performed by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Provatorov
(cover image by Johannes Plenio)
Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov was born on September 12, 1904. He studied with Leonid Nikolayev, Vladimir Shcherbakov, and Maximilian Steinberg (rival of Stravinsky who married the daughter of their fellow teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). Popov’s fellow student under Steinberg, perhaps not exactly at the same time, was someone of whom you may have heard: Dmitri Shostakovich.
Wikipedia says that “Despite his alcoholism, Popov produced many works for orchestra, including six completed symphonies.” He also composed concertos for violin, piano, cello, and organ, as well as an incomplete seventh symphony. He also wrote some chamber music: a chamber symphony (septet), as well a ‘symphony for string quartet,’ an octet, some pieces for piano. There were also three operas, and a significant number of choral pieces and film scores. He died on February 17, 1972.
Popov’s first symphony came after he’d written (or at least published; maybe wrote more) a few piano pieces, a chamber symphony, and a couple of works for violin and piano, and a vocal work. It was written and premiered (and then immediately banned) in 1935, and not performed again in the composer’s lifetime, or about the next four decades.
This work, like another we’ll discuss this week, is a composition of such magnitude, such roiling, perfectly crafted, terrifying weight, that it’s difficult to express in words how remarkable this symphony is, by any standards, no qualifiers, when the vast majority of even informed classical music aficionados likely haven’t heard Popov’s name before.
There’s a lot of sociopolitical background to the climate at the time, as we’ve discussed with Shostakovich and Myaskovsky, and after this first daring symphony, he changed his tune, you could say. Wiki tells us:
He was considered to have the raw talent of his contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich; his early works, in particular the Septet (or Chamber Symphony) … and his Symphony No. 1 (Op. 7, banned immediately after its premiere in 1935 and not publicly heard again in his lifetime), are impressively powerful and forward-looking. Not surprisingly, he ran afoul of the authorities in 1936 and began writing in a more conservative idiom in order to avoid charges of formalism.
Work on the composition began as early as 1929, with the final movement being nearly completed by 1930. Two years later, in September 1932, the incomplete draft form of the work actually won an award, but I can’t find any reason for why the actual premiere didn’t take place until three years later, on March 22, 1935, by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Fritz Stiedry.
Wiki tells us that the work was banned the very day after the premiere for “reflecting ‘the ideology of classes hostile to us,'” but that the ban was apparently lifted shortly thereafter. It wasn’t to last. He was again denounced the following year “as a ‘formalist’ composer through his association with Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936.”
Regarding this first symphony, Wiki says that it came in an influential window of time, “a period of greater Soviet artistic freedom, inspired by avant-gardists such as Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók,” as well as influence from the likes of the Second Viennese School and Gustav Mahler. We know this window was soon to close, but it left an impression on composers to follow, most notably Dmitri Shostakovich. It is a real gem.
The work is in three movements, as follows, and has a duration of about 50 minutes:
- Allegro energico (about 23 minutes)
- Largo con moto e molto cantabile (about 16 minutes)
- Finale: Scherzo e Coda. Prestissimo (about 9 minutes)
The very first utterance of this symphony is an unabashed assault on the ears. Both this opening outburst and the tense pause that follows are deafening. We’re given no context or prefatory remarks before being thrown into a war zone. What’s remarkable about this movement, though, is that despite the violence and harshness of the opening, and much of the rest of the movement, there are some truly grand, even tragically majestic, passages here. I won’t attempt a play-by-play, or even analysis, of this work, but this first movement is jaw-dropping for its breadth, intensity, and purpose. I’ve heard much shorter movements with far less continuity than this. As sprawling a first movement as this is, and by such a young composer, it is remarkable that this movement has such a strong narrative focus. It compels the listener (at least this listener) from beginning to end, and the sentiments of tragedy, violence, anxiety, fear, but also courage, are all palpable in this very ambitious first movement. It’s really, to me, easily on par with the large movements of Mahler, Shostakovich, or Schnittke for its cohesion and effectiveness.
As seen above, the symphony is kind of an upside-down pyramid in shape, with each of the subsequent movements being considerably shorter than the one that came before it. The first movement itself is an immense journey, with such convincingly conflicting emotions, and ending with a hauntingly dark gesture, that the opening of the largo, no matter how melancholy, is very welcome. There’s a bit of that nervous, unsettled character of Shostakovich, for sure, but keep an ear out for breathtakingly placid moments of an especially eat-your-heart-out-Rachmaninoff nature, like one with a flourish from harp over supple strings, accompanied by a horn solo. Rather than seeming out of place, or stilted, it only convinces me further of the incredible talent of the composer, to juxtapose that with the climactic moment of sheer terror we get later in the movement. The celesta gives us the final, haunting sound that hangs in the air before the finale.
The opening of the finale is anxious and menacing, and relative to the previous movements, is exceptionally brief, at less than half the playing time of the largo, at least in Provatorov’s recording. There’s a maniacal, sardonic, sarcastic playfulness, like a grotesque house of mirrors in a creepy carnival after dark. It’s colorful and wildly inventive in the use of the orchestra, especially woodwinds. It’s a playful scherzo in the most unsettling of ways, but we move into a protracted, searing climb of a coda, an earsplitting mockery of triumph, sarcastic celebration.
This final minute of the work is one of those things that likely no matter how familiar you are with the work, hearing it live for the first time would probably still seem almost life-threateningly overwhelming.
While sheer duration or volume don’t make for an epic work in and of themselves, Popov’s first symphony has that and more. It is an absolutely remarkable work, not only because it is so all-encompassing in its communication of tragedy and beauty, but in many ways that it doesn’t share the same fame and reputation as Shostakovich or others. Looking back, knowing what Shostakovich and others would later do, it’s amazing to see that a work of this magnificence, this crippling power, came from such a young composer, and must clearly have been an inspiration behind another symphony of Shostakovich, which we will discuss later this week. Stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.