Seeking Shostakovich: “And Now For Something Completely Different”

Shostakovich Playing Cards With His Children, 1940's

Shostakovich Playing Cards With His Children, 1940’s

Yes, musicians will enjoy playing it, but the critics will tear it to shreds.
—Dmitri Shostakovich [Wilson 204]

When introducing Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony at a Young People’s Concert in 1966, Leonard Bernstein reminded the audience that “number nine is a magic number with composers . . .”

. . . ever since Beethoven it has come to mean the crowning final output of a symphonic composer. Beethoven’s ninth, as you must know, is the huge symphonic monument of his whole lifetime—his last symphony. And since then, it’s become almost a tradition for a composer to crown his life with his ninth symphony—if he can make it, of course. . . . if you can reach number nine, it had better be a whopper, worthy of that magic number.

On the heels of his mammoth Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the bar for Shostakovich was certainly high.

Soviet Victory Stamp, 1945

Soviet Victory Stamp, 1945

In public statements, Shostakovich indicated an intention to meet the challenge. On the night before the Eighth Symphony’s premiere, he announced that his Ninth Symphony would be “about the greatness of the Russian people, about our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy.” [Fay 2098]  In 1944, in a “ritual deposition” on the 27th anniversary of the October Revolution, he wrote “I dream of a large-scale work in which the overpowering feelings ruling us today would find expression.” [Fay 2098]

While Shostakovich’s public face and private views were often miles apart, in January of 1945, he told his students that “the work opened with a big tutti,” suggestive of another large-scale work. By that time, he’d completed the first movement’s exposition and started work on the development section. [Fay 2106] In early spring, Shostakovich showed his friend Isaac Glikman sketches of the first movement and played “about ten minutes” of the piece. Glikman described what he saw and heard as “magnificent in its sweep, its pathos and its irresistible movement.” [Glikman 242, n. 184]  At the same time, Shostakovich did express misgivings to Glikman, one of which was “its number in the canon, which might suggest to many people an inevitable but misleading comparison with Beethoven’s Ninth.” [Glikman 242, n. 184]

Shostakovich dropped work on the symphony and didn’t pick it up again until July. He completed the first movement in Moscow and the rest at the “House of Creativity” in Ivanovo, where, “in the small front garden of his shabby dwelling, several friends had concocted a sort of table for him, a board nailed down on top of poles driven into the ground.” [Wilson 206] What emerged was a symphony entirely different from the one he’d first conceived.

Glikman reported that, in September, “I was present at the Union of Composers in Leningrad when he played through a completely different Ninth Symphony . . .”. [Glikman 242, no. 184] One critic who was there thought he might be “taking a breather.” [Fay 2120] While critics were divided, audiences embraced the new work. At its premiere, the Leningrad Philharmonic repeated the last three movements “by popular demand.” [Fay 2126]

Glikman wrote that, to be interpreted well in performance, the Ninth Symphony, “a particular favourite of Shostakovich,” demanded “a refinement and detailed understanding of its nuances.”[Glikman 259, n. 21] In 1955, on listening to Alexsandr Gauk conduct the Ninth over the radio, Shostakovich was dismayed.

I had long been dreaming of hearing the Ninth Symphony, and I was dreadfully let down by the wretched Gauk. It made me feel sick, as though I had swallowed a fly. [Glikman 60]

Shostakovich and Bernstein, 1959

Shostakovich and Bernstein, 1959

In 1966, Leonard Bernstein chose to perform the Ninth Symphony at a Young People’s Concert in celebration of Shostakovich’s sixtieth birthday. Bernstein said at the time:

. . . birthday parties should be gay and amusing, not necessarily noble and moving. Besides, you should know that Shostakovich is also world-famous for his marvelous sense of humor. He has written some of the most downright funny music there is to be heard, and therefore I think it’s especially proper for us to celebrate just his birthday in an atmosphere of fun. So in just a moment, instead of a long serious work, we’re going to play you one of his gayest and most amusing works—his Ninth Symphony. . . .

This Ninth Symphony by Shostakovich is rather like a witty comedy in the theatre, where you are treated to one joke after another—puns, wisecracks, punchlines, surprises, twisteroos—but somehow all adding up to a work of art. . . . this whole symphony by Shostakovich is all humorous, every minute and every movement. It is all one big series of jokes.

I don’t know what Shostakovich might have thought, but it looks to me as if Bernstein got it right. Don’t take my word for it, though. Below you’ll find a video of the entire concert, priceless documentation of a time and place in history in its own right.

Shostakovich completed the Ninth Symphony, in E-Flat Major, in 1945, and it received its premiere in the same year. The symphony, in five movements, is only about 25 minutes long, and the last three movements are played without a break. The orchestration includes “piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, triangle), and strings.”

A script of Bernstein’s commentary at the concert may be found here.  It’s short and will let you in on a number of musical jokes. My favorite may be the one about the 2-page fourth movement’s allusion to Beethoven’s Ninth. Better yet, watch the Part 3 video, starting at about 10:20, where you can hear the text accompanied by musical examples from both Ninths.

Postscript: I haven’t located anything to indicate Shostakovich’s view on Bernstein’s conducting of his symphonies generally, but here’s a little anecdote about the Fifth. Bernstein “radically” altered a tempo marking, and “the coda was performed at a breathless pace.” Shostakovich authorized another conductor to use the marking, writing, “I was very taken with the performance of my Fifth Symphony by the talented Leonard Bernstein. I liked it that he played the end of the finale significantly faster than is customary.” [Fay Loc 4485-4493]

First Page of Fourth Movement

First Page of Fourth Movement

For previous posts on the Shostakovich Symphonies, click on the following links: IntroductionFirst SymphonySecond and Third SymphoniesFourth SymphonyFifth SymphonySixth and Seventh Symphonies; Eighth Symphony

Listening List:

On Spotify:

Two versions of the Ninth may be found as noted. I was struck by the differences in pacing: Järvi takes the first three movements at a brisker pace than Bernstein; for the last two movements, the converse is true. On the whole, I think I prefer Järvi’s pacing, though Bernstein’s breakneck speed at the end of the Fifth Movement has a certain “Roadrunner” cartoon appeal.

Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic

Neeme Järvi conducting the Scottish National Orchestra

On YouTube:

Young People’s Concert, Part 1

Young People’s Concert, Part 2

Young People’s Concert, Part 3

Young People’s Concert, Part 4


Credits: “And Now For Something Completely Different” is a Monty Python tagline. The remaining quotations may be found at the links noted in the text. The images in the post may be found herehere, here, and here.


17 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich: “And Now For Something Completely Different”

  1. alancoadyguitar

    Excellent read, Susan.

    Many thanks.

    Now comfortable with the inevitability of paradox, I was particularly struck by this:

    “Not even Prokofieff, conservatory-trained and proud of it, was truly an avant-garde artist. His technique, like Stravinsky’s or Scriabin’s, may have been “advanced” by conservatory standards, but it was elite, highly professionalized, and . . . committed to extending a tradition. That implies loyalty to the tradition one is extending, even if one is extending it to the point of “decadence.” An avant-garde is something else. The term is military, and it implies belligerence: countercultural hostility, antagonism to existing institutions and traditions.”

    Best wishes.


  2. David Nice

    No, no, no: much as I love Lenny, he entirely missed the ‘nuances’ here (just as he overdid them in the Fifth). Sure, it starts light, Shostakovich’s ‘Classical’ Symphony: but what on earth’s going on in the first movement development? Brass massings, sour trombone interjections? Or in the same part of the finale? Fierce, wild: bring it out. The scherzo almost goes off the wails (second subject ‘fun’ anyone?), the bassoon is pure lament. To me, this is as brilliant an achievement on its own terms as any of the 15 and I always want to hear it more often. Ashkenazy and Temirkanov live got the lurking menace absolutely right.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I somehow suspected Bernstein’s interpretation wouldn’t pass Nicean muster. I found it very difficult to get a handle on this symphony. I was frustrated with the commentaries I found, which I felt shed little light (and, as usual, relied too often on the entirely fictional Testimony). Bernstein’s interpretation somehow fit for me the way I heard it—and maybe more to the point how I felt it—best of the lot. Of course, Bernstein is playing to an audience of children, though I do think it’s how he understands it, and I love the way he takes such delight in what he’s found. Taking delight in Shostakovich’s comic brilliance is something we don’t often see, after all.

      But yes, certainly, Shostakovich’s humor is ironic, so I can well understand that there’s an undercurrent of irony—no joke here is what it seems. (I think always of his New Year’s toast, mocking Stalin’s “Life is getting better” maxim, as in “Let’s drink to this—that things don’t get any better!” [Wilson 214].) And I would agree that, while I thought Bernstein’s explanation in words was the best of those I found, I did feel his performance might be too broad, and erratic. As I noted, I preferred Järvi of the two I found on Spotify (and of course I also have Petrenko).

      I wonder what you thought of Gavriil Popov’s response on hearing the September run-through Glikman attended: “Transparent, lots of light and air. Wonderful tuttis, clear themes (the first subject of the first movement is pure Mozart). Really literally, it’s Mozart. [ . . .] It’s all full of emotion. A wonderful finale, with such joie de vivre, brilliance and sharp wit.” [Wilson 204]

      There’s another thing about the symphony that I’ve been pondering, and wonder what you might think. In a conversation about Beethoven’s Opus 132 recently, someone made this observation (in response to my raising a question about what I found as an odd transition from mvt3 to mvt4): “I think Beethoven was doing something similar here to the beginning of the finale to his ninth symphony, that is presenting ideas that get “rejected” in favour of an ultimate solution. It’s less extended than the corresponding section in the ninth as it only has the one idea to present and reject (the jaunty little march) but in essence it’s the same process even down to having a recitative-like passage that does the “rejecting”. . . . It doesn’t remove the incongruity but does explain it. It’s as if Beethoven was saying “you don’t REALLY believe I would have used that trite little march after the 3rd movement do you?”.”

      I found that quite fascinating, and it occurred to me that, in Shostakovich’s Ninth, he might be doing just the opposite: setting us up (4th mvmt) for, then “rejecting,” our expectation that a grand finale is to come, as if to say, “you didn’t REALLY believe I was going to give you a triumphant finale, now did you?”

      But I’m no expert, needless to say. Do you find musical jokes in the symphony, or do you think that is off base altogether?

      1. David N

        Darn it, I’d written a reply sitting in a godforsaken part of Lyon Airport waiting for a two-hour-delayed flight, with wifi connection at least – but for some reason it needed renewing every half hour and cut off before I could post, and I was too tired to start again.

        The advantage of which is having Elizabeth’s and Mark’s comments to further curb my tongue – proof the Ninth CAN be enjoyed just as sheer pleasure. Which is part of DDS’s genius. So again, in answer to your question, I do find jokes in the presentation of the themes – especially the trombone’s insistent note – and the first and last movements end with witty abruptness. BUT I do veer so much more to Glikman’s wise words than Popov’s or Bernstein’s (though what a wonderful job he did ‘selling’ it to kids, and what an impact that’s had, as with so much he did). The developments pile up threat – with major.minor skill and often telling use of massed brass and side-drum; and that bassoon solo is so unequivocally ‘this is me and I’m suffering’ – like the solos in the string quartets, with the same tearing recitative-from-the-heart quality.

        So you can listen in one way, but I think you get even more out of it if you’re alert to the subversions. I’m not saying it has to be a grim, ‘Stalin subtext’ work but symphonic fun with Shostakovich is never quite as simple as fun in other spheres (the Festival Overture and the Holiday number from The Gadfly ARE just pure fun – he could do that too).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Boring about the airport wait and inconsistent wifi. I hope at least you brought back with you a bag of gorgeous items from Les Halles de Lyon (even the photographs are delectable

          Well, I’m as glad you gave us the benefit of your “first thought, best thought,” as you did its amplification here. “Which is part of DDS’s genius,” is such an important point. It was interesting to me to discover how hard it was to find a way to think about, let alone write about, this symphony on the heels of such immersion in the Eighth. Bernstein’s wonderful romp through the Ninth served as the perfect—and only—way I could find to lift me out. Now, of course, I’m curious to go back again and listen “with your ears” (as if that were possible—for one, while I’m familiar with the string quartets, I don’t “know” them, and I’m aware of their importance to understanding the later symphonies, in particular).

          But, we must start from where we are, and go where we can go, and hope to arrive at new syntheses along the way, in the manner of shoreacres’ wonderful contribution yesterday to the discussion on the Eighth: “When those assumptions are challenged – perhaps even shown to be untrue – we have two choices: we either return to the first naiveté, or move through the experience of assumption-shattering in order to reach what he calls the “second naiveté”. There, the reality of new experience is incorporated into our view of things and we come to appreciate them with deepened understanding.”

          For now, I’m pondering Elizabeth Wilson’s comment that “its light-hearted parodying tone was open to misinterpretation in official circles.”[Wilson 203] Where my mind takes me (dangerous thought!) is to an image of Shostakovich sitting with his early sketches, thinking about Beethoven’s Ninth and about writing a grand “victory” symphony, but recognizing what “victory” might mean in terms of Stalin’s reach. “No way I’m going that route,” said he, and he tore it all up and started in on a parody of “the Ninth.” And now, listening to the bassoon solo and reading again your “bassoon solo is so unequivocally ‘this is me and I’m suffering’ – like the solos in the string quartets, with the same tearing recitative-from-the-heart quality,” is he asking, how on earth will I make my way through? And is his “answer” given by the bassoon’s sauntering, hands in his pockets, into the final movement’s jaunty little dance?

  3. newleafsite

    Sue, what a trip down Memory Lane, listening to the Young People’s Concerts version of Shostakovich’s Ninth! I haven’t heard Bernstein’s voice in so long, that I had forgotten how theatrical it was. David’s comment is so interesting, and came as a fun surprise to me: having grown up with the YPC’s during years when there wasn’t a lot on television, Bernstein was my principle window to the world of classical music, and I accepted his as the voice of authority. I haven’t thought of those concerts in a long time, and by now I have developed great admiration for people who have exposed themselves to enough classical music to gain their own appreciation and form their own opinions. David’s spontaneous response makes me grin at the difference between myself, spoon-fed through youth by Bernstein, and knowledgeable listeners such as David and yourself.

    You will probably not be surprised to learn that I find the Ninth the most accessible of Shostakovich’s symphonies thus far. Of course, now I can’t be sure that this isn’t based on hearing Bernstein introduce me to it, undergrad that I seem to remain! To give myself some perspective, I have also listened to the performance conducted by Solti. Impossible as it is for me to say whether they disagree in the details, I can at least tell that I’m not hearing two different compositions. The last time I regarded “something completely different” from Shostakovich, it was a cartoon based on his music. This symphony being (if memory serves) the lightest, makes it a completely different experience indeed, and the easiest for me to relate to. At least, it’s the first one that didn’t send me looking for something else from him that was more in my comfort zone. Sitting still and not fidgeting, taking it all in – and enjoying it: my own version of what Bernstein would call a “twisteroo.” Glad to have stuck with you through this series of symphonies, and well rewarded by this one! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: I was so thrilled to find that YPC in its entirety on line. I, too, had forgotten entirely the style of Bernstein’s presentation. And what a fascinating bit of history it is in its own right. His opening comments about Shostakovich alone are speaking to a time when Shostakovich’s music was not valued in all quarters the way it seems to be now, and Bernstein speaks right to that point:

      I particularly want to do this because, in these days of musical experimentation, with new fads chasing each other in and out of the concert halls, a composer like Shostakovich can be easily put down. After all, he is basically a traditional Russian composer, a true son of Tchaikovsky, and no matter how “modern” he ever gets, he never loses that tradition. So the music is always, in some way, old-fashioned— or at least, what critics and musical intellectuals like to call old-fashioned. But they’re forgetting one most important thing: He’s a genius—a real, authentic genius. And there aren’t too many of those around any more. That’s why I want to make this personal birthday toast to him.

      I just love that, “But they’re forgetting one most important thing”! Another thing that struck me is how very, very different the composition of the orchestra is today than it was then (all white men, so far as I could see, in 1966). And the faces in the audience, and the body language! And the laughter over the Mickey Mouse cartoon lines! And lines like this: “And so it turns out that after all, that pompous little fourth movement was just a decoy, to lure us into expecting a real Ninth Symphony, a great Beethovenish one—and then only to find that it’s still that same darling little Shostakovich Ninth! It’s like sitting down to a big serious banquet and being served hotdogs and potato chips.” Priceless.

      I believe I remember you posting that cartoon with Shostakovich’s music. I should have kept the link! You know, conductor Vladimir Jurowski said that to understand Shostakovich’s music you really need to be familiar with his writing for music hall and film–and then he proceeded to demonstrate that the line between “high” and “low” art is not clear (not in the hands of someone with the capabilities of Shostakovich, anyway), by offering a program of works Shostakovich wrote for music hall and film in the company of his First Symphony. That was a fascinating program, and I hear the First Symphony, as well as many passages in other symphonies, like the Ninth, entirely differently as a result.

      1. newleafsite

        Sue, here is the link for his children’s opera “The Silly Little Mouse,” based on a Russian story, and composed in 1939, the same year as his Sixth Symphony. It’s a charming animation, but what I especially like about it is that he was invited to write the score first – then animation was drawn, in time to his sound track. Looking at the photo above, taken with his children, it’s easy to imagine that writing for their pleasure must have been a fun endeavor, taken seriously. — Elizabeth

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    You ain’t kiddin. Sooo different from the 8th, and so fascinating that this is what the composer settled on after declaring his nationalistic intentions.

    I thought I hadn’t heard the 9th before. But just 30 seconds into it ( I listened to the Järvi version) I realized I had, and I’m so glad I listened to it tonight. After a rough couple of days it was so great to shower, have a glass of wine and listen to this happy, happy music. I love how short it is. It’s just the right length to lift the spirits, and one can turn around and hit replay one to two times more.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I certainly raise a toast to this: “It’s just the right length to lift the spirits, and one can turn around and hit replay one to two times more.” The comments here have got me thinking about so many aspects, not only of this symphony, but about Shostakovich. Your comment, in particular, really made me think again about Shostakovich’s sense of humor, and how essential it had to be to get him through. I can’t imagine what he’d have done without it–and that he can pass it on to us for when we need it, well, how great is that?

      Here’s to the Ninth!

  5. angela

    Intrigued by this, Sue, for as I listen with my untrained ears, there is not the humor as described….there are several parts that seem forboding and/or mournful. The lighthearted comes across, but oft seems forced or goes off into a frenzy of energy. I wonder upon reading your post – when he changed the 9th from its original, was it still to address the strength of the people? The trombone seems to say ‘come here’ while the piccolo, then violin, seem to nervously dance around this idea. I think I’ve put my own meta spin on it – he composed under the pressure of composing a “Beethoven” and these anxieties played out – meh, guess that could be no different than people who wish to be free of their enemy. That said, I feel like it is incomplete – it ends so abruptly.
    Thank you for another fine post – I was supposed to be writing, but this was a fine excuse not too… ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: I would say attentive ears. I really enjoyed reading your description of your own experience of the Ninth, and David would surely endorse your comment that “there are several parts that seem foreboding and/or mournful.” I also got a chuckle out of the phrase “meta spin.” I think what I love most about your contribution and all the others here is to be reminded that, as with any creative work, once it’s put out there in the world, there may be as many interpretations as there are readers/viewers/listeners. I’m looking forward to the chance to come back to this piece with ears newly informed by all the discussion that’s taken place here.

  6. Steve Schwartzman

    When Leonard Bernstein recorded this Young People’s Concert I was attending college 50 blocks further up Broadway. I can’t believe it’s been as many years as blocks.

    When I listened to Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, I thought about Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony from three decades earlier. Do you know if that influenced Shostakovich?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I haven’t run across reference to a specific influence, but Hugh Ottaway notes that “in general character, the work is Shostakovich’s closest approach to the eighteenth century classical symphony,” and he also draws a comparison to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. So, your ears do not deceive you!

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