Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E-flat major, op. 70

performed by the WDR Sinfonie-Orchester under Rudolph Barshai

There’s something epic and final and mysterious about ninth symphonies, isn’t there? Beethoven! Schubert (give or take)! Bruckner (roughly)! Dvorak! Mahler! They’ve come to mean something final in a composer’s output, his (give or take) last word on the form, an epic conclusion, a final symphonic chapter.* (that’s a footnote. Click it).

But not Shostakovich.

After his big, heavy fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth symphonies, how could you write an epic, gargantuan ninth? Well, it turns out he intended to. A few years before the ninth’s completion, he stated (in 1943) that he had intentions to write something grand, “a large composition for orchestra, soloists and chorus “about the greatness of the Russian people, about our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy”.” Right. He made statements about expressing the “overpowering feelings” that every Soviet artist has, and the glory of victory and all the rest.

And he actually even started that composition, working on it for a time, and even playing some of the music, about ten minutes’ worth, for one of his associates, but set it aside for a few months in the spring of 1945. By the time he picked it up again in the summer, something had changed, and the work that resulted, apparently without the previously-composed material, was entirely different from the grandness he’d spoken of.

“In character, the Ninth Symphony differs sharply from my preceding symphonies, the Seventh and the Eighth. If the Seventh and the Eighth symphonies bore a tragic-heroic character, then in the Ninth a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates.”

The work premiered on 3 November  1945 alongside Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony to open the 25th season of the Leningrad Philharmonic, conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky. It was initially welcomed and considered a success, but within a year of its premiere, was criticized for a perceived lack of substance. Everything it seems Shostakovich had spoken of in ’43 was apparently what critics wanted, something grand, Soviet, substantial, and it was considered an artistic vacation, a disappointment, even.

To be sure, the work is significantly lighter and more approachable than his long, heavy masterpieces. Looking back now, the tenth and eleventh are also much that way. How then, could contrast have been created? Shostakovich’s memorable ninth was so because it was different, almost in mockery of the grand expectations of him, especially for a ninth symphony.

It’s a neoclassical work, light, cheerful, even, which is a word rarely used to describe the composer’s output. It might call to mind Prokofiev’s classical symphony, a movement of which, in fact, was played (the gavotte) as an encore after the Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s exquisite performance (in their Taiwan debut) of Shostakovich’s ninth here in Taipei back in November. That was indeed the impetus for including his symphony in this series.

But to the music! The piece is in five movements and lasts safely under a half hour in performance, making it shorter than all of the composer’s other symphonies save the second. The final three movements are played without interruption:

  1. Allegro
  2. Moderato
  3. Presto
  4. Largo
  5. Allegretto – Allegro

To say the work is light and cheerful is not to say that it doesn’t contain any of the acerbic nature and dark, sometimes even unsettling humor that much of the composer’s work is known for. In many places in his output, the ‘smiles’ or ‘laughter’ or moments of ‘cheer’ are much like a wide-eyed grin of a crazy person: it’s at once endearing, but also disturbing, because we don’t know quite what it means. This takes a bit of a backseat in this work, but it’s still there.

The first movement is made up of bouncy strings, a piccolo solo that reminds us of The Bridge over the River Kwai, boingy timpani and trombone, crisp, crunchy, lively Russian-sounding music, full of life and character and energy. At five minutes, the first movement comes in at one of the shortest symphonic episodes in his output, but it’s not without its heavier climaxes, some growling brass to add weight to the themes at the end of the movement. The amount of color and variety that’s packed into this movement is stunning, not just from individual instruments but their combinations, and before we know it, the first movement has bounced to a stop.

The second movement begins with clarinet and hushed pizzicatos, and is marked  moderato. It’s eerily quiet relative to the buoyant energy of the first movement, but we’re eventually trusting enough to believe that what comes is actually the slow movement, or something like it. Woodwinds feature in this soft, dreamlike opening, until strings slither in and the movement swells to a fuller form. The tension in this movement, the sense of uneasiness at expecting some surprise attack or outburst of violence is real, but we come to the end without ever being jolted out of the relative peacefulness. I still feel uneasy, though. A piccolo ends the movement.

After the last break between movements in this symphony (all the others played without pause), the scherzo begins, not with a jolt, but a brisk clarinet part that calls its woodwind brethren to life in an energetic, whirring atmosphere that builds to heavier passages with brass accentuating the intensity of the work, capped off by a trumpet solo, echoed by low brass. This is the shortest movement of the work, and it too is bursting with color. The movement never really reaches a climax of tragedy or triumph, but ends with a rich, Russian swell of strings, a more plaintive breath that holds over into the fourth movement.

Marked lento, it begins with a primal growl from the brass, the most imposing sound we’ve heard so far, calling a sudden stop to to frolicking and games we’ve heard thus far. It’s a craggy, serious, angular phrase, punctuated with a poignant crash of symbols. In string contrast with this follows a mournful bassoon solo. Brass responds, and this emotional conversation continues for the rest of the movement. Bassoon gets the last word as this somber movement leads to the final and longest installment of the symphony.

And it is bassoon that introduces the theme of the finale, which the rest of the orchestra will echo as they enter. It’s celebratory compared to the fourth movement, but with that shade of uneasiness that marks much of Shostakovich’s music. That’s contrasted with a long melodic line passed around through oboe, flute and clarinet. Suddenly there appears a melody in strings that I swear is a quote of a portion of the fifth symphony. It hovers very near that, but flutters away to other parts of the orchestra, taunting the listener, giving the feeling of staring at a face you know you know, but not who or from where. Guttural rumbles from the brass enter as a pedal below the strings and we can feel the symphony coming to its final conclusion. Energy builds and we’re soon to see what this work has in store, what’s really at the heart of this work.

And as it turns out, it’s a march, that wild, excited grin from the crazy person with that look in his eye. It seems only to feign triumph; there’s something unsettling and patronizing about it, even with flashes of a kind of diseased Sousa sound coming through, loud woodwinds and side drum. We find ourselves careening at breathtaking speed toward some final climax, and without ever giving us any final culminating verdict or statement, just an “okay, we’re finished here. Bye!”

This symphony is an epic work, but not in the traditional sense. It’s not an hour-long work of four bulky movements, it doesn’t contain choruses or vocalists. But the intensity of the music that’s contained here, the contrasts in movements, sections, or even individual phrases, is pungent; the color and the sound and emotion are concentrated for a symphony of surprising impact.

That being said, I think it’s clear the composer was determined not to give any kind of triumphant or traditionally epic ninth symphony. There are moments of power and heft here, but they never reach any kind of majestic, broad, triumphant climax or greatness. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an exquisite, irresistibly engaging work. It’s a fun little ride, and might just be the perfect first symphonic experience for the uninitiated. It has many of the characteristics of his music: abrupt contrasts, vividness, concentrated, almost harsh melodies, expert orchestral writing, that uneasy playfulness… It’s obviously not got a patch on his more epic symphonies, but for a five-movement half-hour work, this one is a hell of a ride.

But we’re not quite done with Shostakovich yet. There’s still the cello part of his feature this week, so there’s that to look forward to. Do stay tuned, because once that’s done, we’re onto something entirely different. Thank you for reading.

*I didn’t want to break the train of thought I was trying to build about the supposed importance of ninth symphonies. Beethoven’s is truly a ninth. Schubert left two of his symphonies prior to his ‘ninth’ unfinished, and Bruckner wrote two more unnumbered symphonies that he ignored and then didn’t finish his ninth. Dvorak and Mahler each had a ninth, but Mahler went on to write another symphony after it, which he mostly completed. So there’s that.

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