Revisit: Shostakovich Symphony no. 1 in Fm, op. 10

performed (this time) by the Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi or below with the younger Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony

Another revisit! I will admit I didn’t quite get this piece or Shostakovich at the time of writing the previous article on this work. I gave it a few once-overs and that was ‘enough.’ It seemed like not a serious work; the composer finished it at the age of only 19 (doesn’t that make you feel accomplished?)  and it premiered Leningrad on May 12 1926. It was his graduation piece.

It was also an incredible success from its premiere, and parallels were drawn between the young Shostakovich’s first symphony and Glazunov’s, having finished his first at the age of only sixteen.

Having already discussed this symphony in the past, and not willing to actually link to the original post or regurgitate tons of Wikipedia all over you, I’ll just say a few things about the work.

For one, my initial reaction to it was to the bassoon-and-trumpet duo that opens the work. It seems playful, or odd, or to set a strange mood that didn’t feel ‘serious’ or dignified (?) enough to be the beginning of a symphony. However, what one realizes when digesting the work as a whole is that perhaps the beginning is just dripping with satire, and there’s a ton of depth here, some moments of real maturity and focus.

The opening movement begins strangely, but sets a darkly humorous, almost sarcastic, but quite taut, clean mood, with the way it uses its content, even if it begins almost circus-like, and that’s almost how I’d describe it. Circuses are supposed to be fun, goofy places, but they can also be terrifying… So there’s more to this piece than it seems. But we have only this first movement to focus on for now. More is to come.

The second movement is full of really fascinating musical stuff. Another interesting beginning, a “‘false start’ in the cellos and basses” lead us into the scherzo, a frenetic thing with lots of texture, but what’s more captivating is the “more sombre mood” of what I suppose would be the trio, a magical, dark passage, haunting in its almost melancholy beauty. It sticks, it creates a certain mood, almost of ethereal fantasy or mystery, like walking through an enchanted forest, and it’s here that things do really begin to change in the work. The heaviness of the brass toward the end of the movement, the metallic clanging of the piano, and the almost mechanical march-like nature in which it ends with tremolo strings, all tell us something very important about the direction this work is heading, not to mention the actual final touch of snare and pizzicato strings.

The third movement starts with an oboe solo, and is beautiful and lyrical and slow and shimmery, but in such great contrast with the lento that’s building in such a melodic way, there are these persistent trumpet calls with snare over the entire thing, which give it an ominous, militaristic feel, an incredible contrast, and the strings take this over and eventually do more with it. If that strange feeling from the first movement persists, the one that says this is going to be an odd symphony with not much to say because it’s just a homework assignment, these two inner movements should have convinced you otherwise by now. There’s also a Wagner quote in here. Lots of layers, from big Wagnerian stuff, to small, chamber-like solos.

A snare drum roll ties the third movement over into the fourth, the longest and liveliest of them all, and in the beginning it’s quite sombre, rather in keeping with the third movement, but it is (ever so fittingly) with the clarinet that things begin to get lively again. Lots here reminds me of the first movement, but the mood has surely changed.

I don’t know, to be honest, if this is a rondo, or some kind of sonata-form movement, but there seem to be lots of distinct sections, a significant quiet passage toward the center of the movement with piano, a violin solo, a spacious, quiet bit. A brassy climax follows, and it sounds like the entire piece could end here; it’s extremely tense and you can feel the music ready to explode. And it does, with an exposed, loud, timpani solo. And lots of pausing, like walking to the gallows. How did we go from bassoon-and-trumpet play to this? Well, we did. A solo cello is the first brave soul to speak after the timpani, like a survivor of war, with the same rhythm the timpani pounded out.

The piece suddenly ends in an inspiring, commanding, rousing fanfare, with brass and prominent snare drum, finishing too quickly to leave any room for questions. It’s an outstandingly powerful, serious finish to what felt in the beginning like an almost goofy piece.

Wikipedia has an interesting section in the article on ‘Influences’ for the piece. Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Webern’s  Wozzeck, Charlie Chaplin, Wagner, and Strauss are all mentioned as potential sources of inspiration quite a serious laundry list for a nineteen-year-old graduate. In this vein, then, appreciating the seriousness and genius of this work, I feel Wikipedia states it very well:

At the end of the second movement, Shostakovich unveils his biggest surprise by turning the tone of the symphony, suddenly and without warning, from pathos and satire to tragedy. The influence likewise changes from Stravinsky to Tchaikovsky and Mahler,[11] with Shostakovich showing that for a teenage composer he has much to say, and much of astonishing depth.[7]

What began as a light, almost silly-sounding work convinced its listeners to take it and the composer seriously, to pay attention, and realize that despite his years, he had plenty to say. And he did.

What I find so attractive, or appealing, or seductive (?) about this work is that, perhaps on the face of it, it’s pretty simple, or kind of just there (I don’t know; it didn’t grab me the first few listens), but it really opens up and grows on you. The more you focus and listen and pay attention, the more there is to pay attention to.

We’ll eventually talk about this with Beethoven, but I feel like some of these works were intentionally placed, strategic moves not only to reach success or fame, but to work toward an artistic goal or expression that may not be as easily attainable otherwise. For example, I feel like Beethoven had his finger on the pulse of his environment, when the world, or his local audience would be ready for certain innovations or risks, and he took them at the right times, it seems.

This comes to mind with Shostakovich. Of course, it can be easy to read into this kind of thing after the fact. The work was a great success even at the premiere, but one wanders what the response would have been like had the opening movement been as grave in atmosphere as it ended. This easing into the tragic, the metamorphosis of the work is not only wholly captivating, but perhaps more convincing or easy to believe as the work of a nineteen year old. I don’t know. Those are my thoughts.

And I must say, I find the work far more engaging than I did more than a year ago (two years?) when I breezed through it the first time, so this indeed was a very worthwhile revisit. I imagine it can be intimidating when your first symphony is such a success, but he did go on to write fourteen more. We’ll talk about another one of them this week. Stay tuned.


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