History has reason to be grateful to Alexander Glazunov, head of the Conservatoire where Shostakovich, still in his teens, was studying, for his support of a young composer whose work he didn’t fully comprehend. [Wilson 38]. About the First Symphony, Shostakovich’s graduation composition, Glazunov said, “I don’t understand anything. Of course the work shows great talent, but I don’t understand it.” [Wilson 12] Glazunov’s support for this “most gifted,” but malnourished, student extended even to petitioning the Commissar of Enlightenment to make sure Shostakovich was properly fed. [Wilson 28]
When I first listened to the First Symphony, I knew only one fact, that it premiered when Shostakovich was nineteen. That fact alone was impossible to believe. The symphony reminded me of his opera, The Nose. This was a composer who was unafraid, exuberant, and brimming over with ideas.
Nikolai Malko, conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, first heard Shostakovich play the symphony (on piano). “It was immediately clear that this . . . was the vibrant, original, and striking work of a composer with an original approach.” [Wilson 54] Malko decided to perform it on the spot.
Malko also reported on the symphony’s May 12, 1926, premiere, which was performed to a packed hall:
The first sounds that issued from the orchestra confirmed the correctness of [Shostakovich’s] imagination . . . . the symphony had a pronounced success. . . . The audience was thrilled, and there was a certain festive mood in the hall. . . . Such a feeling is usually apparent when something really outstanding and exceptional is performed. It is not a casual success warmed by casual conditions, but a genuine, spontaneous recognition.” [Wilson 55]
I recognize what Malko was describing. Few things are as exciting as the chance to witness the first performance of a substantial new work by a young composer at the beginning of his or her career. If the work succeeds, the sense that you are witnessing history is palpable: you’re hearing something no one has heard publicly before, and you’re aware that it’s out of the ordinary. While there are many concert-going experiences that are thrilling, for me, nothing is more thrilling than this.
Shostakovich celebrated the anniversary of the premiere of his First Symphony for the rest of his life [Fay 479], and it’s no wonder, for the premiere “catapulted him overnight to international fame.” [Wilson 62]
Postscript: I’d love to have the opportunity to hear more large-scale pieces by current, and particularly younger, composers. To mount such works, though (let alone record them properly), hard enough in Shostakovich’s time, is even harder today. Recently, in an interview with NPR here, conductor David Robertson offered several fine insights on the subject “Why Are American Orchestras Afraid Of New Symphonies?” Kyle Gann, a composer and professor at Bard College, has written thoughtfully on the issues confronting young composers here. Alex Ross offered a trenchant example of “Burying the Lede” (“’Scheherazade and 1812 Overture!’ is the headline for an upcoming Baltimore Symphony program, one that happens to include the American premiere of John Adams’s new Saxophone Concerto”) here. David Nice made a thought-provoking observation about commissioning choices in the second paragraph of an Arts Desk review here.
Some Prufrockian Impressions: On listening to the symphony several times (per my “maxim,” does the piece reward many re-hearings, and does it do so over time?), I continue to hear the work of a highly unusual talent. I find the first two movements compelling and original. The melodic line in the third movement feels under-developed—it almost seems to have been written by a different composer. The fourth movement seems to struggle to regain coherence for the composition as a whole. The dramatic close, while a barnstormer, doesn’t seem quite earned.
For Shostakovich’s First Symphony (1924-25; first performance 1926) on Spotify, click here.
The First Symphony on YouTube
In the first movement, listen for the opening solo trumpet (and the return of this idea at the end of the movement), the first theme for clarinet, a second theme for flute, and how these are carried forward in the movement. (Richard Whitehouse’s liner notes accompanying the Shostakovich Symphonies No 1 & 3/Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic CD from Naxos provide a helpful guide for picking out these ideas and themes.)
Credits and Thanks:
Quotations to “Wilson” throughout the series are to Elizabeth Wilson’s superb book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Second Edition), followed by the page reference. Wilson’s book is a model for how to write within this genre—so valuable, yet so prone to historical inaccuracy—particularly by her method of introducing each reminiscence with historical information to give context and correct the record where it seemed required.
Quotations to “Fay” throughout the series are to Laurel E. Fay’s biography, Shostakovich: A Life, followed by the Kindle location reference. While I would have preferred a biography that provided greater historical context, I appreciated Fay’s focus on factual accuracy and her reticence to stray into opinion (of which there is a surfeit). Hers was my “go-to” book to confirm (or deny) information contained in other sources.
The photograph at the head of the post is of the cover of the CD. The photograph, which also appeared in the previous post, was taken on June 28, 1925, two days before completion of the First Symphony.
I must also thank David Nice for recommending the Naxos/Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic CDs to fill in the substantial gaps in my Shostakovich symphony collection. His review of the CD containing the First Symphony (though you may need to be a BBC Music Magazine subscriber to read it), may be found here.