Seeking Shostakovich (“What We Need Is An Optimistic Shostakovich”)

Shostakovich at a Soccer Game, 1940s

Shostakovich at a Soccer Game, 1940s

When the chairman of the Committee for the Arts viewed Ilya Slonim’s bust of Shostakovich, he wasn’t pleased: “What we need is an optimistic Shostakovich.” [Wilson 198] Shostakovich had a wicked sense of humor, and his parody of Soviet speak was spot-on. [Wilson 197] It’s easy to imagine him mimicking the chairman’s phrase, which he loved to do. [Wilson 198]

His fast friend for many years was polymath Ivan Sollertinsky. Sollertinsky would arrive on the scene, “spread his shaggy greatcoat on the floor and recite the Petrarch sonnets, or sing right through a Mahler symphony in his funny falsetto, recalling every voice note for note with complete precision.” [Wilson 74]

Once they went with a group of friends to a beach. In a scene that might have come straight out of Withnail and I,

Two figures—that of Sollertinsky and our slim Mitya—could be seen striding through the water, staggering from side to side . . . . We saw them swigging down brandy from the same bottle. Sollertinsky, it is said, taught Mitya how to drink.” [Wilson 74]

Shostakovich was always in motion. When he was sitting for his bust, Slonim had the devil of a time getting him to stay still.

For the first five minutes he sat bolt upright, then he would practice five-finger exercises on his cheek, then he hung his head between his knees and covered his whole head with his hands. [Wilson 198]

He was a “quite a poker fiend.” [Wilson 123] Once, in 1936, when he was broke “and surviving on credit, he . . . dropped 1,000 rubles, prompting a sleepless night spent musing on the theme, ‘unlucky in cards, unlucky in love, unlucky in profession.’” [Fay 1571]

He was a “rabid” soccer fan as well. “He comported himself like a little boy; leapt up, screamed, gesticulated.”[Fay 1577] He kept a log of soccer scores for many years [Fay 1584] and once interrupted his vacation “to return to Leningrad to attend a match.” [Fay 1579]

He loved the circus, too. While writing his First Symphony, he went whenever he could. [Fay 385] He was “awestruck by the twelve ferocious Bengal tigers that . . . leaped through flaming hoops.” [Fay 465] He once told some disdainful students that

The circus is the purest of art forms. . . . like any genuine art form it brooks no counterfeit. The director’s tone-deaf wife, the committee chairman’s aunt or somebody else may sing in opera. But only a person expertly trained can perform on the flying trapeze. It is inconceivable to enter the lion’s cage simply by “pulling strings.” [Fay 4354]

That the circus makes an appearance in the Sixth Symphony can come as no surprise.

Listening List

A listening list on Spotify may be found here.

Sixth Symphony (1939)

Prufrockian Impressions: This is a symphony with which I was entirely unfamiliar, and I consider it an enormous find. Each movement is a perfect jewel, yet how Shostakovich conceived of the symphony’s overall structure was impossible (for me, at least) to divine.

The pianist Jonathan Biss, in describing the unconventional form of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12, Opus 26, said

If I were to try to explain to you why these movements belong together . . . I would fail. It is the genius of Beethoven . . . [that] . . . his instinct for narrative, his intuitive understanding of the emotional impact of his music is so strong, so unimpeachable, that everything that occurs feels inevitable.

Biss’s words resonated as I listened to Shostakovich’s Sixth.

While the Sixth Symphony is a “three-ringer” in terms of movements, circus is certainly not what comes to mind in the way it starts. The first movement is a grave and stately largo, its spacious weave of themes controlled throughout by an expert hand. Listen for the undertow of trilling strings and notes on timpani out of which cor anglais, muted trumpets, and woodwinds emerge [Spotify ~ 7:12]; the sounding of a gong and a lone flute’s sinuous departure from the theme first heard on cor anglais [Spotify ~ 12:07]; the celesta [Spotify ~ 14:55] signaling the shift to a lyrical passage on horns and strings; and the final dying away on strings and timpani [Spotify ~ 18:49].

In the second movement, we are plucked from the Largo (longer than the other two movements combined) into a whirling witch’s dance. The last movement takes us on an even wilder ride as a hurtling galop forms up into a rousing circus march.

Program notes for the Sixth Symphony may be found here.

Seventh Symphony (1941)

Prufrockian Impressions: I’ll not be writing about the Seventh Symphony, though I’ve written about it in another context here. In musical terms, it’s Shostakovich’s longest symphony, but far from his best. As part of musical history, though, the Seventh Symphony has more than earned its place. How often is it that a single piece of music has mattered to so many people as much as this:

Music was everything. Never mind the kasha or that we were hungry. No one could feed us, but music inspired us and brought us back to life. In this way, this day was our feast.

—Ksenia Matus, oboist and a member of the orchestra that performed the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad during the siege.

Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies

Program notes for the Seventh Symphony may be found here.


Endnote: I’ll be taking a break from the Seeking Shostakovich series at this point. The number of magnificent works among the last eight symphonies is high, and words have already begun to fail. As I continue to listen, David Nice’s comment on the Fourth Symphony  keeps coming back to me, so I’ll repeat it here:

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.

Yes, indeed.

Shostakovich (lower right) at a Soccer Game, 1940s

Shostakovich (lower right) at a Soccer Game, 1940s


Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here and here.  The quotation from Ksenia Matus is from the documentary Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies [on YouTube at about 40:02].  The quotation from Jonathan Biss is my transcription of a comment of his from Week Three, Lecture 2, of his excellent course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, the link to which may be found here. The remaining quotations are from the sources indicated in the text. The images in the post may be found in numerous places; I have not been able to identify their source.

23 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich (“What We Need Is An Optimistic Shostakovich”)

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    It’s a pleasure to be introduced to these symphonies by you. What an odd but organic growth between the first movement and the second two. Kandinsky-like arabesques and splashes of color danced through my mind while listening to this. So beautiful to see the laughing Shostakovich before considering the 8th. Will try and watch the ‘against Stalin’ film before your next post too.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I love the way you describe your experience of the Sixth. Kandinsky hadn’t occurred to me, but how right it seems. The “against Stalin” film contains a treasure trove of interviews from people who knew Shostakovich and/or lived through the events described. Many are gone now (I’m not sure who might still be here), making the film all the more invaluable as an archive of oral histories. (And of course I have David to thank for tipping me off to this film.) Wilson’s book, by the way, is full of anecdotes about Shostakovich’s sense of humor. I was glad to find at least a few photographs that showed that side of him.

  2. David N

    So loved your words about the Sixth, and the wonderful connection with Biss on Beethoven. It’s as much of a high point, actually, as Four or Eight, but difficult to programme (that said, it turned up in a four-parter on Sunday – LSO/Noseda – and I couldn’t go, because I was laid up in bed after the shock of another bike smash which has left me not a vegetable but with what looks like purple sprouting broccoli on the left side of my face – a black and blue ear. Digression to cue sympathy).

    This unique three-movement form was a novel form of challenge, I think, when outright avant-garde experimentation in the substance had to go after the Fourth. Then there’s the Eighth, with its last three movements run together, and of course the wonderfully unique Ninth. That old renewal thing again.

    We need a book on Sollertinsky in English (I don’t know of one in Russian, but it probably exists). What an extraordinary human being.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David! More to say on Shos, but right away, on your “digression”: Wow! Sympathy and empathy are yours from me in full measure. I do hope you’re on the mend and soon completely mended!

    2. shoreacres

      Sympathies to you! And thank goodness you weren’t more badly damaged. These things happen so easily and so quickly – glad to see you here, despite it all.

    3. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Thinking of the Mahler talk I know you gave yesterday, I realize more and more, in listening to Shostakovich, that yet another layer of listening is to listen to more Mahler, then back and forth between the two. All part of the wonderful ongoing conversation of among composers, one to the next.

      I’m glad, too, for your insight into the three-movement form in the Sixth–I saw nothing in my research travels that made that point. It helps further to put the Fourth in perspective, too.

      Sollertinsky was certainly a fascinating fellow. I’d love to read such a biography, should it come along. One of my favorite stories in the Wilson book was the one Shostakovich related about Sollertinksy’s response when Shostakovich asked whether his post-graduate exam was difficult: “Oh the easiest questions imaginable: about the origin of materialist philosophy in Ancient Greece, Sophocles’ poetry as an expression of realistic tendencies, the English philosophers of the seventeenth century, and something else.” [Wilson 73]

      1. David N

        Of course as you rightly hint, I should have qualified that ‘unique three-movement form’ comment to mean that THIS three movement form – Adagio followed by increasingly more manic scherzos/galops – is unique. The structure of the Fourth with the pivotal purgatorial movement makes me wonder if Sollertinsky had already alerted Mahler to the five movement form of the latter’s unfinished Tenth, with the scary little ‘Purgatorio’ movement right at the centre.

        One of the most interesting things to come out of the dialogue with a super group yesterday was that one gentleman said he had jotted down that one phrase at the end of the Tenth’s first Adagio reminded him of ‘trying to get up, trying, trying, and not quite making it’. And then I played as connection the final scene of Britten’s Death in Venice, which is of course about Aschenbach trying to get up to follow Tadziu – but only his soul leaves the deck chair… These dialogues between composers so very much alive for each other end nowhere, don’t you find?

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: No hint, actually–you were clear, but I didn’t quote you properly, as “unique” is the critical word. On to your Mahler-related comments, you know, don’t you, that I will have to have a listen! I love your concluding observation: “These dialogues between composers so very much alive for each other end nowhere, don’t you find?” While you’ve explored a lot more of this than I have (cue understatement prompt card), it is certainly hard to know whether the dialogue represents a true conversation or something more in the nature of a Pinter play, if that makes any sense. Like so many things, it’s probably best not to read too much into it, though what you describe sounds like fun (and I marvel that you had the Britten at the ready in response).

  3. Guest

    Speaking of Shostakovich and optimism, I view the 7th as a romantic symphony that at heart is optimistic, not withstanding the circumstances of its inception. Both attributes are sharply banished from the titanic 8th, echoes of which I also hear in Britten’s Cello Symphony.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Guest: I’m glad you weighed in on the Seventh. That’s an interesting perspective, and reminds me of Slonimsky’s liner notes on my original LP, in which, about the first movement, he describes “a Russian song” emerging from the invasion theme that “begins to undermine the [invasion] tune, wrenching it out of shape and breaking it up.” Your insight into Britten’s Cello Symphony is interesting, too, reminding me of David Nice’s comment on the Eighth in relation to Britten’s Nocturne here:

  4. angela

    Very much enjoyed your post, Sue, especially listening to the 6th while reading and then letting it continue while I read my emails. There is an underlying power to this one (not that I’m versed at all with his work) that allowed capture while releasing me from complete absorption. I know, I know, one isn’t to listen to ‘high art’ while multi -tasking, but that is how I roll… ergo, a thumbs up on this one, a bit mystical and bit frolicking, but not too much. ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: My earlier “active train track” comment notwithstanding, in this frenetic world, listening of any type is all to the good, if it can be managed. I wonder if what made it more possible to listen to the Sixth under the circumstances you describe, as compared to the First and the Seventh, was the long first movement largo? I like your summation, “a bit mystical and bit frolicking, but not too much.” (In the next post coming up, I was thinking about this and wondering which pieces might appeal based on those criteria. If you have time to listen to anything there, I’ll be interested, as always, to know how you make out!)

  5. shoreacres

    Now you’ve caught me. I have two more posts I wanted to do about the circus, one of them about the music. I hadn’t a clue about any connection between Shostakovich and the circus, let alone thoughtful ponderings on the art form from him. More exploration is called for!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Yeah! More circus posts! On Shostakovich and the circus, here’s one for you: “The Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Minor of 1940 comments on the official Soviet preference for upbeat, “accessible” music by sandwiching a movement that quotes the bumptious theme associated with Russian circus clowns between movements that brilliantly pay tribute to J. S. Bach.” (The quotation comes from the course description for the course I think Steve Schwartzman has taken, so he may know more.) Here’s a Youtube of the movement:

      1. David N

        Sorry to pop up again, but I too would like to see those circus posts – can’t find them on Shoreacres’ elegant site. I’m in circus mode because of the fabulous seven dwarfs section of the film masterpiece Blancanievas (the silent Spanish one which came out this year) and its relation to the spooky-fab circus of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel.

        Did you mean ‘a matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler’s’? I’ll drink to that but otherwise, no, I don’t quite get it…can you enlarge?

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I’m always happy to have you pop up here, as you must know! As for circus, here’s a great one from shoreacres:, and Friko has a wonderful story from her youth about wanting to join the circus here, too:

          On the subject of Pinter, that’s probably because my reference made no sense (though worth it for the opportunity to be reminded of that great quote from the Ladies Who Lunch). Reading your observation of dialogues between composers “going nowhere” made me think of a conversation that is really a series of non sequiturs. I had this picture of two composers sitting side-by-side, quoting bits of musical works back and forth, without any regard to their connection, but nonetheless having a high old time (which I suspect is not very Pinteresque).

  6. wanderer

    I can’t keep up. What time there isn’t. But Sue can I hijack this section to wish David a speedy recovery and hope kissing it better is doing its job.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer (and as you can see, the ID is now fixed), the funny thing is I was sure it was you who’d written, anyway! As for keeping up, it’s impossible. I can’t even keep up with myself! (Not least of which is that the vendors from whom I placed orders for the things I needed, the library, and the post office have all completely foiled me in continuing on the one project I really do want to, which is to study Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony.) So, drop by when you can, and don’t worry when you can’t.

    1. David N

      Well, ain’t it grand to be consoled on a dear fellow-blogger’s space: sorry, I missed Shoreacres’ get well soon. But well I am, despite a few aches and pains. My purple sprouting broccoli ear didn’t even go from black and blue to yellow, though my left elbow is a high colour now that the lump is gone. I do think Arnica cream works well.

      This will make one of you even less inclined to join me on bikes for a Romney Marshes cycle from Rye to Derek’s garden…Well, we shall just have to hire a car or take the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch miniature railway…

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: Wasn’t that nice of shoreacres? So glad you’re mended (or close to it). The miniature railway you mention–any steam train, for that matter–would certainly get a strong vote from the Edu-Mate. When in Norfolk, one of the essential activities was to take a railway ride–although in this case of course not miniature–on the North Norfolk, between Sheringham and Holt.)

        1. David N

          There is a miniature railway, curiously, on the north Norfolk coast. Don’t know where it comes from, but it ends up at the beach at Wells-next-the-Sea

          1. Susan Scheid Post author

            David: I think the Edu-Mate must have been a trainspotter in a previous life, as here is what she reports: Wells and Walsingham light railway. Walsingham is that weird town full of religious icons and saints and stuff. The train ride is fun and as I recall goes through lovely country full of wild flowers.

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