Written by Richard Murison

As 1936 dawned in Soviet Russia, Joseph Stalin had already been in power for over ten years, and the first great purge was already well under way.  It was a dangerous time to be a Soviet citizen, and it seemed that internal security policy was modeled on the game of whack-a-mole, where anybody whose head popped up – for any reason – was in danger of being summarily crushed.  For the 29-year old composer Dmitri Shostakovich, already emerging as a precocious talent in a cultural milieu considered by Stalin to be important to the Russian people, it was both a privileged and a dangerous time.

His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had opened to official approval in 1934 and had gone on to be performed many times – around the world as well as across Russia – and had generally enjoyed both critical and popular approval.  So it was with some dismay that Shostakovich learned one cold January morning that Pravda has just published an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” which was openly critical of it.  And, worse, that very evening Stalin and the politburo were going to attend a performance at the Bolshoi theatre.  Shostakovich was advised to be sure he was there.  To the composer’s horror, Stalin was seen to cringe at several moments, and laughed loudly at the central seduction scene that had, up to that point, been the only aspect of the opera to receive any consistent critical approbation.

Shostakovich has said that from that night on he slept with a packed suitcase under his bed, fully expecting to be woken by the NKVD and marched off to prison for subsequent execution.  But even so, he continued to work on his music, and in particular on the completion of his 4th Symphony which at that point only required some final refinements.  Shostakovich, a true Russian, was nothing if not stubborn, and he refused any and all entreaties to revise the work to address mounting criticisms of Lady Macbeth for being “too formalist”.  By December, he was busy with final rehearsals when, in circumstances that remain murky to this day, he suddenly withdrew it.  It is said that the symphony had been banned, but there is no evidence to support this.  The most likely explanation is that the orchestra itself, and its managers, got so nervous about being associated with such a controversial subject that the embattled composer felt he had little choice, and voluntarily withdrew it.

Some months later, Shostakovich began work on his 5th Symphony, which was granted a premiere in November 1937.  The fact that he called the new work his 5th Symphony, allowing the abandoned and “formalist” 4th Symphony to live on in implied memory, was in retrospect the first portent of the true nature of what was to become arguably his most famous – and certainly his most popular – symphony.  In a newspaper article published a few days prior to the opening, Shostakovich characterized the new work as “A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”.  Indeed, the new symphony proved to be a suitably more conservative work, and in due course the communist party and its leadership bestowed its blessings to rehabilitate the reputation of its errant genius of a composer.

[Shostakovich went on to suffer a second, and potentially more dangerous denunciation in 1948, when the circumstances on this occasion had more sinister political overtones.  Again, he took to sleeping on the landing so that his family would not be disturbed when the secret police came for him, but again he was spared from the worst – at least in part by his esteemed reputation outside the Soviet Union – and gradually regained his former prestige after Stalin died in 1953 and his successor, Krushchev, denounced Stalin himself.]

Although the manuscript score for the 4th Symphony was lost during WWII, the orchestra in Leningrad had retained the individual instrumental parts from the 1936 rehearsals, and so the symphony was able to be reconstructed and eventually performed in 1961 in the climate of the composer’s full post-Stalin rehabilitation.  Interestingly, for the belated premiere, the stubborn Shostakovich would brook not a single amendment to his original 1936 score.  We’ll come back to it in a moment and consider it in more detail, but first we’ll take a quick look at the more famous 5th Symphony.

What we now know is that the 5th Symphony, far from representing a loyal and chastened return to the Soviet fold, is in fact a vicious, barely-veiled, and deeply-cutting parody on Soviet Russia.  This is something that appears so immediately obvious to modern ears that it is hard to imagine the contemporary Russian audience failing to see immediately through it.  In fact, modern scholarship suggests that one of the reasons it was so massively popular was that yes, indeed, contemporary audiences did read it correctly and enjoyed the vicarious thrill of being complicit with Shostakovich’s savage poke in the eye of the beast, while none of those in power were willing to risk Whack-a-Mole by being the first to point this out.  In any event, the Soviet establishment was willing to take the “Soviet artist’s response to just criticism” at face value and openly promote it as an example of how happy they were to welcome back transgressors who took the necessary corrective steps.  Shostakovich had, in effect, found and perfected a style through which he could express his loathing of the Stalinist system from within, and without any apparent fear of being denounced.  He would use it to great effect for the remainder of his career.

Where the 5th Symphony is classically structured, the 4th is a wild and barely-controlled ride through the chaos of Stalin’s purges.  It calls for an absolutely colossal 125-piece orchestra, the largest in the standard repertoire.  Structurally, it proceeds more like a ballet score than a symphony, progressing through what are effectively a series of tableaux.  Its two outer movements, both a good half hour in duration, seem to be possessed of very little in the way of a guiding narrative.  While the self-contained shorter central movement proceeds in a less arbitrary manner, it still prompts you to wonder what its connection is with the rest of the symphony.  Overall, you can hardly expect to walk out of a performance of the 4th Symphony whistling its tunes, although the opening march is quite memorable.  It is perhaps – paradoxically – this very absence of apparent form which led to its condemnation as “too formalist”, whatever that term is supposed to mean.  The point is, it’s not just Soviet doctrinaire theoreticians who can find the work tough to get to grips with.

That the 5th Symphony is classically structured is a key point here.  In writing his 5th Symphony as a direct response to the potentially lethal criticisms levied at his 4th, Shostakovich created a fundamentally better-balanced work.  It represented a massive advancement in technical maturity, at least from the conventional viewpoint of symphonic theorists in the years leading up to the 1930’s.  While various avant-garde approaches were beginning to emerge in other less-restrictive compositional forms, they were still by and large being resisted in the more rigorous discipline of symphonic composition.  But they clearly resonated with the young Shostakovich’s progressive impulses.

So in responding to politically motivated existential criticism, Shostakovich was forced to temper his natural inclination to break the bounds of convention by mastering the disciplines of conventional musical structure, and in the process learned a powerful musical lesson.  You can hear its application to all of his major works for the remainder of his lifetime.  And they are, arguably, the better for it.  Although Shostakovich himself seems to have accepted that, he once said, late in life, that without “Party Guidance” he might have written more “pure” music.  We can only wonder what that might have meant.  As it was, under the oppressive influence of “Party Guidance”, driven by his own remarkable genius, and with the use of parody, satire, and allegory, he became arguably the greatest symphonist – Russian or otherwise – of the entire 20th Century.  But the 4th Symphony, meanwhile, remains a standout within his oeuvre for its ferocious indiscipline.

From reading the above you might be reasonably confident in assuming that I am not a fan of the work, or that it is some sort of unlistenable cacophony.  But nothing could be farther from the truth – it is by far and away my favorite Shostakovich symphony.  Unfortunately, I have never yet heard a performance of it that I think comes even close to nailing it good and proper [like, for example, Bernstein’s primordial 1959 Rite of Spring, Kleiber’s lights-out rendition of Beethoven’s 5th, or Cooke’s unleashing of Carmina Burana].  Even Kondrashin’s seminal 1963 recording, held by many to be the pinnacle (Shostakovich himself having been present at a performance in London by the same performers), doesn’t quite do it for me.  I attended a concert by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain, which might have been just what the doctor ordered, but unfortunately it was a transient event and has not been released for deeper consideration other than as a crappy MP3 which sounds like it was captured on an iPhone.

I do have one lingering issue with the work, though, and I have already alluded to this.  Following the shattering onslaught of the first movement, the second movement has nowhere to go, and even the great Nézet-Séguin found himself short of somewhere complementary to take it.  The first and third movements are all but devoid of form, and where the first movement relies on heavy doses of bombast and aggression, the third is more introspective and contemplative [it brings to mind the Ruhevoll of Mahler’s 4th with its glorious and triumphant fanfare that tries to corral the forces towards the expected upbeat conclusion, but fails – instead giving way to an ambiguous pianissimo closing coda.  This is a symphony that was known to have influenced the young Shostakovich].  There is no immediately obvious role that the second movement can be seen to be playing as an intermediary between the two.  It doesn’t function as a scherzo as such, nor does it set the table for the finale in the manner of Beethoven.

In fact, I toy with the notion of cutting the second movement entirely.  I am intrigued by the thought that the symphony might work much better as a two movement piece.  Such ideas, though, do not find favor in classical music circles, given that even the august Klemperer’s suggestion of cutting the number of flutes from six to four was considered controversial and summarily dismissed by Shostakovich himself.  Not that the second movement is in and of itself deficient or flawed.  Auditioned in isolation it is rather beautiful.  In fact I plan to experiment with inserting it between the first and second movements of the 7th Symphony.  In my mind’s eye (mind’s ear?) at least, it has a chance.  It’s the sort of thing Mahler might have done – or at least considered doing.  And it is intriguing to note that Shostakovich composed his first sketches for the opening movement of the 7th at about the same time he was writing the 4th.  But that’s for another day.

For anybody interested enough to give this majestic symphony a listen, here is an official YouTube video of Vasily Petrenko and the European Youth Orchestra from 2014 (Petrenko is another emerging young gun who is set to make a name for himself).  The performance is a pretty good one, and the video work is also eminently watchable.  I’d love to know what you think.

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