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Mark Wigglesworth

Mark on Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 1 & 15

Born in 1906, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was a prodigious child as both pianist and composer. Starting piano lessons with his mother when he was eight, he was writing a Pushkin-inspired opera by the age of nine. But this relatively comfortable middle-class childhood would not last long. After the 1917 Revolution, Shostakovich’s bourgeois family background proved a distinct disadvantage in the new social order that ensued. The unexpected death of his father in 1922 only made matters worse. His well-educated mother had to work thirteen-hour days as a cashier and Shostakovich was forced to spend many after-school hours as a silent-movie pianist to help the family cope with the hardships of the post-Revolutionary economy. And yet, despite suffering from malnutrition and tuberculosis, there are also stories of him losing his job for laughing too much at the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films he was employed to accompany. This apparent contradiction was a personality trait that would stay with him his whole life, and the sometimes juddering juxtaposition of the lighted-hearted with the profound marked his compositions from the very beginning.

Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10

Written when the composer was eighteen, Shostakovich’s First Symphony was the graduation piece that completed his studies at the Leningrad Conservatory. It has been likened to the opening chapter of a novel, setting the tone for all that follows. His trade-mark musical gestures are all immediately obvious. Nervous tension and sarcastic wit, passion and intelligence, contemplation and action, nobility and banality – all expressed with an economy of means that is simultaneously subtle and direct.

The symphony opens with a virtuosic brilliance heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But perhaps it was not only that work’s orchestration, with its soloistic piano part, that fascinated the student composer. Like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, another piece he admired, the disconcerting idea of human beings as puppets, with their actions manipulated by unseen string-pullers from on high, was one that stayed with the composer right the way through to his final symphony, written almost fifty years later.

After composing the first two movements, Shostakovich wrote to a friend that it would be more fitting to call the work a ‘symphony-grotesque’. But the style was about to change. ‘I am in a terrible mood,’ he continued. ‘Sometimes I just want to shout. To cry out in terror. Doubts and problems. All this darkness suffocates me. From sheer misery, I’ve started to compose the finale of the symphony. It’s turning out pretty gloomy.’ The second half of the piece is certainly much more tragic in vein. Now the influences are more old-fashioned than contemporary, with Mahlerian string sonorities and Tchaikovsky-like descriptions of fate and death.

The directors of the conservatory were excited by the genius they felt they had nurtured and arranged for the symphony to be performed by Nikolai Malko and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. The première, on 12th May 1926, was an enormous success, and it was not long before the work gained worldwide recognition. Walter, Toscanini, and Klemperer all performed it. Alban Berg was even moved to write a flattering letter of appreciation. Shostakovich himself called the première his ‘second birth’. The Soviet Union had discovered its first international star, the first to be trained solely under the new system rather than old imperialist Russia, and the authorities proclaimed him as an exaltation of the new at the expense of the old. In time, this much repeated role would become as much a burden to him as it was a saving grace.

Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op 141

Given the turbulent history of twentieth century Russia, it is perhaps understandable that the style of every Shostakovich symphony varies as much as the periods for which each was written. There is little logical chronology running through them all. A composer who always had to respond to the vagaries of his time was unlikely to be able to follow a purely musical compositional path. Nevertheless, there is a totality and succinctness to the Fifteenth that makes it hard not to interpret it as anything other than the story of the composer’s life and a chronicle of his time. To emphasise the work’s autobiographical nature, Shostakovich either directly quotes from, or at least conveys the atmospheres of, all his previous symphonies. We hear the precocious revolutionary energy of the First, the life-numbing emptiness and baffling absurdity of the Second and Third; the terror of the Fourth, kept private for so long, and the more public expression of that terror which is the Fifth; the loneliness of the Sixth and the heroic defiance of the Seventh and Eighth; the irony of the Ninth; the tragedy of the Tenth; the historical tributes of the Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth;; and the poetic mourning of the Fourteenth. Along with references to his operas and film scores, not to mention excerpts from, among others, Beethoven, Rossini, Glinka, and Wagner, all are knitted together into some kind of musical biopic. That the work does not come across purely as a homage to Shostakovich the man, and the fact that it never resembles an incongruous patchwork collage is an enormous tribute to Shostakovich the composer. As always, the man and composer are inseparable, bound by a prescriptive yet creative thread perhaps unique in the history of music. ‘I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there,’ Shostakovich told his friend Isaak Glickman, ‘but I could not, could not, not include them’.

The composer’s own explanation of the first movement is typical of the doublespeak that has so often been posthumously attributed to him. It ‘describes childhood, a toy-shop with a cloudless sky above.’ But as a purely nostalgic reminiscence of a time in which Shostakovich the boy would play for hours with puzzles and mechanical amusements, it is unconvincing. The conductor Kurt Sanderling, whose comments on the composer come with more authority than most, is unequivocal about its true meaning. ‘In this “shop” there are only soulless dead puppets hanging on their strings which do not come to life until the strings are pulled. (It) is something quite dreadful for me, soullessness composed into music, the emotional emptiness in which people lived under the dictatorship of the time.’ Perhaps it was not unconnected in Shostakovich’s mind that the USSR’s largest toy store stood just across the street from the Lubyanka, the infamous KGB torture headquarters. ‘We are all marionettes,’ Shostakovich once grimly remarked. The music seems to suggest that if you play games with life, they can easily get out of control.

The legend of William Tell is one of a humble peasant, who sparked a revolution by refusing to kowtow to the tyrannical rule of the authorities. Is this the obvious reason behind Shostakovich integrating Rossini’s famous tune into his danse macabre? Or is it because it was his earliest musical memory? Maybe it is an allusion to the fact that it was one of Stalin’s favourites. With Shostakovich, it could easily be all three. But whatever the reason, its banality enforces the superficial jollity of the movement in a way that can make an audience feel uncomfortable if they giggled at its first appearance.

The second movement opens with a public and austere brass chorale alternating with a private and lyrical cello solo whose haunting beauty belies its 12-tone composition. The juxtaposition of the two is jarring and the perfect cadences that link them sound like a sarcastic attempt at integration. The sparsity of texture in so much of this movement, indeed in so much of the symphony as a whole, was as much a result of the painfully debilitating polio in Shostakovich’s right hand, as it was of the emotional desolation that he wanted to express. The practical difficulties of writing resulted in a simplicity of texture, hiding, or perhaps revealing, a complex world of untold secrets, ominous stillness, and unanswered questions.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the bassoons’ rather overblown consecutive fifths that form a bridge into the third movement, recall from Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben a section originally entitled Adversaries of the Hero. The older composer’s jibes against his musical critics appear rather lightweight in the context of the sort of political opposition Shostakovich had to deal with. The humour in this scherzo is as absurd as it is grotesque: Alice in Wonderland as told by the brothers Grimm.

Shostakovich composed most of this symphony whilst lying in a hospital bed and it is not especially hard to imagine why an invalid composer might want to quote the music that Wagner writes for the impending death of a hero. Shostakovich uses the famous Fate motive from The Ring to herald the work’s finale and after a passing reference to the opening of Tristan und Isolde, the music dissolves into what sounds like the distant memory of a song by Glinka. Any shroud of mystery behind this seemingly enigmatic connection of events is lifted when one reads the song’s original text.

O do not tempt me without reason:
Affection lost cannot return.
How foreign to the broken-hearted
Are all the charms of bygone days!
I can no longer trust thy promise;
I have no longer faith in love;
And cannot suffer once again
To be deceived by phantom visions.

Do not augment my anguish mute;
Say not a word of former gladness.
And, kindly friend, o do not trouble
A convalescent’s dreaming rest.
I sleep: how sweet to me oblivion:
Forgotten all my youthful dreams!
Within my soul is naught but turmoil,
And love shall wake no more for thee.

The central section of the movement is a passacaglia, a dance that does not go anywhere, an unchanging bass line that imprisons the melodies above it. The symbolism of this form led Shostakovich to use it many times and it is apposite that it forms the climax of his last major work. The theme quotes the struggle and resistance of the Seventh Symphony, the rhythm of which in turn refers back to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Like William Tell, Egmont stood up to his oppressors and Shostakovich’s empathy with them both is understandable. Only at this point is the full power of the orchestra unleashed, playing all together for the first time in the piece. Its force is all the more shattering for having been delayed so long. But the intensity of this final protest takes its toll and the music collapses in exhaustion as a result. The end of the work evaporates into a mesmerizingly empty texture, a sound world ticking, time running out, leaving a hollow culture behind, the diminishing resistance of the Egmont theme, and the final toll of a bell, the bell with which the whole symphony began.

It is not exactly the ‘happy symphony’, Shostakovich claimed he had wanted to write. Like all autobiographies, it looks backwards, and it does so with an acceptance that is realistic and honest. Having contributed more symphonies to the standard modern concert repertoire than any other composer, his theme is one that continues to speak to many, a testimony to the realities of his life and time, and though the music can stand alone, one can tell that the importance of its message lies way beyond its notes. Like many Russian artists, Shostakovich felt a moral responsibility to speak the truth. He did not live long enough to witness the reforms of the last decade of the twentieth century. But though he would undoubtedly have welcomed both perestroika and glasnost, he may have been too realistic to welcome them as the panacea for which many hoped. Struggle has always been part of the Russian psyche. Given that nearly half of Russians today claim to have an essentially positive opinion of Stalin, and nearly a quarter would vote for him if they could, Shostakovich’s music needs to be heard more loudly than ever. Sometimes things change, only to remain the same. Listening to the similarities between Shostakovich’s first and last symphonies makes that abundantly clear.

© Mark Wigglesworth 2014