Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in Fm

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich

(This piece has been ‘revisited’ since I felt the article below to be inadequate. For the updated article, click here.)
This was Shostakovich’s graduation piece at the Leningrad conservatory, and he finished it at 19 years old. This apparently drew comparisons to Glazunov, who was also very young upon finishing his first symphony. That and the fact that they were both Soviet composers seem to be the only actual parallels. However, Glazunov had his eye on ‘Mitya’ and followed his progress in school, even arranging for the premiere of this symphony. I have not heard Glazunov’s symphony, but they were also premiered in the same hall, 44 years apart. I am listening to this for a second (third?) time. (I’d listened to it ages ago, but not with any real purpose, so we’re giving it another go. It is distinctly Russian, and distinctly 20th century. The first movement (after the bassoon bit in the beginning) develops into a theme that wants to be or is almost a march, and is kind of still stuck in my head. The second movement is energetic from the beginning, with the “false start” in the cellos to begin. Other people jump in and it builds before coming to a near crawl with the bassoon theme back in the first movement, and I like this passage. This entire passage is very warm and almost quaintly chamber-like, with strings in the background. I’m a sucker for bassoons (and woodwinds doing pretty things together in general). The piano (who showed up earlier in this movement) comes back as the two themes clash toward the end. I love it musically here, but I think it was Tchaikovsky that said a piano has no place in a symphony (or something along those lines; I can’t seem to find on the Interwebs where I read this, but I recall that he didn’t like these sounds together. That is, I suppose, until he wrote one of the most famous piano concerti in the repertoire); I tend to agree. I find the piano a bit out of place, as if I’m always disappointed it (as such a huge instrument on stage, even if placed behind the orchestra) isn’t doing more. Maybe I feel bad for it, like it should have a greater purpose, and if you’re going to go through the trouble of having it there, give it a purpose. I digress. The piano is there and it serves a purpose, but I wonder what other options there would have been for giving that part to another instrument instead of having a piano pop up in a symphony (that being said, I’m not 100% used to the idea of vocal soloists or choruses in symphonies yet). Anyway, the second movement ends and the third begins, and it’s purty. Oboe and cello. It sounds menacing and dark when the trumpet and snare break in over swelling strings and the pretty largo bit that was going on. The music continues to swell after the interruption; French horns enter (or just get louder), and we hear trumpet and snare again. I imagine maybe this whole bit is the Wagner quote mentioned on Wikipedia. I wouldn’t know. I find the violin solo toward the end to be tragic and haunting and kind of sad before the horns and strings join back in. The beginning of the fourth movement sounds like part of the third. It’s unsettling and snare-drummy and then quiet. We move back and forth between allegro bits and slower, more mournful passages. The solo strings sound very personal and mournful. The whole piece builds, but eventually a timpani solo puts an end to the fun that everyone was having and we’re back to solo strings, a solo cello that sounds like a human voice singing in mourning. The end of this symphony is exciting, familiar and satisfying. I do find this one to be very Soviet, and it reminds me in some ways of Prokofiev, but with a bit less sarcasm and more gravity, at least in this symphony. Prokofiev is not without gravity, but I do enjoy a certain humor or sarcasm to his work, and I get some of the same feeling from this one. Pretty impressive for a nineteen year old. I feel although I did not fall in love with this one at first (or second) listen, it maybe one of those ones that I come back to a later and really enjoy. Movies are like that sometimes. They kind of just wash over you as you watch it, and although there’s nothing bad about it, nothing really grabs or astonishes you. But a few days or weeks later, something does pull you back and you kind of begin to love it. Maybe this is one of those kinds of symphonies. After all, it seems sometimes the first time big hits are also the ones we get tired of quickly. Some music I have taken time and effort to like (and hated at first) has become some of the music I love the most.


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