Seeking Shostakovich: Revisiting the Fourth Symphony

Shostakovich after the première of the Fourth Symphony at the Moscow Conservatory

Shostakovich after the 1961 première of the Fourth Symphony at the Moscow Conservatory

This past week I spent a good bit of time with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 43 (1935-36). For me, this wild ride of a symphony holds special appeal, so it’s been a pleasure to come back to it. In the process, I collected and augmented material I used when the symphony was first discussed in these pages. That, along with two of the myriad of open questions I have about the symphony, form the raison d’être for this post.

Historical Context for Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

Dmitri Shostakovich, born September 25, 1906, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, was still a boy at the time of the October Revolution of 1917. His coming of age was thus coincident with that of the Soviet Union, in which he lived until his death in Moscow on August 9, 1975. Elizabeth Wilson, in her book, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, described the historical context from 1906 to just preceding the revolution:

Wilson Screen Shot

As Alex Ross has observed, after the October Revolution, “[i]n the years before Stalin consolidated his hold on power, Soviet artists enjoyed, or at least were allowed, a fair degree of freedom to experiment.”  In 1934, when the 28-year-old Shostakovich began writing his Fourth Symphony, it might still have been possible, if fraught, to think that the revolution’s political aims and artistic experimentation could co-exist, rather than collide. Laurel Fay, in her book, Shostakovich: A Life, described the “state of play” in music at that time:

Fay Screen Shot

In her program notes for the LA Philharmonic, Fay wrote:

When Dmitri Shostakovich began composing his Fourth Symphony in 1934, he was the proud author of a bona fide operatic “hit,” Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which was playing to packed houses in Moscow and Leningrad, and was also a property being hotly pursued by foreign opera companies. He was the much sought-after composer of ballets, music for the dramatic theater, and film scores. He was also a concertizing pianist. At the tender age of 28, he was the fair-haired boy of Soviet music. And he knew it.

What he was not, at this stage, was a symphonic master. . . . So when he embarked on his new symphony, Shostakovich had something to prove. . . .

An early idea was to make the Fourth “a monumental programmatic thing of great thoughts and great passions.” He later abandoned the programmatic approach – while retaining the great thoughts and passions – and vowed that his Fourth Symphony would represent the “credo” of his creative work.

In the fall of 1935, Shostakovich began what would become the definitive version of his Fourth Symphony. He had completed the first two of its three movements by the time disaster struck, in January 1936, with the official condemnation of his opera, Lady Macbeth, and the ensuing cultural crackdown against so-called “formalists,” of whom Shostakovich was deemed to be a leading representative. . . . . [Shostakovich] applied for an audience with Stalin. While he sat cooling his heels waiting for the phone to ring (it didn’t), the composer completed the last movement.

The premiere, set for December 11, 1936, was cancelled. Fay wrote, “Confronted by Communist Party functionaries and concert administrators fearful of the consequences of allowing the premiere to go forward, the still-disgraced Shostakovich was coerced into withdrawing his Symphony.” [LA Phil Program Notes]

The Music of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

The symphony, 60 minutes in length, is scored for 2 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (4th = English horn), 4 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings.

While at times the composer commands these forces to produce eruptions of terrifying magnitude, in much of the Symphony solo instruments are placed in high relief. Framing a relatively brief “scherzo” between two capacious outer movements, each lasting nearly half an hour, Shostakovich’s symphonic universe here is on a scale directly comparable with Mahler’s. [LA Phil Program Notes]

First Movement: Allegretto, poco moderato – Presto. Hugh Ottaway described this movement as “a hide-and-seek relationship with sonata form.” Michael Steinberg, in his book, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, wrote:

We hear contrasting themes as in a ‘normal’ sonata-form movement, we hear them developed and recapitulated, and one key, C minor, anchors the structure. At the same time, the proportions are unusual. In this twenty-five minute movement, only about three or four minutes are exposition, and the recapitulation is shorter than that. The bulk is development.

Here is Steinberg’s complete commentary on the first movement:

Steinberg Screen Shot 1

Steinberg Screen Shot 2

The Wikipedia discussion on the Fourth Symphony appears to take a different view of the development section:

Because of the many elements that conceal, the movement seems to be little more than a free fantasia consisting of almost nothing except development, making the true arrival of the second theme and the development section especially difficult to ascertain.

Second Movement: Moderato, con moto. Fay wrote that the second movement’s structure is “A-B-A1-B1-coda in D minor, its “Ländler” qualities reminiscent of Mahler.” [LA Phil Program Notes]

Third Movement: Largo – Allegro.

Combining the functions of slow movement and finale, it progresses from the opening funeral march . . . . Shostakovich veers off into a series of light, even whimsical episodes, including two waltzes and a gallop . . . [The coda begins with a] blast of brass chords in C major over an ostinato of timpani and low strings. The theme of the funeral march returns, and the “heroic” peroration gradually fades into fleeting thematic reminiscences over a sustained pedal tone. At the end of a prolonged, bleak C-minor triad in the strings, the final isolated pitches of the celesta bring the movement and the Symphony to a close. [LA Phil Program Notes]

The 1961 Premiere of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

Twenty-five years passed before the Fourth Symphony received its first performance in Moscow on December 30, 1961. Kirill Kondrashin, who conducted the premiere, recounted:

During the war, the score had been lost. In Leningrad just about everything got burnt for heating during the grueling winters of the siege. It was only later that . . . Levon Atovmyan found the surviving orchestral parts of the Symphony in Leningrad. Using them as his basis, he was able to reconstruct the score. . . . it was immediately clear to me that this was an outstanding work. . . .

I went to see Shostakovich. He said, . . . ‘I need to look at it again to see whether the Symphony is worth performing, and whether it requires any changes.’ The next day he rang me [and said] ‘No changes need to be made. The piece is very dear to me as it is.’ [Wilson 389-90]

Upon hearing the Fourth Symphony for the first time in 1961, Flora Litvinova, a family friend, wrote in her diary:

It was the first time we heard it, and 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.

Now the Symphony enjoyed an enormous success. . . . 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]

Mahler in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony

Shostakovich was powerfully influenced by Mahler’s work, to which he’d been introduced by his friend, polymath Ivan Sollertinsky. Sollertinsky founded the Mahler and Bruckner circles “and was responsible for having the music of these composers first performed in the Soviet Union.” [Wilson 72] In the early days of their friendship, a mutual friend described how Sollertinsky would “appear unexpectedly and noisily[,] . . . 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]

Following are comments relating to the Mahlerian elements in Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony:

Laurel Fay commented: “Points of contact with Mahler are everywhere, from the elemental clash of the tragic with the banal, down to minute details of orchestration, harmonic side-slips, and ‘cuckoo’ calls.” [LA Phil Program Notes]

David Nice has 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.”

Wikipedia states, of the Second Movement: “This movement is a Mahler-like ländler/intermezzo in rondo form where two contrasting themes appear in alternation, both being imaginatively transformed and recombined upon their variant returns. At times the movement recalls the scherzi from Mahler’s Second and Seventh symphonies, even down to details of scoring or melodic shape.”

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, The Rest is Noise, 253]

Michael Steinberg, in The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, wrote “The finale begins with the most explicitly Mahlerian music in all of Shostakovich, a C-minor cortege that owes much to the first two movements of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and to the orchestra interlude in the last song of Das Lied von der Erde.” [Steinberg 545]

BBC3 Radio commentator Stephen Johnson said of the funeral march that begins the Fourth Symphony’s 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.”

Further observations added by commenters reading the post here or on GCAS:

David Nice also noted, “At the risk of becoming even more specific, I’d add to Stephen’s observation about the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen funeral march that the interval in the bass in the symphony is a tritone, that ‘devil in music’ which Shostakovich and Prokofiev wheel out in their music when they especially want a sense of menace. I’d hesitate to apply it to anything/one so rigid as Stalin, but as an emblem of evil it does seem to suggest an infernal power.”

Brian Long commented at GCAS: “What Steinberg calls the cortege at the start of the third movement reminded me very much of the opening of the slow movement in Mahler’s first symphony, when a solo double bass plays Frere Jacques over a slow march in the timpani. The various waltzes that appear also reminded me of the second movement of Mahler’s ninth. I felt this particularly at 19.15 on the video. The horn and piccolo at 30.43 also reminded me of a passage near the end of the first movement of Mahler 9, one that I think we once discussed many moons ago. And yes, the end of the second movement, in the way it slowly disintegrates and gradually dissolves, is typical of various middle and later-period Mahler scherzos, particularly, as Alex Ross notes, from his sixth symphony.”

Some Questions and Observations

As I’ve noted repeatedly throughout the “Seeking Shostakovich” series,  the historical context in which Shostakovich lived and composed often overwhelms discussion of the music itself. When it comes to the Fourth Symphony, this problem is particularly acute. I understand this symphony to be the last (and best) of the four written during Shostakovich’s “experimental” period, the period that also produced his operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Some commentators, however, misapprehend the timeframe and inappropriately graft the impact of the “cultural crackdown” that occurred while composition of the symphony was well underway onto interpretation of the music itself: the Fourth is, however, an entirely different compositional animal from the Fifth and Seventh, and it seems to me there’s plenty of historical basis for that.

If it’s accepted that the symphony is in some sense “experimental,” at least two questions arise for me.

First, what’s the nature of the experimentation?

Brian Long has noted:

It is also worth recalling that at the time of the symphony’s composition, Mahler was still little known as a composer. His music was certainly nowhere near as pervasive as it is now. In 1936 he would have been a fringe figure whose scores would have been hard to come by and whose music would rarely have been performed. So the Shostakovich connection would not have been by any means a matter of course. And by 1936 Mahler’s music was banned in Germany and Austria as a result of Nazi cultural and racial policy.

This suggests to me that the nature of Shostakovich’s sense of experimentation in the symphony is particularly traceable to Mahler, beyond what is indicated by the brief observations noted in this post. I’m now even more curious to know what Sollertinsky wrote about Mahler at the time. I’m also curious to know whether Shostakovich took his cue for the form of the first movement, particularly that outsized development section, from Mahler. (Wouldn’t you know, it appears there exists at least one full book that bears on the subject: A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, by Pauline Fairclough.)  [Note to self: don’t even think about ordering another book from inter-library loan right now.]

Second, is the symphony’s experimentation perceptible, and is the resultant work comprehensible, to contemporary listeners?

This time around, I have so far listened to the symphony four or five times. Each time, I’m dazzled all over again by Shostakovich’s inventive orchestration, his ability to create compelling musical drama, and his deft cross-cuts between “high” and “low” art. In the first movement, however, at some point I get lost. Were it an Ashbery poem, I’d know just to go with it and not concern myself with trying to discern an overall shape or structure. But Shostakovich isn’t Ashbery [pause for laughter]. I believe, rather, that when Shostakovich starts out, he knows where he wants to end up: he’s got a plan in mind. What that plan is, however, I can’t discern. This leads me to wonder, and even more so for listeners who haven’t made the symphony an object of study, what they (including you, dear readers), make of it. Is there a point at which you say, I just don’t get it, and I’m getting off the bus? If you keep on, what entices you onward? If you reach the symphony’s finish line, do you want to come back to it again?

Ivan Sollertinsky and Shostakovich

Ivan Sollertinsky and Shostakovich

Listening List

 On Spotify (Rudolf Barshai, Sinfonieorchester WDR)

On YouTube (Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra)

Caveats on the YouTube selection: The image accompanying the video doesn’t, to my mind, properly represent the ethos of this symphony, and the comments below it are inaccurate in terms of placing the symphony in time. All that said, and despite Petrenko’s stupid comments about women as conductors a while back, which I don’t intend either to forget or forgive, the interpretation packs a wallop and, among those I spotted on YouTube, seemed the best choice, for as long as it remains available.

At the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall (DCH):

Shostakovich employs a myriad of interesting orchestral details in the symphony, including wonderful passages for solo instruments and small ensemble, and DCH’s superb camerawork allows you to see this, as well as hear it. There are two performances available on DCH, both conducted by Simon Rattle. If you don’t already have a subscription, you can buy, e.g., a 7-day ticket for 9.90EU. The ticket gives you unlimited access to DCH’s vast archive, including these two concerts, throughout the week of your ticket. (The DCH is available on a number of devices. See the link here.)

Season Opening Concert, 2015

2009 performance

Bonus Track: At the BBC Radio 3 Record Review link here (starting at about 35:00), available for about 20 more days, David Nice will take you on an unparalleled journey through recordings of another Shostakovich symphony previously discussed in these pages: the Ninth.


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 sources for images used in the post that are not indicated in the post may be found here: Shostakovich at the 1961 Premiere (see liner notes); Sollertinsky and Shostakovich.


11 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich: Revisiting the Fourth Symphony

  1. larrymuffin

    What an excellent post on one of my favourite composers. He really should be played more often instead of all the classic pap we usually get on the radio, maybe too challenging for ordinary ears. A complex man who managed to survive a ruthless dictatorship.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: Your post on the Stalin biography certainly made for an excellent counterpart to this. (Here’s a link for other readers:, and how kind of you to give a nod to this post over your way.) In terms of the historical context, what I find particularly interesting about the 4th, as I’ve noted here, is that it was conceived and largely composed at a time when it still appeared possible the 1917 revolution’s political aims and artistic experimentation could co-exist, rather than collide. From what I’ve gleaned on finding small excerpts from the Sollertinsky monograph on Mahler, he argued for Mahler as a model for a new “Soviet symphony,” and I think that’s likely what Shostakovich set about to write. Tragically, Stalin had other ideas altogether, and Shostakovich’s creative resilience going forward is nearly miraculous in the face of it. Others, like Popov, didn’t fare so well. As 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.”

  2. kylegann

    I think this probably isn’t Shostakovich’s best symphony, but it is the one that fascinates me the most, and that I listen to most often, as representing what he wanted to do and wasn’t allowed to. A curiously dark and memorable landscape.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle: I’m with you completely on fascination with this symphony, and that it represents “what he wanted to do and wasn’t allowed to” features strongly in that. I listened to it again today and once again found it utterly compelling, even though that first movement continues to evade my aural grasp. While I can’t speak to “best,” it’s definitely on my short list of favorite Shostakovich symphonies. Had I a technical background, this symphony is definitely one I’d want to study. In another life, perhaps!

  3. David N

    Excellent work! At the risk of becoming even more specific, I’d add to Stephen’s observation about the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen funeral march that the interval in the bass in the symphony is a tritone, that ‘devil in music’ which Shostakovich and Prokofiev wheel out in their music when they especially want a sense of menace. I’d hesitate to apply it to anything/one so rigid as Stalin, but as an emblem of evil it does seem to suggest an infernal power.

    Now I hope you’ll eventually get to the Fifteenth…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I love your additional detail about the tritone, and now I’ll trot out my “tritone” story for you. In high school, though I hadn’t come up “through the ranks” participating in chorus each year, I tried to leap-frog into it senior year. I didn’t know the repertoire and didn’t do my homework on it either, so when I got up for my audition, I was pretty much lost. I’d taken a music theory course from the teacher/choir director, however, and I must have done well, as he let me off on singing from the repertoire as long as I correctly sang several intervals as he called them out. I stood facing a sea of anxious students who clearly hoped this would not be required of them. The last interval he named was the tritone. I could no more do this now than fly, but at the time, I got it right (along with all the other intervals) and made it into the choir.

      I love the 15th, another of my top favorites among his symphonies, and I have on my list putting some thoughts together on that symphony, particularly. I certainly did enjoy coming back again to think about, as well as listen to, the 4th, and it’s wonderful, indeed, to have such good companions as have visited here, and Brian at GCAS. I’m now even more fascinated than I was before by the Mahler connection, too. I don’t know whether it even exists in English, but I want to try and get hold of that Sollertinsky monograph at some point.

      1. David N

        I don’t think it does exist in English, Sue, but it ought to…never thought to check it out. But would love to read a biog of Sollertinsky – and of Lunacharsky, the dapper cultural minister who lasted quite a long time in Soviet politics…

        If someone had pointed out a police siren which played the tritone – a lot still do – it might have sunk in…

  4. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for teaching me so much about Shostakovich! Your questions are excellent, and this sentence made me laugh:
    ” [Note to self: don’t even think about ordering another book from inter-library loan right now.]
    The question to myself is: how come that I am able and willing to follow Asbery – or, more modest: willing – but not with complicated music? I tried, but I gave up. Quiet Baroque, or vivid Rock’n’Roll – that’s it for me (and – getting a bit older, I try to learn to accept my limitations :-)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: That’s interesting about being willing to follow Ashbery, but not music that might be its aural equivalent. I think for me the converse may be true, as a general matter, but I wouldn’t want to put that to a scientific test! There’s so much to listen to, read, and also to see out in the world, there’s plenty to explore, no matter what. Your mention of quiet Baroque puts in mind a new “find” for me from the early music world: the piano works of Rameau. Do you know them at all? If not, maybe give this a try: (Grigory Sokolov plays Jean-Philippe Rameau, Suite D-major from Pièces de Clavecin). If you do, I’d be curious what you think.

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