Seeking Shostakovich (The First Symphony)

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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.

Listening List

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.

10 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich (The First Symphony)

  1. David N

    My feelings about the First exactly: first two movements brilliant, third and fourth weaker (though the influence of Scriabin is bizarre and unique in Shostakovich). I’d always put it at the beginning of a concert, never the end.

    EW made a dazzling revision of her original tome, and when she ventured into a general sort of musical analysis, I wished there’d been much more of that. After all, she is a cellist of the finest order and understands the music inside out. Lovely person, too, so modest, and she’s had her health troubles recently (over, fingers crossed, like yours).

    Anyway, looks like as you’ve started you’ll have to do them all – maybe Two and Three together as 1920s agitprop pieces of quite some originality.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Thanks for the DiDonato tip-off–heard about it from you first, and as you’ll see, I’ve popped it up in the sidebar.

      Now, as for the symphonies, doing this project feels a bit like following the lines of an animated illustration of a tree. First there are a few simple lines reaching up, forming the trunk. Then the lines multiply, creating branches, twigs, leaves, and twining off into infinity. (I ask myself, for example, how do I think I can really hear what’s going on in the symphonies without listening to his work for film . . . and . . . and . . . but I must set the thought aside for “another round” at a later time or you may find me eternally entwined in the smallest tendrils with no way out.) As for this “symphonic round,” however, I will say no more than that the next installment was already “in the can” by the time I first saw your comment here–subject, of course, to “time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions.” I hope you’ll be amused . . .

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    After two listens – and this symphony deserves many more – I can’t hear the weakness you and Mr. Nice do, but I’m content to learn anything at all about Shostakovich, and the simple fact of how young he was when he composed this is enough to blow my mind. I’m like you in wanting to hear new orchestral works and it’s not easy to come by where I live. In the Robertson interview he gives some reasons for why audiences are “afraid” of new works, principally that they have a limited amount of energy to give and are hesitant to make the effort of listening or gamble on not enjoying the evening. I’ve often thought this might be the case for many people. I’m happy to take those chances. It beats being bored by a bored orchestra going through the motions. On the one hand, one of the great pleasures of orchestral music is memory/anticipation. But on the other hand, if we don’t make the effort with new works we’ll forever remain limited in the scope of works we listen to. There is a lack of appreciation for orchestral music, for serious music and art in general….

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: When I first listened to this symphony, I was knocked flat by it, and that he was 19 when he wrote it only added to my amazement. My reaction reminded me very much of my response on hearing Mattingly’s Atlas the first time (he was 19, too, as I recall). In each case, though I don’t mean at all to compare them as composers, only to note the similarity of my response, I was bowled over by the originality of voice and choice and use of instruments, among so many other things. In the case of Shostakovich, my “Prufrockian” impression is perhaps unreasonably colored by now having listened to all fifteen symphonies at least once, and many of them several times. With this extraordinary starting point, ah, the places he goes! (I’ll say more on that third movement, particularly, as best I can, in responding to Elizabeth’s comment.)

      On the subject of new works, I agree so much with your words responding to what Robertson said. It’s sad that the Baltimore Symphony feels it must headline a concert containing John Adams’s newest work without any mention of it, while trumpeting the War of 1812 Overture and Scheherazade. I’m not saying anything against those works, but not even a mention of the new one?

  3. angela

    Uh-oh, must I chime in after these two… I actually have to raise my hand rather tentatively when it goes for lack of appreciation of orchestral music (my head hangs in shame).

    It is funny, but I needed something for background while I was online tonight, so I visited your Spotify list knowing Shostakovich pieces were there for the bidding (had not seen this blog post yet) and stumbled upon 7- had to turn it off, too ‘busy’. Listening briefly to 1, yep, same thing. I think if I took the time to read and understand what the piece is about (like I do if at the symphony) I’d be intrigued, but alas, I just want a rift that is not too jarring…back to the cool jazz for me. I so admire all of you for your musical ear!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela, angela, how I love your forthright response. Now, when I saw the word “background,” I knew trouble was ahead. Listening to a Shostakovich symphony as background music might be a little like settling down to read Bataille on an active train track, what do you think? No, for the Shostakovich symphonies, the foreground’s the thing, and perhaps you’ll venture out to a live concert one day–though the 1st and 7th aren’t the ones I’d put top of the list (more on that anon . . .). Meanwhile, though I’ve no wish to encourage Shostakovich as background music, I’ve put up his preludes and fugues for piano on Spotify for you here: If you’re ever in the mood, perhaps you’ll give the first prelude a try–but no obligation, of course!

  4. newleafsite

    Promising this is not out of contrariness, but from the vantage point of someone more at ease with (very) light classical music, I’d like to say a word on behalf of the third and fourth movements. Not having Shostakovich’s body of work for comparison (I begin here and now with your step-by-step), I listen with an untutored ear. May we assume that S. kept the last two as written, because he believed them equal in development to the first two? It remains to ponder why he thought so, while some others don’t. It may be simplistic to consider them as thesis (one and two), antithesis (three), synthesis (four, questionably “regaining coherence for the composition as a whole”). With an ear both untutored and unexpectant, for me the third just leads from a strong musical expression to a subtler, not weaker, one. Were he verbalizing emotions, he would have made an adamant statement in one and further expounded upon it in two. In three I hear possible reconsideration, contemplation of other ways of thinking; there’s almost a sound of doubt or regret. In four I do hear a return to the assertion of the first two, though perhaps with a little less conviction. I admit that, had there not been comments on the relative merit of the movements, I may not have followed this meandering path, listening for what you had predicted, hearing emotions he may not have meant to voice. But in the “not quite earned” close I like to think I hear him voicing a personal sense of something overcome. — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Contrariness? No, no, no! I love the way you’ve really thought about and articulated so beautifully what YOU heard with a fresh ear. You’ve led me to go back and think further about my own response (as distinguished from Shostakovich’s intent in composing) to the third and fourth movements, and there are a couple things that come to mind.

      While I’m new to many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, I think I may have them so much “in my ear” right now that, when I listened to the first and second movements of the First Symphony, I was particularly taken with how much he already “sounded like” Shostakovich to me. That is, he was already, or so it seemed to me, a composer with an original voice, and not one who still bore heavy marks of his influences, as can be the case with a composer’s early works. With the third movement, in contrast, I didn’t hear Shostakovich’s voice any more, and I missed it. (I also sensed a search for a strong lyrical line that never seemed quite to arrive.)

      What you’ve written about the contrast between the second and third movements leads me to my second thought, which is that my response—perhaps anyone’s response—is at least partly a matter of taste. In the case of my taste (and a bit unfair to the young Shostakovich), as I listened to the remainder of his symphonies, there were some where I felt the music moved from movement to movement so exquisitely that the First paled in comparison. I suspect, too, that my reaction to the fourth movement is at least partially based on my response to the third, as you’ll see in my comment to David’s reply to you.

  5. David N

    Interesting proposiion from Elizabeth there. I’m not sure what I hear in the finale, though, as it seems to me to lurch and not to know quite where to stop. But it’s the authentic voice of the young composer, and needs to be respected. He’s not playing to the gallery.

    On a slightly connected Russian note, have you seen that the splendid Joyce DiDonato has made an eloquent statement of her stand against the current Russian horrors on her blog: She is dedicating tomorrow’s Last Night of the Proms airing of ‘Over the rainbow’ to LGBT people everywhere and I believe has signed the petition – 8,000 strong now – pleading for the Met to speak out about the gala opening with Onegin. If only there were more musicians like her (and Kremer, and Argerich, and Patricia Racette too, I understand – though being out and proud she has more invested).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Re that finale, what Whitehouse wrote in his liner notes struck a chord with me: “the expressive divide between the first two movements and the slow movement is such that the finale has to open out its emotional range still further to ensure a convincing resolution.” That “lurching” you describe makes sense to me. It’s a bit as if the third movement got out of the corral and went off into the fields, and now the fourth is having a devil of a time lassoing it to bring it back. (With apologies for the terrible metaphor!)

      On other fronts, this I loved especially, in your comment to the DiDonato post: “We can bury Putin in rainbows.” Yes, indeed.

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