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Mark Wigglesworth

Mark on Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 1, 2, and 3

Shostakovich Symphonies Nos 1, 2, and 3

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 at the age of 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. The composer’s 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 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. 2, Op. 14, ‘To October’

In 1927, Shostakovich was commissioned by the State Publishing House to honour the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Initially described by the composer as a symphonic poem, the piece was eventually entitled ‘Symphonic Dedication – To October’. But ten years on from the Revolution, ‘October’ had come to mean much more than the specific events of 1917. In many people’s minds it represented more an ideal of what the Revolution stood for, rather than the reality of regimented Bolshevik doctrine. Possibly because of this, the authorities insisted on the commission concluding with a text by the Komsomol poet Aleksander Bezymensk, straightforward propaganda describing the hopeless conditions faced by workers before the Revolution and the heroism of Lenin in solving all their problems. Shostakovich was surprisingly unequivocal in what he thought of it, referring to the words as ‘quite disgusting… very bad poetry… abominable’.

Shostakovich said at the time that he ‘always wanted to create music that reflects our era, and the thoughts and the feelings of the Soviet person’, but it is unclear whether he intended this symphony’s opening thematic chaos and abstractly expressionistic textures to represent the hardship of before the Revolution or the emotional blandness that followed. The memoirist Ilya Ehrenburg has written of ‘a generation without tears, callous, a stranger to tender passion and to art’. Everything old was rejected, the individual was becoming depersonalised. According to the poet Mayakovsky, artists should ‘spit out the past like a bone stuck in our throats… Our duty is to blare like brass-throated horns in the fogs of bourgeois vulgarity.’ Is this the explanation behind the extraordinary factory siren that heralds in the arrival of the chorus and their ‘abominable’ words? Or is Shostakovich simply trying to draw a clearly defined line between the music he wanted to write and the music he had to write? Is this moment intended to point out the difference between the past and the present or is it supposed to show the gap between the private artist and the public composer – a gap that would be one of the defining features of Shostakovich’s entire life?

Whatever the answers to those questions are, it is hard to misunderstand the composer’s feelings at the end of the piece. Shostakovich may well have been a supporter of the philosophies that led to the October Revolution in the first place, but his inability to write any musical notes at all for the final lines, instead simply asking for the words to be declaimed without pitch, seems an indication of how he perceived the soulless climate of the time. The idea of October was not necessarily the same thing as its reality.

Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 20, ‘The First of May’

Written in 1929, in less than a month, the Third Symphony is another single-movement work with choral finale. 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. Shostakovich wrote that ‘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 had started to experience some of that ‘struggle’ first-hand. His friend and dedicatee of the First Symphony, Mikhail Kvadri, had recently been arrested and shot for ‘counterrevolutionary activity’; the dedication was officially removed from the score. Stalin’s grip on power was starting to make itself felt. It is possible that within this increasingly fearful climate, Shostakovich decided to set Semyon Kirsanov’s unashamedly proletarian text in order to remain on good terms with the authorities. His recent opera The Nose had not been well received, and despite his previous success, he certainly would not have felt immune to the vulnerability of his time. It could be that his choice of key was even intended as a public show of respect for Beethoven, who used the same heroic tonality for his own Third Symphony. Beethoven was upheld as the artist most completely in tune with the social aspirations of his time, it was felt by many post-Revolutionary Russians that his death marked the start of the decline of the symphony as an art form altogether, and one that could never be resurrected under the rampant capitalism of the west.

After a deceptively light opening, the music hurls itself helter-skelter into a series of episodes that seem to collide up against each other with little meaning or purpose, sometimes breathlessly agitated, other times disconcertingly empty. But if they seem crude or illogical, that reflects the brutality and ideologically confused spirit of the age. Only those with the shortest of musical memories can listen to the rousing choral finale with a sense of triumph and joy.

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. Maybe it was this combination of views that allowed him to write music that spoke to so many, and offended so few. Initially proud of these works, Shostakovich proclaimed them to be failures in the 1950s. In the 1960s, however, he was happy for them to be performed, yet towards the end of his life he begged his son not to conduct them! It is not obvious whether this embarrassment was musical or political, but in Shostakovich’s case, the two were normally connected. These early, enigmatic works point to a lifetime of ambiguity and double-speak.

What is remarkable about the first three symphonies is not only that they were written before the composer’s 23rd birthday, but that they encapsulate all the musical ideas that were to remain present throughout the composer’s life. It is perhaps only the thoughts and feelings themselves that are not yet fully focused. Did the masterpieces that followed need the conflict, tension, and suffering of his time before they could flower from the composer’s pen? How ironic if Stalin’s lifelong attempts to fetter his composer prodigy might actually have been the stimulus behind Shostakovich becoming the exceptional musical voice for the realities of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century.

© Mark Wigglesworth 2012