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Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 9 & 12

Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 9 and 12

Shostakovich Symphony No 9 in Eb major, Op 70 (1945)

Since Beethoven, every composer embarking on his ninth symphony has felt under pressure trying to cope with a public’s heightened expectation of the work. In Shostakovich’s case that burden was particularly hard to bear. He had portrayed such suffering in his previous two war symphonies that it was widely assumed, given the imminent defeat of Hitler, that a trilogy of these pieces would be completed with a victory composition of appropriately epic and triumphant proportions.

‘They wanted a fanfare from me, an ode,’ he states in the memoirs he is believed by many to have dictated to Solomon Volkov. ‘They wanted me to write a majestic ninth symphony. Everyone praised Stalin and now I was supposed to join in this unholy affair. And they demanded that Shostakovich use quadruple winds, choir and soloists to hail the leader. All the more because Stalin found the number auspicious: The Ninth. He would be able to say, there it is, our national ninth.’

The composer had not exactly done much to dampen down the excitement. Before the war was even over, he announced that his next symphony would be a large-scale work for orchestra, soloists and chorus and would be ‘about the greatness of the Russian people, about our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy.’  Shostakovich always said in public what was expected of him but in this case, the anticipation he generated rather backfired. ‘I confess that I gave hope to the leader and teacher’s dreams. I announced that I was writing an apotheosis. I was trying to get them off my back but it turned against me.’

Faced with the choice of writing an empty paean to the glory of Stalin or a more honest reflection on the hardships that people were continuing to experience, Shostakovich opted for a third way. He composed a purely abstract piece of music that was neither one thing nor the other; a pure and perfect, almost Neoclassical work, complete with a standard first movement symphonic repeat for the one and only time in his life. Given that abstract music was something Stalin didn’t really understand, it would be hard for him to criticise it either way. Though its playfulness could be seen as nose thumbing by a court jester, its generally upbeat nature could not be attacked for being negative or depressing.

But of course Stalin was incensed when he heard the piece. According to Shostakovich ‘he was deeply offended there was no chorus, no soloists. And no apotheosis. There wasn’t even a paltry dedication. But I couldn’t write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn’t.’

Within a year of its première in 1945, Soviet critics censured the symphony for its ‘ideological weakness’ and its failure to ‘reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union.’  One described it as ‘old man Haydn and a regular American sergeant unsuccessfully made up to look like Charlie Chaplin, with every possible grimace and whimsical gesture.’  Others, in more private circles, understood ‘its timely mockery of all sorts of hypocrisy, pseudo-monumentality and bombastic grandiloquence.’ It was banned for the remainder of Stalin’s life and not recorded until 1956. Nor was the work particularly well received in the West. According to an American critic, ‘the Russian composer should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner.’

And yet how else could he have expressed his feelings? Maybe the only way was through the disguise of ‘childishness’, and it is intriguing that the work coincided with the writing of George Orwell’s satirical fable ‘Animal Farm’. Shostakovich might not have depicted the increased pain and suffering that were one of the Russian consequences of Hitler’s defeat, but in refusing to celebrate the victory along the lines demanded by Stalin he not only stood up to the dictator’s power, he belittled it.

Symphony No 12 in D minor, Op 112 (1961), ‘The Year 1917’

To celebrate the 22nd Communist Party Congress, Shostakovich was commissioned to write another symphony. It was to be a commemoration of Lenin and the 1917 Revolution, but as Shostakovich knew Lenin to be just as personally flawed as Stalin the challenge of the Twelfth Symphony was to prove as equally complicated as that of the Ninth.

Isaak Glickman describes going to Shostakovich’s house around the time he was working on the piece:

‘When I saw him I was struck by his pained expression, his confusion and disarray. He quickly led me into the little room where he slept. He sank down onto the bed, totally disarmed, and began to cry and sob. I imagined that something terrible had happened to him or to one of his loved ones. To all my questions, he stammered through his tears: “They’ve been following me for a long time, persecuting me.” Then the composer explained how Khrushchev’s entourage was putting pressure on him to join the party.’

Shostakovich finally joined the Party in 1960. In his eyes it was a capitulation that marked the lowest point in his life, and a far cry from the excited feelings he had as a ten year old boy who witnessed in person Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Railway Station in St. Petersburg in 1917. Even at that age however, he must have been aware of potential problems that the rebellion might bring, and even called one of his first compositions ‘Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution’.  Interestingly it is the melody of this work that he was to use over forty years later in his twelfth symphony, but as the child’s composition was not known at the time, the irony of the older composer using this as the basis for something that ‘glorified’ the revolution would have been lost on everyone but those closest to him.

There is a theory that initially the work was much more of a satire of Lenin, but that at the last minute Shostakovich lost his nerve and decided that it would be too dangerous to perform it, instead writing what we have now in a matter of days. This is backed up by the Testimony memoirs: ‘I began with one creative goal and ended up with a completely different scheme. I wasn’t able to realise my ideas. You see how hard it is to draw the image of leaders and teachers with music.’ We will probably never know this original music, even if it survived, but the idea of a last minute rewrite does at least explain the essential simplicity of this piece compared to all his other symphonies. In the end, by focusing on the basic ideology of the revolution rather than the personalities of its leaders, he was able to write something uplifting that he was nevertheless still proud of.

Whereas in the ninth he’d chosen to satisfy his conscience by writing a purely abstract piece of music, in the twelfth he took exactly the opposite approach and wrote the most programmatic symphony of them all. Both extremes allowed him to hide his true feelings. And despite his anguish and frustration with what had happened since 1917, it was not that difficult a task to simply express the emotions surrounding what actually took place at the time. One of the greatest film music composers of his time, Shostakovich simply used these well-honed techniques to brilliantly conjure the atmospheres and events of the time.

The first two movements depict scenes immediately prior to the revolution. The first, subtitled ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’, is a broad picture of the general restlessness of the people who desperately need a leader to focus their frustrations and aspirations. ‘Razliv’, the heading for the second movement, was the name of Lenin’s hideout forty miles from St Petersburg, and from which, in meditative retreat, he planned and directed, but actually mainly only followed the events themselves. ‘Aurora’, the title of the third movement, is the name of the battleship whose first shots onto the Winter Palace heralded the start of the revolution. It is a short exciting scherzo that leads directly to the finale, optimistically headed ‘The Dawn of Humanity’.

The main event of the 22nd Party Congress was not as it turned out, Shostakovich’s symphony, but Khrushchev’s dramatic denunciation of Stalin. Perhaps the subsequent removal of the dictator’s remains from the mausoleum in Red Square and the new thaw that this introduced finally signaled the real dawn of humanity that Shostakovich had been waiting most of his life for.

© Mark Wigglesworth 2007