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.
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]
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]
For previous posts on the Shostakovich Symphonies, click on the following links: Introduction; First Symphony; Second and Third Symphonies; Fourth Symphony; Fifth Symphony; Sixth and Seventh Symphonies; Eighth Symphony
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.
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 here, here, here, and here.