Last month I wrote the following about Shostakovich’s First Symphony:
The symphony as a musical genre is a quintessentially 19th-century phenomenon. It is a public statement; and its development is an interpretation of life and civilization during that time period. It is sometimes assertive of individual expression, sometimes nationalistic, but always, inevitably, a product of a post-Enlightenment Europe in which the organized rationalization of society is expressed everywhere – from an emerging bourgeois social class to the triumph of industrial production to the rise of economic capitalism to the increased presence of mechanically reproducible art.
The world fundamentally changed after World War I, the “Great War,” and art reflected that. If the rationalizing impulse that was responsible for all of the so-called progress of the nineteenth century could be used, simply, to build bigger and better weaponry with which to slaughter a whole generation of young men, what did this say about the implications, in all aspects of life, of this so-called Enlightenment project? Though it was not yet clear in 1924 that the “wholly enlightened earth [would be] radiant with triumphant calamity,” as Adorno and Horkheimer would say 20 years later (in the midst of an even more disastrous conflict), older forms of art could no longer tolerate a naive, unquestioned reception. Less grandiose and more to the point this evening – certainly the graduation project of a brilliant and precocious 19 year-old Soviet student composer is not the archetypical locus for the creation of a symphony.
All of which is to say, Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony, unquestionably a work of great genius and superb craftsmanship, seems to me to be most successful and enjoyable when listened to as a fish out of water. It is the work of an imaginative teenager in the midst of a historical period unique in human history (post-revolutionary, pre-terror Soviet Russia). Its form doesn’t come to it naturally or organically; it is imposed as an academic construct, almost reified.
By the 1930s in Soviet Russia, the situation had changed somewhat. It is not the case so much that the symphony had become reified; more that it had been institutionalized and co-opted by the Soviet government. It was a unique situation in the history of interactions between art and politics. The communist state poured a tremendous amount of money into high culture because, as Patrick McCreless has put it, it was “a culture that passionately believed in the power of music to communicate extramusical meaning, and that relied on a well-established complex of critical conventions to gain access to and articulate that meaning.” It would be difficult to overstate how much more important high culture, and music specifically, was to early Soviet culture than it is to our own. That the government that supported it was morally bankrupt to its very core makes the importance of music to that time and place so much more unbearable to contemplate.
Indeed, a state-sponsored conference, “Discussion about Soviet Symphonism” was held in 1935, which all the major luminaries (composers, performers, musicologists) attended. It was not unambitious; the aim was to codify what a Soviet symphony should be, what sort of ideological content it should convey, and what was the best way, stylistically, to do this. Quite simply, Soviet music culture wanted to take the best and most prestigious thing from Western music culture, do it better, and show how it could advance a communist (well, Stalinist) political agenda. Shostakovich and his friend, musicologist and Mahler scholar Ivan Sollertinsky, seem to have left the conference under the delusion further discussion was possible; the Mahlerian Fourth Symphony was underway in any case.
It is on an absolutely enormous scale, intended to dwarf the listener. The orchestra is huge, the wind section nearly as big as the string section. Both the first and last movements are nearly a half hour long. It is big music written in a big country during a time in history that knew it was important.
The first movement engages the 19th-century traditions of sonata form on the grandest of historical stages. Its declamatory, fire-alarm of an opening quickly leads to an overwhelmingly brutal lock-step march of a first subject. A tentative, vacillating string figure attempts to be a second theme but fails, revealing itself to be an inversion of the first. The march return, subjected to ruthless counterpoint. The winds attempt a second theme this time, incongruously playful triplets; but they fail also, leading to a heart-wrenching outburst. The second thematic area proper appears in the bassoons, chastened and terrified, to the terse interjections of the cellos and basses. It meanders and wanders, eventually adding both strings and winds, leading to expressive outpouring of overwrought grief.
The development section interrupts, if such a concept makes sense in this music, with a polka of utter banality, a relentlessly mocking parody of the first subject. Though it grows more serious, it does not lead where one might expect. To describe the ensuing swirling maelstrom of string writing as a “fugato” is accurate -- but the effect of the head-spinningly fast torrent of 16th notes overwhelms any awareness of its genre. It is as if Bach has been subjected to one of Stalin’s 5-year plans; it is a forced industrialization of musical material, inhuman, uncompromising, devastating. It evolves into a march of equally incessant savagery, and only a citizen of Soviet Russia in the 1930s could possibly find the subsequent waltz amusing. Exhausted, the music is suspended in the flutes. As if it has one more gasp left in it, the development section closes as a pp timpani evolves into a fffff 12-note brass chord. Significantly, all the brass instruments are instructed to use mutes; it is as the very fabric of tonal music itself (all possible notes present and accounted for) is invoked in an attempt to stifle and silence the collective cry; it is sonic barbarity. The horrified return of the symphony’s very opening fire-alarm is now accompanied by scales in minor seconds in the strings. The recapitulation casts the thematic areas in reverse order, the second in the brass accompanied by the march rhythm, giving way to an English horn paraphrase of end of the exposition; the first theme returns at the end of the movement, again in the bassoon, now completely defeated and broken, as if a prisoner being forced to confess to a crime they did not commit. The movement ends with the lower brass growling a muddy C minor sonority at the audience, not as a resolution of the movement's harmonic tension, but as an unmoving threat.
The second movement, a scherzo of exponentially smaller proportions, opens with a viola soli passage that appears to be wondering what it’s doing there. The form is unpretentious: ABAB, and the tone is reminiscent of the sardonic world of the equivalent section of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. The B theme is first heard as an expressive descending line, pre-figuring the first movement of Shostakovich’s next symphony, the much more famous Fifth. The movement closes idiosyncratically, mechanically, mysteriously, with clockwork percussion that begs to be interpreted but simultaneously seems to resist hermeneutical analysis. A clock ticking away the seconds towards an ever-approaching death (Temirkanov)? An insidious machine designed for who knows what purpose? Prisoners tapping messages to each other on hot-water pipes (Rozhdestvensky)?
At this point in our journey of the work a neglected piece of historical truth must be inserted which I have deliberately withheld heretofore. On January 28, 1936, an unsigned editorial (“Muddle in the place of Music”) in the state newspaper, Pravda (“Truth,” I kid you not), condemned Shostakovich’s most recent opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District in no uncertain terms: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” It is hard to put in contemporary terms the import of such a denunciation. In a culture that relied on high art for its legitimacy, and in which the state controlled the media, we simply cannot understand what it meant to be publicly attacked in such an environment. I imagine President Obama giving a prime-time address on CNN about his dislike of of minimalism would mean much less. Shostakovich was in the midst of the composition of the Fourth Symphony at the time, the Finale likely composed after the Pravda editorial.
The Finale is, as was the first movement, excessive, grand, hubristic in scale, and is willful and difficult to follow formally. It begins with a Funeral March in the depths of the orchestra, the bassoon the lonely soloist. As strings and brass are added, a C major apotheosis is gradually attained. A fast, demonic, aggressive scherzo ensues, with the tonal center, instead, of C#; after reaching a climax, though, it quickly collapses under the weight of pounding timpani. A divertimento follows, a suite of urban street music… waltzes for the strings and flutes, a sarcastic polka for the bassoon, more waltzing for the winds, a break-neck galop in the strings. There are references to the tone of Petrushka, and not only musically—just as Stravinsky’s puppet (literal and figural) experiences a private grief that his public knows nothing about, so here a nostalgia for a by-gone Russia is masked. The trombone comments throughout with motivic material from the the scherzo. While I encourage you to try to follow the formal and musical logic, I similarly exhort you not to feel bad if ever detail escapes you on first listening. It is music of deliberate bizarreness, calculated to confuse, to innovate, to challenge, to confront. Its design is a self-conscious contrast with that of the first movement’s epic, teleological sonata form; this is episodic, capricious, cynical, unbelieving music. It is meant to make you question your tidy assumptions about what music does.
Befitting such a huge piece, there are not one, but two codas. The first arises from a moment of C major calm (more from Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, according to Pauline Faircloth) that the strings arrive at after their Divertimento. On the heels of timpani (not one, but two players are needed) declamations, a brass chorale of exaggerated enthusiasm breaks out. It is celebratory, festive music; too bad about those wrong notes composed into it. Actually it is a reference to the “Gloria” that the chorus sings to Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. As David Fanning says,
With its hammering tonic-dominant timpani and strident brass chorales, supported later on by woodwind and finally by violins and violas as well, the surface of Shostakovich's coda suggests an apotheosis, irrespective of its C-major tonality. That impression is reinforced, at an intellectual level, when we identify the allusion to Stravinsky's chorus, so specific in tonality and texture. But Stravinsky’s “Gloria” is not the entirely straightforward paean it seems. It is more than a little tinged with dramatic irony, since the crowd's acclamation is based on ignorance of Jocasta's misdeeds.
It is an ironic song of praise sung to a leader whose misconduct would destroy a civilization. Only now is it fully clear why Shostakovich withdrew the piece in rehearsal before the premiere took place. (The work did not receive its premiere until 25 years after its completion, in 1961.) The funeral march that opened the movement modestly in the bassoon now returns catastrophically in the unison bass instruments, the bass drum punctuating its efforts like artillery.
The second coda makes it clearer still. The references are rife—the pulsating bass line of the ending of Tchaikovsky’s suicidal Pathetique symphony; a harmonic stasis and use of the celeste that can only recall the ending of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde; the very key itself, C minor—a subversion, a reversal of the darkness-to-light trajectory of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. This is a coda whose pessimism is not merely local or personal. This is a symphony as art, as criticism, as journalism, as prophecy; it is conceived as an interpretation of, possibly an intervention into, history. As the the funeral march fragments and eventually evaporates into a muted trumpet G, an unmoving C minor triad congeals in the strings, lasting nearly four minutes as the symphony’s post-apocalyptic detritus settles into Mahler’s liebe Erde.
These final minutes of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony are just begging to be decoded. Sure, it is obviously negative in affect—but it seems to be trying urgently, forcefully to tell us something. The effort of this attempt works on multiple levels, just as the rest of the work does, and in the end, by its very nature resists all our attempts to unravel it—which doesn't mean, however, that our exegetical attempt is not worthwhile; I would argue, rather, that it is essential, as is the foregone failure of our misreading; that the very act of interpretation is our way of conversing with a work like this and assuring its continued relevance to our lives and our world.
At its most literal, this ending does precisely what an official pronouncement encouraged composers to do: “leave to future generations memorials of our glorious, never-to-be-forgotten epoch”—perhaps just not in the way that they had in mind; it brings home to us, nearly a century later, the unremittingly suffocating climate of human life under fascism, whether of the Soviet, Nazi, or generic variety. Read another way, composed as it may well have been, after the Pravda editorial appeared, it is a sort of response, a warning, a prophecy, and interpretation of history… if the official newspaper warned Shostakovich that things may end badly for him, Shostakovich is showing us here how badly things may end for humanity. And finally, there is the devastatingly personal… an individual alone in a forest of C minor for a musical eternity, his subjectivity only dimly held onto by his ability to despair via of the final, contextless, hopeless, bewildered, A and D in the celeste. Or rather—if there is any hope left, it is maybe, possibly, however conditionally, located in this tiny act of defiance.