrong to say he saw both events in 1975. He didn’t.

        • V.Lind says:

          If he went on two consecutive evenings, is it possible he liked it and was interested in hearing it again? Just asking.

          • Giles says:

            Or maybe he fell asleep during the performance on the first evening so had to go back the next evening?

  • Kyle Swan says:

    Has anybody else ever wondered if ALW stole a theme for JCS from Sonata I of Haydn’s Seven Last Words?

    • Brian B says:

      Not a fan of ALW, but composers “steal” themes all the time. Schumann lifted a theme from Beethoven’s An die ferne geliebte and used it prominently in, not one, but several works, e.g. his 2nd symphony.

      • buxtehude says:

        John Williams’ Star Wars from Erich Korngold’s King’s Row — just a tribute, mind you…

        • Brian B says:

          Thank you for linking this. Vastly entertaining. And no secret that Williams’ Star Wars score wouldn’t have been what it was without Holst.
          Wagner lifted two of Walkuere’s themes from Marschner and Liszt respectively but at least he cheerfully admitted the theft from Liszt’s Faust to him in a letter.
          Because of the similarity of subjects, I wonder if the ALW borrowing from Haydn is by way of a quote though unacknowledged.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Shostakovich borrowed all his life, including from his own earlier music. And yet, everything sounds like Shostakovich. Even his copying of ‘Happy birthday to you’ would have sounded like him. He was the master ot the right wrong notes.

          • buxteuide says:

            Same with Martinu, isn’t that so? Not so much themes but the elements of style.

      • Kyle Swan says:

        As the readership of this site might reasonably be referred to as “musical cognoscenti,” I’m sure we could engage in a parlor game to list dozens of examples of stealing themes. I brought up this example as I’ve never heard of anyone bringing it up previously, and the non-musical themes of the two works are closely aligned, potentially adding merit to the connection.

        • buxtehude says:

          Aw c’mon Kyle can’t we pin heads have just a little fun in the interlude while the great global internet casts its massy net across the racing boundaries dividing day from night until, in time, your brothers and sisters under the skin will hear your call and engage the question just as you’d hoped?

          Bob Dylan’s “I pity the poor immigrant” and this (by trad.):

          Opening bars of this

          and this:

          — I think t here’s note-for-note correspondence in there somewhere.

          • Kyle Swan says:

            Of course it’s alright to have fun. Naming “stolen themes” might even be my kind of fun.

            However, finding a version of Haydn’s Sonata I to listen to on the internet would have taken about 5 seconds, and listening to it might have been rewarding. Certainly it would be more rewarding than recycling a tidbit of tangentially related trivia that doesn’t even attempt to engage the original idea. And, yes, I was “policing” this post because I started it, but the point holds up regardless of the originator. Steven Holloway’s post, for instance, acknowledge the original idea, then added something else. Now we can have a conversation.

            Based on other reader’s posts, I listened to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and R. Strauss’s “September.” I enjoyed discovering those connections I had previously missed.

            Regards to all.

          • buxtehude says:

            @ Kyle — O I’m guilty guilty guilty; I won’t even try to explain. But I did give you a path to experience Bonny Dobson.

        • steven holloway says:

          I rather think that a minority of readers here are musical cognoscenti, but no point debating that. I do agree with your point about ALW and Haydn, as too I’ve always thought the most/only famous song from Phantom was ripped out of Brigadoon, an interesting case given that ALW hoped to get Alan Lerner as lyricist. The onset of Lerner’s cancer precluded that.

        • William Safford says:

          One that almost nobody has remarked on that I know of, other than a young conductor at lunch last year:

          The first part of the second theme in the first movement of the Weber Bassoon Concerto is lifted from the first Beethoven Cello Sonata, first movement, first theme. They’re even both in the same key. Or, it’s one heck of a coincidence.

          • John Borstlap says:

            A cultural tradition is a bedding of ideas which are generously shared and reworked according to the artists’ own taste. Only in the last, truly neurotic century, artists / composers got anxious about originality and thought that the ‘language’ of their art should be reinvented time and again to safeguard their explorative profile. Wrong…. it ended in nonsense.

            Even the famous and truly Wagnerian first theme of Parsifal is literally taken from a Liszt cantata, just added a bit at the end so that the whole got a quite different meaning. Not to speak of Brahms who used everything he found in music history and translated it into his own language. Stravinsky’s Sacre is filled to the brim with Luthanean folk tunes he found in a book, and his neoclassicism is recomposition of existing repertoire. Etc. etc….

          • buxtehude says:

            @JB: Instructive!

  • Steve says:

    So it’s unthinkable that Shostakovich might have actually enjoyed a piece of contemporary English musical comedy? Sorry, but the Great Masterpiece vs. Pop Trash way of looking at music is a lazy, tired cliche. Younger “serious” musicians, to their credit, don’t even know what you’re talking about.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Composers, engulfing themselves in very serious work, often relax by going to the opposite. Mozart jumped over furniture to relax, Beethoven indulged in rude jokes about his friends and patrons, Chopin drew caricatures, Liszt distracted himself by chasing skirts, Wagner let off steam by climbing façades and insulting Jews, Brahms listened to Johann Strauss (whom he regularly visited at his parties), Strauss played skat to empty his head of the too many notes, Mahler escaped his wife by mountain climbing, Debussy loved the vaudeville and the circus, Ravel played with children toys, so why wouldn’t Shostakovich enjoy some relaxation from Soviet insanity with a truly silly Webber musical?

      (Only Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Boulez did not enjoy themselves and you can hear that in their works.)

      • Graham Fiske says:

        Schoenberg didn’t enjoy himself and relax by doing other things? He was an avid swimmer, rower, tennis and ping-pong player. He developed a notational system for recording and reviewing tennis matches and created his own chess game called Coalition Chess. He created two unique sets of playing cards, built toys and created various household inventions including tape dispensers, Rolodex-style address books, and skirt hangers. He did his own bookbinding too and of course was also a painter. But Mr. Bortslap seems unaware of this, as most people are. As Allen Shawn writes in his book on the composer:

        “Along with the celebrity status accorded Stravinsky, Picasso, and other major artists of the time came a public awareness of their personal style and habits and a sense of their domestic life. This helped offset the impression created by the difficulty and severity of their work and, by reminding audiences of the respects in which their lives were completely ordinary, gave a feeling of intimacy with–and an illusion of accessibility to–them. Schoenberg did not benefit from this gap-bridging mechanism, and it wasn’t until after his death that a more rounded portrait of him began to emerge. At first it was startling to find out, for example, that the composer of such learned and at times forbidding music might teach a class, as he did on April 13, 1939, wearing ‘a peach-colored shirt, a green tie with white polka-dots, a knit belt of the most vivid purple with a large and ostentatious gold buckle, and an unbelievably loud gray suit with lots of black and brown stripes.'”

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, I know all these things, but I said that he did not ENJOY himself. He tried to, but it was too difficult. Hence the outrageous dressing attempt.

          • George says:

            How do you know he didn’t enjoy himself? Just because he had a permanent scowl doesn’t prove anything. I’m a Scot and I scowl all the time. I’m always enjoying myself.

  • Graham Fiske says:

    I’m sure my opinion is not shared with the majority of the readers of this site (especially judging from the above comments) and while I don’t really care for ALW’s other works (except for some of Evita) I think Jesus Christ Superstar is a masterpiece, especially the original concept album which was recorded before the show was ever staged. Musically, it has a lot of great rock music, at least on par with the best prog rock groups of the 70’s, complete with plenty of effective numbers in complex meter and often employing polytonality, and the show is THE best synthesis of a rock group and an orchestra that I’ve ever heard (which usually is a disaster). ALW also did all of the original orchestrations, which I think are highly effective, unlike so many other musical theatre composers (e.g. Stephen Sondheim). I also think it works great in terms of drama and is a work of art that provokes and leaves the audience to ponder many different issues and ideas regarding the story of Jesus and Judas.

    I have to agree with Shostakovich, I wish I had written it!

    • David Rohde says:

      Thank you, Graham, for the necessary corrective to some of the skepticism and snarkiness of the rest of the thread. In 2003 I conducted a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Rockville, Maryland, and in preparing and rehearsing the show I noticed much more clearly many of the symphonic elements that blended with the rock groove to create a fascinating synthesis, one that has subsequently eluded many other composers who’ve tried it. I was also especially pleased with the reaction of a great many older, suburban audience members who gave JCS a chance as a live stage show rather than dismissing or avoiding it as a “rock album,” although key to that was probably a good deal of very entertaining choreography in our production.

      In no way am I saying that Andrew Lloyd Webber is close to being my favorite theater composer – he’s not, and Tim Rice’s lyrics can often be embarrassingly awkward – and I have no way of verifying the story about Shostakovich as ALW reported it. But ALW has certainly reciprocated in the other direction. It’s well known that he’s a big fan of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and the New York Times in, I believe, 2015 had a great story about ALW visiting the young cast and orchestra of his then-new show “School of Rock” and, upon being asked for a example of his own favorite music, chose to introduce these kids to Prokofiev’s Precipitato from the Sonata No. 7 rather than something else from Broadway or the pop charts. Naturally the kids were blown away by something they’d never been put in a position to hear before. It’s a great example of the synergy between divergent genres if only we’re open to distinguishing between good and bad in everything.

      • Nick2 says:

        Attending a performance of Alexander Nevsky which I had never heard before, I was somewhat surprised to hear the long opening phrase of Phantom of the Opera virtually nite for note. Or perhaps I should not have been so surprised!

    • Linda McDougall says:

      THANK YOU, Graham Fiske and David Rohde…your great generousty of spirit and understanding of pop opera, makes me very happy. I’ve spent my life in classical music and I think Jesus Christ Superstar is indeed, a masterpiece – and I don’t even like ALW!! Its appeal is and was, enormous, to all ages, and there’s no way our beloved Shostakovich was lying. Again, we need more positive people like yourselves speaking out against negative criticism. Bless you.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed! I would go further and say that Jesus Christ Superstar is much better than the St Matthews Passion. There is just much more passion in it than in the official passions which are dead boring remnants from totally passionless, whie, patriarchal times.


      • David Rohde says:

        Thank you, Linda. And additional kudos to Graham Fiske for his excellent and accurate observation about the Stephen Sondheim musicals. Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, has been taken up by a number of opera companies worldwide. But what people truly admire about the musical sophistication that validly places this work in the art-music category is largely due to the orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Sondheim basically delivers his work in piano-score format with a few additional suggestions. He’s used other orchestrators over time as well, but Jonathan Tunick could probably rate with the best of contemporary American symphonists if he had wished to.

  • Andrew Baker says:

    Shostakovich also enjoyed Fiddler on the roof a few years earlier. I was at the London premiere of thre 15th and able to see him throughout – biting his nails next the Russian ambassador. I’m sure he did enjoy JCS.

    • John Borstlap says:

      According to Robert Craft (Conversations with Stravinsky) Shostakovich woud bite his HANDS if really nervous. If only nails, that would signify his utter relaxed and happy state.

  • Pete Parker says:

    I too also enjoyed Jesus Christ Superstar, and noticed that part of the score bears a strong resemblance to DSCH’s 10th Symphony scherzo.

    • Sixtus says:

      And ‘i don’t know how to love him’ comes from the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s e-minor violin concerto. And while I generally loath the ALW pseudo-operas, I concur with DSCH”s apparently positive opinion of it. The work is certainly one of the best of recent passion settings.

  • M2N2K says:

    In my classical musician’s opinion, JCS by ALW is a brilliant score and it is very possible that DDS really enjoyed it. But if in live performance, than certainly before 1975.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    It’s called a guilty pleasure. Perhaps Shosty enjoyed ‘slummin’ it’ once in a while, especially away from dreary old, Soviet Moscow.

  • BertieRussell says:

    I agree about the artistic merit of JCS. But I’m sure Shostakovich, wouldn’t want to be associated with the music of the musicals that followed, that are hugely overrated.

  • Stweart says:

    …..and all the (poor) music snobs crawl out !

    • BertieRussell says:

      Why is it snobbish to separate the excellent/original from the ephemeral in art ? It’s impossible to democratize the aesthetic experience. Try persuading yourself that your neighbor is as good-looking as your favourite actor.

      • John Borstlap says:

        All my neighbours have the glamour of a potato. That’s why I’m happy to work here, so that I can escape the awareness, at home, of all that silent, miserable ugliness around me.


  • REGERFAN says:

    Shostakovich did write an operetta (musical?) himself – Moscow Cheryomuski (1958) in a popular style. This thread is motivating me to check it out. Anyone here familiar with it?

    • simonelvladtepes says:

      Yes, only the film version on a DECCA DVD is good. The Chandos complete recording shows Rozhdestvensky at his dreariest. It also shows that Shostakovich ran out of ideas or lost interest around the middle of the second act. The 3rd act has almost no new ideas, just some reworkings, and quotes from previous acts and a lot of boring dialogue. The film, though, is a Soviet-kitschy guilty pleasure.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Let’s agree on this much. Whether Shostakovich truly enjoyed “JCS” or not, there was enough dreariness and Soviet reality – shear terror when Stalin was still around – to last him ten lifetimes.