In 1925, Shostakovich wrote to a friend, “For me there is no joy in life other than music. All life for me is music.” [Fay 398] I think of him then, a young man who, in his First Symphony, had had a phenomenal success. Yet if he’s to make his life as a composer, he can’t rest on one success and, anyway, he doesn’t want to. He continues on, searching for the next inspiration, and the next.
How is he to do it? Does he want to compose music that speaks to the times? In the Second and Third Symphonies, what was he searching for? Did he love the revolution or hate it? Was he skeptical about it, or did he embrace it? Are these either/or questions even relevant to his pursuit?
The roiling debate about Shostakovich’s musical intentions is endless. It reaches one of many crests in examining the dramatic story of the Fourth Symphony. Yet for all the debate surrounding Shostakovich, perhaps the only thing we can take as truth is his deep desire to speak in the extraordinary and singular language of music.
Laurel Fay wrote, “When Dmitri Shostakovich began composing his Fourth Symphony in 1934, he was the proud author of a bona fide operatic “hit.”” [Fay, LA Philharmonic Database] In January of 1936, that same opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, would provoke condemnation of the most terrifying sort.
At this point in his career, Shostakovich’s specialty was theater, ballet, and film; he wasn’t yet established as a composer of symphonies. The Fourth Symphony, a monumental undertaking influenced by his love for Mahler, was to be his “compositional credo.” [Wilson 120] Gone was any suggestion of a revolutionary program—or programmatic material of any sort. This symphony was to speak in the language of music alone.
Shostakovich had completed the first two movements of the Fourth before Joseph Stalin and assorted apparatchiks attended a performance of Lady Macbeth in 1936. Stalin and his minions left before the opera ended. Two days later, “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared in Pravda, and Shostakovich, not yet thirty and with an unfinished symphony on his desk, was brutally cast down [Fay 1229]:
The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. [excerpt from the Pravda article, a translation of which may be found here]
Here is the measure of Shostakovich: he sat down at his desk and finished his Fourth Symphony. It is among the most beautiful and wrenching symphonies of the fifteen he composed.
Postscript: Shostakovich withdrew the symphony while it was still in rehearsal. Reasons offered for the withdrawal vary. Isaak Glikman gave this account:
And one fine day a secretary of the Union of Composers . . . and another official . . appeared at a rehearsal; Dmitri Dmitriyevich was requested to report with them to I. M. Renzin, the director of the Philharmonic. . . . About 15-20 minutes later Dmitri Dmitriyevich came to fetch me . . . finally he told me, in an even, expressionless voice, that the Symphony would not be performed, that at the express recommendation of Renzin it had been cancelled, but that he had not wished to invoke his administrative authority and therefore had requested that the composer himself should take the decision for cancelling the performance. [Wilson 143]
The symphony did not receive its first performance until December 30, 1961.
Upon hearing the Fourth Symphony for the first time in 1961, Flora Litvinova, a family friend, wrote in her diary:
. . . it made a shattering impression on us. Why do Dmitri Dmitriyevich’s later works lack those qualities of impetuosity, dynamic drive, contrasts of rhythm and colour, tenderness and spikiness? One involuntarily thinks what a different path he would have taken, how different his life would have been, if it were not for the ‘historic’ Decree which warped the living spirit in him . . . . Lady Macbeth and the Fourth Symphony surely marked the apogee of Shostakovich’s creative career. [Wilson 391]
Litvinova asked Shostakovich about this and recalled his reply in her last meeting with him in 1970 or 1971:
No doubt the line that I was pursuing when I wrote the Fourth Symphony 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. . . . But I am not ashamed of what I have written; I like all my compositions. [Wilson 481-2]
(End note: The “‘historic ‘ Decree” to which Litvinova refers issued on February 10, 1948. Shortly after the decree issued, several works by Shostakovich, including the Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, were banned. [Fay 2356] I don’t agree with Litvinova’s statement that the Fourth Symphony was the apogee of Shostakovich’s entire creative career. Her statement leads me to wonder whether she first heard the Fourth Symphony in close proximity to the Twelfth, the premiere of which occurred on October 1, 1961, just three months prior to the premiere of the Fourth. The Twelfth Symphony is generally considered to be an inferior work.)
In a discussion on the post “Guest Post: Brian Long Reflects on Mahler’s First Symphony and World War One,” David Nice noted that, in Mahler’s First, “the cuckoo in the outer movements sings a fourth – the pervasive interval of the symphony – rather than a third” and that Shostakovich picks it up with another ‘false cuckoo’ in the twilight zones of the Fourth Symphony’s First Movement.”
The “false cuckoo” calls in the Mahler appear a number of times. If my ears don’t deceive me (and they might), the first examples I spotted can be found at 3:10 and 3:30 in the Daniel Harding/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra video here. In Shostakovich’s Fourth, I believe I heard them at the timestamps noted for each version below:
Neeme Järvi/Scottish National Orchestra: 10:25/22:49 (2 times each)
John Storgårds/BBC Philharmonic (available for 30 days from October 11, 2014): 1:18:44/1:31:34 (2 times each)
Also, the close of the first movement appears to me to work with the same call. If anyone knows whether this is so, I’d love to know. (Starts at Järvi-26:17; Storgårds-1:34:43.)
Prufrockian Impressions: This is an extraordinary work, from the first orchestral scream to the final dying of the light. Among so much else, listen for the evocative solo passages on woodwinds and horns; the inventive use of percussion throughout; and the spare elegance of the orchestration as the third movement comes to a close.
I found Laurel Fay’s program notes to the Fourth Symphony a particularly helpful guide to listening. They may be found here.
For a listening list on Spotify, click here.
Symphony No. 4 (to hear the ending, start at about 57’05””)
The listening list on Spotify includes, in addition to the Fourth Symphony, Gavriil Popov’s First Symphony, Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (“Tragic”), Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique”), and two versions (Thomas Quasthoff and Jessye Norman) of Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
Many commentators have drawn comparisons between Shostakovich’s Fourth and Mahler’s Sixth Symphonies. For example, Alex Ross wrote that the Fourth “most resembles” Mahler’s “Sixth—both in the militaristic thrust of its opening and in the drawn-out anguish of its close.” [Ross 253]
David Nice noted an interesting parallel to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in his review of the Wigglesworth/Netherlands RPO CD:
The end is as mesmerising as it can be, raising unmistakeable parallels with the fading heartbeat of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Is Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony an equal masterpiece? Mark Wigglesworth and his Dutch players persuade me that it is.
Popov was a contemporary who studied with Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. Popov’s First Symphony was censured after its premiere as a work of “class-enemy character” and further performances were banned. [Ross 248] Alex Ross wrote:
Popov, exploding with talent but lacking that eerie detachment from his creative self, collapsed under the outward pressure. He felt obligated to produce programmatic Socialist-Realistic pieces on a regular basis (Komsomol Is The Chief of Electrification). He became a raging alcoholic.
BBC3 Radio commentator Stephen Johnson, in his Discovering Music commentary on Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, said of the funeral march that begins the third movement, “Shostakovich loved Mahler, and I think there’s a deliberate parallel here. It’s very like the funeral march in the last song of Mahler’s cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [which] depicts the desperately disillusioned young man walking off to his death.” [My transcript is of the passage from the talk starting at 8:52 here.] Johnson’s twenty-minute talk includes many helpful musical examples from Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, though I have questions about some of the interpretations of Shostakovich’s intentions, particularly, as Laurel Fay and Alex Ross note [Fay 1344; Ross 253], the first two movements were completed before the Pravda article appeared.
Here is Mahler’s Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz on YouTube
Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here and here. The remaining quotations are from the sources indicated in the text. The photograph at the head of the post appears in several locations, none of which identify the source. The date is that given here.