Seeking Shostakovich (“All Life For Me Is Music”)

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1933

Dmitri Shostakovich, 1933

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.)

Listening List

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.

On YouTube:

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.

12 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich (“All Life For Me Is Music”)

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    So much to listen to, so little time… and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, my favorite male singer, thrown in too! I see the comparison to Mahler’s 6th – both symphonies are amazing.

    Here are the two brightest highlights of your post, for me: “Yet for all the endless 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.” -YES

    and I like the quote from Shostakovich, especially the part about resorting to camouflage – fascinating. Through it all he spoke in/through the language of music, demonstrating the incredible power of music, and could be proud of that.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I had you particularly in mind with the Fischer-Dieskau! Though I feel more and more unequal to the task, this exploration is proving a remarkable journey–far beyond my expectations, which were already high. As for the Shostakovich quotation you note and the issue of camouflage, while I don’t have the documentation to hand and may not have this completely right, I have been struck by the handling of various arts by the censors. As best I recall, the literary arts came under attack first, followed by arts that use narrative in some form (film, ballet, opera). To get a sense of the impact on music, after 1936, Shostakovich wrote no more operas or ballets; Prokofiev soldiered on, but his crucible to get War and Peace past the censors continued for the rest of his life, and he did not live to see it performed in full. While it didn’t stop them, of course, instrumental music was harder for the censors to attack. (I haven’t, by the way, run across mention of how the visual arts fared, though I’m sure they were not exempt.)

  2. wanderer

    If only I could work this through with you, word for word, note for note. Sadly that’s not possible, but happily your terrific resource is here to return to, and of course is greatly appreciated. And I really envy your commitment, I do.

    I was unaware of the Wigglesworth/RPO release and that’s now ordered – who ignores a David Nice review like that? By the way, Mr Wigglesworth (I’m a fan boy – he messed me up big time with his Peter Grimes here some years ago) is here at the moment, and we hear him on Friday coming, sadly no Shostakovich. I wish we saw him more often. He gives me the impression of never getting in the way of the music and there’s an almost terrifying intensity in what he can extract from the musicians. He said, quite bluntly to be honest, in answer to a question about how he would conduct Grimes – ‘as written’ – and it seems to me we end up getting – ‘as felt’ (by the composer). I’d be interested to hear what David has to say about him. I note his review uses words like “he dares”, and certainly my experience is he does indeed. Sorry about this little slip sideways, off topic-ish.

    I hope the fall is falling well, the land is gorgeous, and the lives content. I do pop in, don’t think that I don’t.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: Always a pleasure to “see” you here. On Wigglesworth, it’s from David that I learned about him and ran to book his concert with the Juilliard Orchestra. I’m not schooled enough to recognize reliably what can be attributed to a conductor and what to the musicians, but, while the Juilliard Orchestra is wonderful, there’s no question but he must be credited with drawing out a truly extraordinary performance of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem in the concert I attended. (I would have loved to see a rehearsal.)

      To your comment, “He said, quite bluntly to be honest, in answer to a question about how he would conduct Grimes – ‘as written’ – and it seems to me we end up getting – ‘as felt’ (by the composer),” I don’t have it to hand, but Shostakovich said something similar once to musicians rehearsing a piece of his, to the effect that, you do the work, let the audience do the listening.

      And here’s a wonderful exchange I noted down from the Prom 53 interview with Nézet-Séguin about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5:

      Martin Handley: Prokofiev “made this famous remark that it was about the grandeur of the human spirit for official Soviet consumption. What is the symphony about; what do you think?”

      Yannick Nézet-Séguin: “I actually said to the musicians a few days ago, let’s not try to add layers to it and remember to go beyond what’s written. I think in the case of this symphony it works best is if we simply play what’s on the page, and play that joy which in the end becomes something extremely twisted, and manic, and obsessive, that would be in the last movement, in the second movement as well, and I think if you just play it very naturally, it comes out as this most touching message that’s much beyond what he wrote about it.”

  3. Guest

    I consider the Shostakovich 4th one of the key symphonic statements of the 20th century, and one of his greatest. However, to consider it (with Lady Macbeth) as the apogee of his career would to my mind be a mistake. He went on to pen a number of masterpieces in different genres: symphonies (8th, 10th, 11th, 14th and 15th to name some favorites of mine), violin and cello concerti, string quartets, song cycles, Stepan Razin cantata etc. There are musicologists who would argue that the future direction of his music could already be discerned by the time of the 4th. I personally think that the late Shostakovich in particular realized the trajectory of the 4th, even while in dialectical opposition to it: austere to the 4th gargantuan dimensions , Mussorgskian to its Mahlerian impulse, yet both incredibly inventive and profound. Indeed, it is the performance of the 4th in 1961 that may well have accelerated the emergence of the late Shostakovich style. I am glad that the 4th is more preformed now than ever before, and it may well be on its way to finally join the standard repertory as the jewel of a symphony that it is.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Guest: Thank you so much for coming by and for writing as you did. It’s a comment I intend to come back to as I listen to the later symphonies–and to other Shostakovich works. I am particularly struck by your comment “that the late Shostakovich in particular realized the trajectory of the 4th, even while in dialectical opposition to it: austere to the 4th gargantuan dimensions, Mussorgskian to its Mahlerian impulse, yet both incredibly inventive and profound. Indeed, it is the performance of the 4th in 1961 that may well have accelerated the emergence of the late Shostakovich style.” Please know, I am nowhere near so versed as you clearly are in his music, but this validates something I am sensing as I listen to the later works (though I could not have put words to it as you have done so well here). Thank you for all.

  4. David N

    What more can I add, except to say that the encyclopedia of cross references in the symphony keeps on revealing itself. The ‘false cuckoo’ calls from Mahler One, the Gloria from Oedipus Rex, the wrongfooting (tritone) funeral trudge – more Mahler, as you observe, but distorted. And it’s taken me about 20 hearings to truly sort out the form of the seemingly baggy first movement.

    Wigglesworth was praised to the skies for his Parsifal here a couple of years ago, and yet still turns up but rarely. To wanderer I’d say, also get his Glyndebourne Grimes: it caused a kerfuffle of the wrong sort at the time – again I wasn’t there – but sounds infinitely deep (which is what he does) on CD (the house’s own label, with a terrific protagonist in Griffey). An amusing if self-regarding side note: I picked up in a review on a wrong trumpet note in MW’s Shostakovich 8, and it turned out BIS had used the wrong edit. So they withdraw all copies and went to the effort of bringing out the ‘right’ version. How’s that for diligence? Maybe MW, notorious perfectionist – which may make him unpopular – insisted.

    Your ‘Guest’ is quite right: I’d say the Fourth is the first peak, the Eighth the second, and everything around the final years of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth the third. What an unquenchable genius for self-renewal. Currently listening to John Tomlinson’s new recording of the very late and very disturbing Michelangelo Sonnets. Sir JT is rather shot vocally at 67, but it’s still commanding.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: “And it’s taken me about 20 hearings to truly sort out the form of the seemingly baggy first movement.” This statement alone gives me such a vivid picture of what it takes to get well inside a piece of music under study. I hope one day you may write about the Fourth “in full” and tell us what you’ve found. The best of his pieces do seem bottomless in terms of what one can discover. Even with the much more limited tools I’m able to bring to this, it’s a rich and exciting pursuit. This puts me in mind, also, of what you wrote earlier about Elizabeth Wilson’s revised book: “and when she ventured into a general sort of musical analysis, I wished there’d been much more of that.” I so agree. I was going back to what she’d written about the Fifteen yesterday, and there was so much valuable insight and knowledge to be gained, and all so clearly set forth. Last, by no means least, your observation, “What an unquenchable genius for self-renewal,” is beautifully stated, and so true.

  5. angela

    so much energy in that intro – not certain what I am listening to now as I type, how it fades then crescendos (but we know that I know nothing of music other than this would be a wonder to listen to live) I will add as an aside – the amount of game changers in the arts as product of repression or experience of both WW is true testament to the human spirit’s creative fire – While I shall not say that the arts today lack ‘voice’, but their is an intensity and truism to the arts that were oft produced at the possible peril of the creator… one wonders, what has been ‘destroyed’ by the need to find a label or to avoid one in the 21st century. (I digress…thank you, Sue for a great post)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: Knowing that “this would be a wonder to listen to live” is plenty to know, and I agree. I’m actually, by happenstance, going to get the chance next month, and I can hardly wait. Your rumination about “game changers in the arts as product of repression or experience of both WW,” etc. is an interesting one that has come to my mind, too. I don’t like to think that cataclysmic experiences are essential to produce great works, but it’s certainly striking to contemplate here. I suppose, on the other side, what was lost? As I wrote to Mark, no more ballets or operas from Shostakovich–what might he have produced, if he’d been free?

  6. shoreacres

    I was most taken by this: “He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life.” Such irony.

    I find myself really bothered by this post. Not by the music or your reflections, but by what it has to say about Shostakovich, and freedom and creation. We live in a society becoming increasingly coarse and savage. “Political correctness” increasingly is morphing into repression. We need to hear the voices of people like Shostakovich not only through his music, but through the events of his life. Or so it seems to me.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: What’s striking to me is my sense, along the lines of what I wrote in response to Mark, that instrumental music may have been the means-last-standing by which true communication remained possible in those times, even if sometimes camouflaged. I find the historical context interesting and important, yet at the same time, I’m disturbed by the insistence on editorial gloss that distorts, rather than clarifies, and there’s a lot of it. I do think the most important thing to know about Shostakovich is that music was his primary language over anything else, his chosen means by which to communicate. All the rest is commentary, sometimes helpful, but I am beginning to think quite often not. (On the words end, I will say that I can’t commend highly enough Elizabeth Wilson’s book to anyone who wants a rich and well-wrought picture of the man and his times.)

      Now, this is a little oblique, but I’ve been reading Wallace Stevens yesterday and today and ran across this, in his essay “A Comment on the Meaning of Poetry”:

      On the inside cover of the album of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony recently issued by Columbia there is a note on the meanings of that work. Bruno Walter, however, says that he never heard Mahler intimate that the symphony had any meanings except the meanings of the music. . . . The score with its markings contains any meaning that imaginative and sensitive listeners find in it. It takes very little to experience the variety in everything. The poet, the musician, both have explicit meanings but they express them in the forms these take and not in explanation.”

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