performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, or below by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi
(cover image by Michal Dolnik)
Thankfully, we have now arrived at uncontested, overwhelming greatness in Shostakovich’s symphonic output. Not only that, it must certainly be one of the most arresting, monumental, important, tragic, powerful pieces ever written, unquestionably in the same league as anything else Shostakovich ever wrote, perhaps his greatest, but also in the company of Mahler, Bruckner, any of the great symphonists. It is a work of hypnotic, haunting power with a tragic story of its own.
It’s a work that could have cost the composer his life, in a time when his friends and associates were being persecuted, some even disappeared, for their artistic expression. Composition on the piece began in September of 1935, but only a few months later, as a result of his infamous Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Joseph Stalin had published in Pravda a denunciation of the composer. Work continued on the piece until its completion in May of 1936, with planned premiere in December of that year. As you likely know, it was not that simple.
Wikipedia points out that around this time, just for reference, Nikolai Myaskovsky had already caved to party pressure with pieces like his sixteenth symphony, the Aviator one. There were many works with “socialist realist” themes or patriotic ideas. I’m no historian, and certainly not of Soviet Russia, but it was a tense time to say the least. Bravely, despite the denouncement and the clear danger, the composer continued with his plan to have the piece premiered in December of 1936.
Have a look at the Withdrawal section of the Wikipedia article, and maybe do some more reading somewhere else, but after some number of rehearsals, the composer was asked to meet with “several officials of the Composers Union and the Communist Party, along with I.M. Renzin, the Philharmonic’s director,” and was told the premiere would be cancelled, and that he was to make this announcement and give reasons for it. One cannot imagine the composer was enthused about this decision being made for him, but, as stated in a newspaper claiming the composer had asked for the cancellation, it was “on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his current creative convictions and represents for him a long-outdated creative phase.” Doubtful at best.
Long story short, the score was lost for a time, but thankfully reconstructed from the orchestral parts for the cancelled premiere, and a performance was considered only after Stalin’s death in 1953. The piece was finally premiered 35 years later, on December 30, 1961 with the Moscow Philharmonic under Kirill Kondrashin, with the first performance outside the USSR taking place the following year.
This is the musical equivalent of one of those movies that you can only watch very rarely due to its emotional weight. I think of something like Schindler’s List, maybe. It’s powerful, well done, moving, all of that, but something reserved for when you’re emotionally prepared. I’d even go so far as to say it may exceed Mahler’s second and third in that regard, maybe more akin to Mahler’s for the darkness and seriousness, solemnity even, of the piece. It is of remarkable, inexpressible emotional power, an unquestionable musical achievement.
The work is in three movements, with a duration of over an hour:
- Allegro poco moderato
- Moderato con moto
- Largo – Allegro
The outer movements each approach a half hour in duration, towering over the central nine-minute movement, which in any other situation would seem like a normal-length movement, but here is positively diminutive.
I cannot bear to listen to the first utterances of the first movement without succumbing to the outrageous emotional power of the piece. I was exceptionally fortunate to hear this piece performed live as part of our local National Symphony’s season opener. It was quite a choice, and I left with a similar feeling of appreciation and helplessness and emotional exhaustion as I did after having heard Mahler’s sixth live for the first (and currently only) time.
There’s such a remarkable sense of purpose to this symphony that each movement, despite its enormous length (a half hour is Bruckner/Mahler length for a single movement), each chapter in this work seems to be one single gesture. I so adore the treatment of motifs, musical ideas around which a symphony or sonata is built, like we see so deftly from Beethoven or Brahms and many others, but here, the narrative weight and momentum of the piece is truly overwhelming.
I helped to translate an interview for the orchestra that expressed the music director’s thoughts on this symphony and why he chose it for the season opener. He made the excellent point that this is a unique work in Shostakovich’s output, one that has him at the height of his avant-garde, adventurous compositional spirit, but also with experience and an immense skill as a mature, capable symphonist. The maestro posed the question of what may have happened to Shostakovich if he hadn’t had to repent for his artistic sins in the fifth symphony. Where would he have gone?
I’m going to quote again from Mark Wigglesworth, as I did with the second and third symphonies. In lieu of any kind of rundown of the work, I give you his sentiments about the form:
The piece is undoubtedly huge, but even though it calls for an orchestra of 125 musicians, its real excess lies in its form, or rather its apparent lack of form. But to criticise the piece for this is to ignore the fact that the seemingly rambling and at times incoherent structure is the point of the work. The music is grandiose and bombastic because it is about grandiosity and bombast. It is meant to overstate.
From the shrill, shrieking tone that opens the gargantuan first movement and the crushing march that follows it, the 65 minutes, through moments of sheer beauty, wild terror, and solemn dirges, the entire piece, as monolithic as it is, ends with hauntingly quiet, bare chimes from harp and celesta. Maestro Lu, in his description of this ghostly close, says it’s like a single plume of smoke rising from the destruction.
There has been much more, much better writing about this piece than anything I could provide, but it was actually only relatively recently that I came to discover this work. I saw it years ago as a strong contender for one of the greatest symphonies ever written, and I scoffed. There’s little in the repertoire, to me, that matches this level of fury, intensity, and narrative. From beginning to end, it is like one single though, time stops, I can barely breathe, and by the time it’s over I am at once thankful that that nightmare, at least for me, has ended, but also that Shostakovich was able to endure it to see the piece through to completion and performance. You should read about its history and give it a few dedicated listens. There is nothing more to say.
We have only a few more Russian pieces to discuss before we move on to something entirely different. Stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.