Shostakovich Symphony no. 3 in E flat, op. 20, ‘The First of May’

performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Neeme Järvi, or below by the Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture and the Russian State Academic Choir Cappella under Gennady Rozhdestvensky

(cover image by Paul Morris)

…whereas in October, the main content is struggle, May expresses the festive spirit of peaceful development… This does not mean that the music in May is all glorifying and celebratory. Peaceful development is a most intense struggle.

Shostakovich, as quoted by Wigglesworth

Still political, Shostakovich’s third is “an experimental choral symphony in four continuous sections.”

We had quite a bit of information on the second symphony, at least some of the circumstances surrounding its composition, and as a result, we were able to excuse the composer for a less than stellar effort in the form. But what about the third? Mark Wigglesworth makes a good point:

But unlike its predecessor, this was not a commissioned piece and, as such, it raises interesting questions about the composer’s freely made decision to celebrate the international labour movement’s May Day celebrations.

He brings our attention to a few things I’ll repeat here with the suggestion that you should still go read his fantastic write-up about the work.

For one, Shostakovich recognized it was an increasingly serious time. The original dedicatee of his first symphony, one Mikhail Kvadri, had been executed for “counterrevolutionary activity,” and it is shocking that this kind of thing would for the composer, later become not shocking as things worsened. As a result of this more tense environment, Wigglesworth says, Shostakovich may have made the conscious decision to do something safe, something that would garner only positive attention.

Along those lines, try to think of another third symphony in E flat. The E-flat major third symphony is none other than Beethoven’s ‘heroic,’ and this may have been an intentional reference. Wigglesworth tells us that Beethoven was regarded at the time as the pinnacle of symphonic composition, after which there could be no greater contribution to the form. So while this wasn’t a homework assignment (commission) in the way the first was, hopefully it was just a safe career move rather than an artistic decision.

The work, again, is in one continuous movement of four sections, with a choral finale, and has a duration of around a half hour:

  1. Allegretto – Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Largo
  4. Moderato

Leonid Gakkel (translated by Rosamund Bartlett) describes the similar approach thusly:

The composer’s whimsical idea to “write a symphony in which not one theme is repeated” can be explained by his desire for innovation. Realised in the Third Symphony, this idea determined that the themes themselves would not be so memorable, but should create an intense contour of form. Musicologists tend to use the word “quasi” (“approximation”) when talking about this one-movement composition. And indeed, one can find here a quasisymphony in four traditional movements, and quasi-sonata form with three befitting sections.

So again… really more a symphonic poem than a true symphony, but also by some accounts more symphonic in nature than the previous work. In any case, if you have any context for this symphony (and if you do, you probably already know the piece), try to listen for elements of the less-than-successful patriotic avant-garde symphonic poem style of the second, but also the searing bleakness of the later symphonies.

The majority of the performance time of the piece lies in the first two movements, something like three quarters of the symphony, depending on interpretation. The first movement begins actually quite transparently. It’s colorful, and even festive, with emphasis given to the woodwinds, but this lightness doesn’t last. There seems to be in this first movement not only a conflict of musical content, but also of where the composer wants to go. The clarinet returns with what originally sounded bubbly and bucolic, but is now frenetic against the backdrop of strings that sound much more akin to the much later Shostakovich, the one who makes outstanding use of unnerving ostinato.

The second movement is probably the strongest thing here, the most convincing movement, something you may think of as a legitimate movement from a normal four-movement symphony. It sounds more like the mature Shostakovich for most of the time, the haunting, bare landscape, but with climax and …. no, wait, there are odd moments of triumph and things that seem a little out of place.

Call me crazy, but this feels like a connection to Mahler, albeit an unsuccessful one. The discursive moments of the second movement, the ones that seem episodic and out of place, may be brilliant if they just had the room to be more fully-formed, and the third movement, a 2-3 minute interlude of a largo, not a scherzo, is brassy and dramatic, with a retort from strings. It sounds Mahlerian, and might be grand if it were set between two 20-25 minute movements and everything was fleshed out, but we don’t have enough room in this piece to indulge in that kind of thing.

In the finale, too, in just four minutes, the composer jams a chorus into this short finale. There are some really cinematic, sort of film score moments here, either from the chorus, or in the brass writing, but again, I just don’t buy it.

What it feels like is all the furniture and decoration and accoutrements of a beautifully furnished, lavish, enormous home, a very large home, but packed into a very small, low-ceilinged home. What was once (or what had the potential to be) grand and pleasing is now stilted and compromised and even comical.

I’m not saying this work is comical, or even really terrible. There’s some disagreement as to which of these two early symphonies is the stronger. Notably, this would be the composer’s last choral symphony until the 13th more than three decades later.

Wigglesworth’s questioning of the composer’s motives above is worth noting, but at the end of his essay on the first three symphonies, he remarks:

It is hard to know if the Second and Third Symphonies reflect a pride in the Revolution that was only later to turn to disillusionment, or if they are the views of an already disenchanted and politically cynical individual. But for Shostakovich, it need not have been a question of one or the other. It was after all, perfectly possible to be in favour of the Revolution yet appalled by the practices of the party that engineered it.

He closes by reminding us of a fact that could be so easy to forget after the strength of the composer’s first symphony: at the completion of this work, the composer was only 23 years old! Is it an immature work? Yes! Of course it is, relative to anything else he wrote after it. But you can also understand how after his first success in the form at 18 years of age, it was time to try something a little different and/or curry favor with the party before going off to do something really wildly different, and we’ll talk about that next week. Stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.

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