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Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)


Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
I. Moderato
II. Allegretto
III. Largo
IV. Allegro non troppo

In 1934 the young Shostakovich was a brilliant star in the firmament of Soviet music. He had just capped his career to date with his first major opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was a stunning success, and over the next two years was staged in both Moscow and Leningrad. It ran for 83 performances just in Leningrad, many of them totally sold out, and received six (!) radio broadcasts. Shostakovich was ecstatic: he had finally gained the national recognition he craved. On 26th January 1936 Joseph Stalin, the Communist Party leader himself, attended a performance in Moscow …

… and two days later, the thunderbolt fell. An unsigned editorial in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, blasted the opera as "Muddle instead of Music". It described the opera as "a deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds … a din, a grinding, a squealing …. The music quacks, hoots, pants and gasps.". The editorial ended with a thinly veiled threat: "This is a game that may end very badly." As if this was not clear enough, barely a week later another Pravda editorial severely criticised some of Shostakovich's recent ballet music. We can only assume that this criticism came directly from Stalin, presumably jealous of Shostakovich's popular success. The composer's name virtually disappeared from concert programmes, and he withdrew his fourth symphony shortly before its planned premiere late in 1936. (It was not heard until 1960).

And then as 1936 moved into 1937 the "Yezhov Terror", first of Stalin's great purges, gained momentum. It was a time of knocks on the door in the night, arrests, show trials, disappearances and executions. Many millions of people fell victim, including several Shostakovich knew well. Most famously, in May 1937 Marshall Tukhachevsky, a high ranking Red Army commander who was also a close friend and supporter of the composer, was arrested, accused of Treason, tried and shot.

It was in this terrifying atmosphere that Shostakovich wrote his fifth symphony. He wrote it rapidly in the summer of 1937, and it was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The significance of the occasion was obvious to everyone; Shostakovich's career - and possibly life - was at stake.

In the event, the triumph was total. A friend later recalled that, as the Largo unfolded, both men and women were weeping openly. And that well before the end, the whole audience was on its feet, and gave Mravinsky and Shostakovich a deafening ovation. Popular success was no guarantee of rehabilitation with the authorities - potentially quite the opposite - and it was only after a few months that Shostakovich felt sure he was safe - for the time being.

Incidentally, it is not true (as often stated) that the symphony is subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism". This remark was made by a Soviet critic at the time, but was never appended to the score. Indeed, Shostakovich said to many friends that he never accepted the Pravda criticisms as valid.

The symphony is in the usual four movements, and the orchestral writing is always clear, even in the biggest climaxes, allowing the relationships between the many themes to be heard quite clearly.

The jagged opening motto subsides after a few bars, and then accompanies the violins in the long and winding principal theme of the movement. Soon a second theme appears, calm and ethereal, again on violins and supported by a lilting rhythmic figure. The development section starts as a march, based on the first theme low on the horns, accompanied by piano and lower strings. This section is reminiscent of Mahler, and works up more and more violently, until the jagged opening motto threatens to tear the whole fabric apart, while the second theme is no longer calm but threatening and aggressive on the brass. The climax is a restatement of the main theme in unison for the whole orchestra, fortissimo. Once this collapses exhausted, the movement gradually unwinds, and ends bleakly with a lonely celeste

The second movement is a sardonic scherzo; Mahler would have called it a Ländler. The middle section employs a tipsy-sounding violin solo, while the third section is an exact repeat of the first, though orchestrated very differently.

The largo is the spiritual heart of the symphony. It is a mourning piece, a lament, in which the brass are silent and the strings are divided into eight parts throughout. It begins in the strings, rich and sorrowful, with a central section for flutes and harp. Then the grieving becomes more personal as oboe, then clarinet, then flute sing a sad lament accompanied by tremolo strings. This is the movement that caused such public emotion at the premiere in Leningrad - after all, many of the audience had lost friends and relatives in the terror. The pain becomes agonising when the cellos take over the melody fortissimo, supported by upper strings, clarinets and barking double basses. The last notes, though in the major key, suggest emptiness rather than comfort.

The brass and percussion, having been silent in the Largo, shatter the mood with a ferocious march. This is constantly loud, and seems to get ever faster. When this finally relents, it allows a long, thoughtful, quiet section to consider themes which are clearly related to those from the first movement. This sections ends in consoling beauty, but gives way to a restatement of the opening march, slower and more threatening (notice the ominous low horn notes). This eventually heaves itself out of D minor and into D major for the closing coda - though any feeling of joy is very strained, both by the dissonant trumpets, and the relentless battering of the timpani.

Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70
I. Allegro
II. Moderato
III. Presto
IV. Largo
V. Allegretto - Allegro

The three “wartime” symphonies by Shostakovich, the seventh, eighth and ninth, all got the composer into trouble of one sort or another. The seventh, known as the “ Leningrad ”, was written during the siege of that city by the German army and was hugely popular in the Soviet Union during and after the war, though it was largely ridiculed in the West as overblown and bombastic. It is quoted, not very flatteringly, by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra. The eighth is deeply tragic, and was written when the tide of the war was beginning to turn in the allies' favour – so what was the composer doing being tragic when there was hope in the air of eventual victory? The answer is that, like other intelligent Russians, he realised that an allied victory would confirm Stalin in unchallenged power indefinitely – a fear that turned out horribly true. So he was criticised for writing an ‘optimistic' symphony when the Germans seemed to be winning, and a ‘pessimistic' symphony when the Soviets started to win. And then there is the ninth.

When it became known in the closing days of the war that Shostakovich was working on his ninth symphony, expectations were high of a celebratory work, in the mould of Beethoven's ninth, with brass bands, choirs, soloists – the lot. And there is plenty of evidence that Shostakovich did begin such a work early in 1945. However he stopped worked on it for some reason, and when he picked it up again in July 1945 it was quite a different symphony. Completed on 30th August, it bore no resemblance to the monumental celebration everyone had been expecting. In fact it had no pretensions to seriousness at all.

Why did he change his mind? Perhaps he didn't want to measure himself against the yardstick of Beethoven's ninth and be found wanting? Or perhaps he just couldn't bring himself to celebrate Stalin's victory, bought at the cost of the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen? If the latter, it shows almost incredible moral courage, the repercussions of which he felt for many years. He was very lucky to survive.

The symphony is in five movements, of which the last three run together. The first movement is in classical sonata form, and starts much like Prokofiev's “Classical” symphony with a sprightly tune that could almost be by Haydn. The second subject, on piccolo and with trombone chords, however could not! In style it harks back to Shostakovich's ballet scores of 20 years earlier, and there is even an exposition repeat. The development sets off into adventurous keys as the themes are deconstructed, with a significant violin solo at one point. The mood is largely one of fun.

Things get more serious in the second movement which is slow, made up from two alternating sections. The first is a melancholy clarinet theme, later on flute, accompanied bleakly by pizzicato (plucked) chords from the strings. The other is a rocking theme on the strings, and although gentle it is also uneasy and unsettling. This movement fades out gently.

The third movement is a very fast scherzo, and if you don't listen carefully it sounds fun and sparkly. But there is venom here, and it is quite spiteful under the surface. It is very short, and the fourth movement breaks in with a shock, as massive, brutal brass chords introduce an emotional recitative on the solo bassoon. This happens twice, before the bassoon slides into a gentle amble, which becomes the jaunty march-like theme of the last movement. This movement is poker-faced – it hides its feelings carefully. It gradually works up to a climax based on the jaunty march, which becomes very powerful and threatening. Then we're off again, and the excitement is whipped up to the end.

This last movement has a high degree of nervous excitement, and the ever changing tonality makes it uneasy. But quite what was Shostakovich nervous of and uneasy about? As a colleague of the composer said “it showed up the senseless vacuity and triteness of that everyday ‘rejoicing' which so gratified the authorities .” Shostakovich was a brave artist indeed.

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93
I. Moderato
II. Allegro
III. Allegretto
IV. Andante; Allegro; L'istesso tempo

Totalitarian regimes and great public art are fundamentally incompatible. Great art speaks of the permanent truths of humanity; totalitarian regimes speak short term lies in the brutal pursuit of greed. Hence the appalling dilemma and stress faced by the creative artist such as Shostakovich working under such conditions, and the difficulty we still have today in understanding and assessing his work.

Shostakovich's first symphony, which he wrote as a student of 19, is a brilliant work which made his name internationally and raised high hopes for his future. But it was written in the brief Soviet spring of the 1920s before the regime showed its totalitarian teeth. By the time of the fifth symphony in 1937 Shostakovich was writing to save his life.

Ironically the war years were easier, because he could express his compassion for his suffering fellow citizens while the authorities happily assumed that their suffering was solely caused by the Nazi war. Even so his trilogy of wartime symphonies caused difficulty. The seventh ("The Leningrad") and the eighth are on an epic scale, and the authorities expected the ninth to be an even bigger affair, comparable to Beethoven's ninth, to celebrate the end of the war. When it turned out to be a small-scale light-weight symphony, less than half the duration of the Leningrad, they were not pleased. And when Stalin started another brutal crack-down on almost everyone who had had contact with the Western allies during the war, Shostakovich's life was again in real danger.

The tenth symphony was conceived and mostly written during those fearful years, in 1951 and 1952. But it had to wait for Stalin's death in 1953 and the consequent relief in oppression (albeit slight) as the party struggled internally to establish who would be Stalin's heir, before Shostakovich felt confident enough to present the new symphony in public. It was late October 1953 when Shostakovich played a piano reduction of the symphony to Mravinsky, the conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Mravinsky promptly set aside other tasks in order to learn the new symphony, and gave the first performance in Leningrad only six weeks later. It was a great success, and it was widely felt that Shostakovich had at last fulfilled the potential recognised in his first symphony some 30 years earlier.

As well as summing up a tragic period of Soviet history, the symphony affirms the spiritual life force of the artist with its use of the DSCH motif. This derives from the initial and first three letters of Shostakovich's surname spelt in the German way. The letters are D, S, C, H which, translated into English, become D E-flat C B.

The first movement is huge, almost equal in length to the other three movements put together. It is based on three main themes. The first is the opening string tune, and the second is the clarinet melody which follows. These two are developed together before the third theme, slightly faster, is heard on the flute with a gentle accompaniment of plucked strings. All three are then developed in turn, before building up to a colossal climax, remarkable both for its intensity and the length of time it is sustained. The last part of the movement gradually unwinds and the ending, with its lonely piccolo accompanied by bare strings, is a compassionate yet scathing indictment of the violence that has gone before.

The second movement is a scherzo: some commentators claim it is a portrait of Stalin. It is fast, brutal, almost constantly loud and fortunately short. One could not cope with this treatment for much longer - but it forms an effective counter balance to the serious issues of the first movement.

The third movement, though less intense than the first, covers similar ground - even to the extent of using the opening theme of the first movement at one point. But the DSCH motif permeates this movement bringing both light and a dancing rhythm to it. A solo horn motif is also heard several times which creates an important balance to the DSCH motif. After a substantial and faster climax, the movement slows down and the closing section is solely based on DSCH, heard on a solo violin and finally evaporating in the woodwind.

The finale begins where the previous movement left off, slowly groping its way towards a better future. With the arrival of a lively tune in the violins the clouds lift, and the movement develops into one of abounding energy and considerable optimism. Despite references to the violence and sadness that has gone before, which is clearly not forgotten, these references have lost their terror. By adding the DSCH motif in the closing passage, perhaps Shostakovich is saying that the creative imagination of the human spirit is ultimately stronger than the darkness and fear of oppression.

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