Mark Wigglesworth

Shostakovich Symphony No.4

Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony No. 4

In the autumn of 1935, the still young but already much fêted Shostakovich had every reason to start composing his Fourth Symphony with supreme confidence. His recent opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been a sensational success and he was without doubt the musical golden child of the Soviet Union. But within a few months the euphoric bubble burst when Stalin went to see the opera himself, and immediately penned the infamous article in the newspaper Pravda that described the precocious musician as a composer of ‘muddle instead of music’ and an enemy of the state. Shostakovich’s life was turned upside down. To know him was dangerous; to associate with him was suicidal. People crossed the street to avoid him and he kept a suitcase packed with warm underwear and strong shoes for the day he presumed he would be sent to Siberia. The pressure on the twenty-nine-year-old to apologise for his music was intense. Towards the end of his life he explained to his friend Isaak Glikman: ‘The authorities tried everything they knew to get me to repent, and expiate my sin. But I refused. I was young then, and had my physical strength. Instead of repenting I composed my Fourth Symphony.’
It is hard to tell what part of the piece Shostakovich was working on when the Pravda article appeared. From various dated documents we can assume that it was somewhere in the finale, but to try and find the specific spot is ultimately a rather futile exercise as Shostakovich was a composer who conceived his works in their entirety before writing them down. It is perfectly possible that the composition was not affected by the attack in any way. Whatever changes the article forced upon Shostakovich the man, Shostakovich the composer was probably not pushed off course one note. The question post-Pravda was not whether to finish the piece, but whether or not to have it performed.
Shostakovich finished the symphony in May 1936 and was initially determined to get his new work played. When asked by close friends what he thought the official reaction to it would be, he was undaunted: ‘I don’t write for Pravda, I write for myself.’ The date of the premiere was fixed for 30th December 1936, with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by its music director, Fritz Stiedry. The reasons for what happened next are unclear. At some point during rehearsals Shostakovich decided to withdraw the symphony from performance, claiming that he felt that the finale needed rewriting and that the work as a whole suffered from ‘grandiosomania’. But he later said that he did so because Stiedry was making such an appalling mess of the rehearsals. Isaak Glikman, however, states that the real reason the performance was abandoned was because of intolerable pressure exerted on the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra by the authorities. Rather than having anything to do with either the piece or the conductor, the withdrawal was the result of the manager of the orchestra asking the composer to make it his own decision and protect everyone involved as a result.
Whatever the reasons were, it was an extremely tense time. All had to bow to the requirements of socialist realism and the danger of not toeing the line was something that affected everyone. ‘I was afraid,’ Shostakovich said. ‘Fear was a common feeling for everyone then, and I didn’t miss my share. The danger horrified me and I saw no way out. I desperately wanted to vanish. I thought of the possibility with relish. I was completely destroyed. It was a low that wiped out my past. And my future. The terrible pre-war years. That is what my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are about.’
Nadezhda Mandelstam, the Russian writer who was a contemporary and friend of Shostakovich wrote of the inner impact of being terrorised in such a way: ‘An existence like this leaves a mark. We all become slightly unbalanced mentally, not ill, but not normal either: suspicious, mendacious, confused and inhibited in our speech, at the same time putting on a show of adolescent optimism. If you live in a state of constant panic, you begin to have a special awareness of each minute, of each second. Time drags on, acquiring weight and pressing down on the breast like lead. This is not so much a state of mind as a physical sensation.’ She could equally well have been describing the emotional impact of listening to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.
The manuscript of the unperformed work was lost during the war. It was not until well after the death of Stalin that a librarian at the Leningrad Philharmonic found all the orchestral parts in their archives, and reconstructed the score exactly as it had been when Shostakovich had it withdrawn. The Fourth Symphony was then given to the conductor Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and was finally performed on 30th December 1961, twenty-five years later than originally intended.
After the première Shostakovich was unusually complimentary about his own work. ‘In many respects my Fourth Symphony is much better than my recent ones. It is better than the Eighth.’ And yet for a quarter of a century he had never once suggested publicly that it should be performed, nor contradicted the idea that it had been his own decision to withdraw it. Perhaps he felt guilty that he had, in his own eyes, caved in. Maybe it was easier for him to denigrate the piece than to admit that he had let the authorities dictate his life. ‘My Fourth was a failure,’ he had said in 1956. ‘It is a very imperfect, long-winded work.’ But the fact is that whatever public criticisms he had levelled at it over the years, when it came to be performed in 1961 he insisted that there were to be no changes at all. Even as famous a conductor as Otto Klemperer was put in his place by Shostakovich when for practical reasons he asked for the number of flutes needed to be reduced from six to four. ‘What has been written with a pen cannot be scratched out by an axe,’ was the composer’s adamant reply.
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.
‘Gigantomania’ was a term used by an economist in the 1930s to describe the mood of public life in Russia. Out of a sense of inferiority to the industrialised West, a boastfulness emerged that exaggerated the state’s achievements. Everything big was celebrated. There were farms so large that labourers spent more time getting around them than working, pointless projects like the excavation of the White Sea canal at a cost of a hundred thousand lives, and speeches such as the following made by a delegate at the Seventh Congress of Soviets in 1935:
‘I must sing, shout, cry out loud my delight and happiness. All is thanks to thee, O great teacher Stalin. Our love, our devotion, our strength, our hearts, our heroism, our life – all are thine. Take them, great Stalin – all is thine, O leader of this great country. People of all times and all nations will give thy name to everything that is fine and strong, to all that is wise and beautiful. When the woman I love gives me a child the first word I will teach it will be “Stalin”.’
To ‘overdo’ his music was a way for Shostakovich to give certain people what they wanted whilst at the same time remaining ironic in the eyes of others. Who can know if the exaggeration is deliberate or not?
Shostakovich must have had mixed feelings about the work’s ultimate, if belated, success: questions of what might have been, the memory of those difficult times, perhaps even artistic guilt about abandoning the modernist musical path he had been following. Though there is a dynamism and impetuosity in this piece that never appear again in his work, the challenge of having to write more popular music whilst at the same time remaining true to himself may have been a valuable discipline, without which he would not have touched so many. Maybe being ‘reined in’ was the best thing that could have happened to him. Alternatively one could regard the change of style that followed the events of 1936 as a tragedy and lament the loss of a fantastically brilliant and original mind, and only try to imagine what direction he might have taken his music had he been allowed to remain artistically free.
Shortly before his death Shostakovich tried to explain his own view. ‘How they managed to contort us, to warp our lives. You ask if I would have been different without “Party Guidance”? Yes, almost certainly. No doubt the line that I was pursuing when I wrote No. 4 would have been stronger and sharper in my work. I would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm, I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage; I would have written more pure music.’ This enigmatic statement is apt for one of the most enigmatic of composers. Like his music itself, it leaves us free to make up our own mind about what he is trying to say.
© Mark Wigglesworth 2008

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