Shostakovich: Five Fragments, Op. 42 and Symphony No. 1

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Five Fragments, Op. 42
The work that opens this concert is one of the greatest what-might-have-beens in the history of music. Long thought to have been a dry run, really a set of exercises, composed as it was in one day (June 9, 1935), for the Fourth Symphony (heard here next month), recent research by Olga Digonskaia indicates that this aphoristic work is based on material for Shostakovich’s never-finished opera about the People’s Will terrorist movement’s assassination of a 19th century general (meant to have been the third in a trilogy that included another ill-fated work, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District).  The opera was quietly shelved when Sergei Kirov, Leningrad’s Communist Party Secretary, was himself assassinated in December of 1934, thus making the topic somewhat uncomfortable in a possibly threatening political climate.  The Five Fragments, written from the left-overs of the opera’s materials, are some of the very strangest music Shostakovich every composed.  We are used to thinking of him as a composer of epicly scored, almost cinematic symphonic landscapes, music suitable for the backgrounds of World War II documentaries, the very soundtrack of mid-20th century political life.  We see here an altogether different composer, one of intensely concentrated, almost Webern-like expressionism; it is music that resists coherence, easy answers, or tidy summing up; it is a work of art in which the collected orchestral forces onstage represent a menace all the more powerful for the fact that they never play altogether.  What the listener imagines in the work’s gaps, holes, and ellipses seem to become almost as important as the notes that are (all too fleetingly) present.

The opening fragment is mostly lyrical, flowing lines for upper woodwind soloists, with threats from lower voices and a startled ending.  The second one, apparently remnants of the operatic portrayal of the aforementioned general, is march-like in the most grotesque sense.  Banal, thoughtless military topics move meaninglessly up and down, involving both the flute in its highest register and the basses in their lowest.  The third fragment, strings alone, is icy and unmoving, again with extremes of tessitura, the first violins floating at times five octaves above the lower voices.  The fourth fragment, introduced by two bewildering horn notes, is a strict canon in which bassoon, clarinet, and oboe in turn play a melody of fitful expressiveness in successively higher keys, but in overlapping fashion.  The strings interject inscrutably. The horn returns with its musical question marks.  The final fragment, actually the one with the smallest instrumentation, is a mildly crazed waltz that is played by the solo violin and accompanied by the snare drum, as if acting as an enforcer of official state discipline.  A solo bass sarcastically attempts to assert a tonal center, and flute and clarinets offer commentary. The work ends as it started, inconclusively – a major triad with a wrong note.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 10
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.  Yet into this form, which Shostakovich accepts as a historical given, is breathed such freshness of style, such idiosyncrasies of characterization, such innocent originality of harmonic language, that we cannot but find it astonishing nearly 100 years later. 

Its first movement has a highly conventional form – it begins with an introduction and is followed by a sonata-Allegro on which Beethoven would have looked approvingly.  It is the completely foreign rhetoric, grafted onto a pre-determined scaffolding, that makes it truly unique.  The introduction features quirky, almost funny woodwind and brass solos, an incongruous sustained brass chord, and an impossibly stupid rhythmic motif (two quarter note repeated without variation).  The sonata form part of the movement starts with the clarinet playing an annoyed melody accompanied by the strings in a lock-step march – a strangely characterized soldier, featuring militaristic rhythmic topics lifted from the Viennese classics.  The second theme, in textbook-correct relative major, is a waltz in the flute, accompanied by clumsy downbeatless pizzicatos.  The development section begins with string soloists commenting on all of the material, but this quickly leads to an outburst of the whole orchestra for the first time, climaxing in angry and urgent transformations of the introductory and first themes in the trumpets and violins.  The second theme returns unexpectedly, inappropriately – almost without any preparation, as if winking at Shostakovich’s conservatory professors, in the “correct” tonic major key.  A coda revisits both the development section and the introduction, evaporating as iterations of two-quarter-note motif become farther and farther apart, eventually becoming only one – the final pizzicato in the cellos and basses. 

The second movement, a scherzo in A minor that is nevertheless lighthearted, features a burlesque tune in the violins after abortive introductions in other instruments. Woodwinds, brass, and the piano (a heretofore unusual instrument to feature in a symphony) contribute.  The trio interrupts without delay.  It is a square, common-time folk-tune for some reason cast in the time signature of 3/4.  The percussion dutifully follow the printed meter; the woodwinds with the melody accord with its natural emphasis.  It is a bizarre compositional choice.  A timid return of the first theme in the bassoons leads to a rapid increase of tempo and a combining of the scherzo theme and trio theme.  A climax is promised.  The orchestra stops inexplicably, though, leaving the piano’s A minor triads naked, almost childishly flailing.  The effect is striking – Shostakovich assembles a huge mass of sound, only to have the focus fly to a single individual.  Surely such a gesture is not devoid of meaning.

The third movement, a Romantic-symphonic Adagio in ABA form but with a headache, begins straight away with an oboe solo that is simultaneously intensely expressive and deeply ill.  The violins eventually take it over, after what seems like it has been too long; interjected into their rhapsodic musing is a curiously rude motif in the trumpets and snare drum; it commandeers the texture as the tempo accelerates.  A central section begins with a tentative oboe solo and struggles its way to glorious brass fanfares.  The solo violin brings back the A section with such saccharinity that one is hard pressed to tell whether it is a tribute to Richard Strauss’s music, say, or a parody thereof.  The movement ends as what was formerly the trumpet motif subsumes the other music, the harmonies winding sickly to D-flat major.

An unnoticed snare drum remains, crescendoing insistently to start the Finale.  An indecisive, introspective opening leads to what promises to be another sonata form movement . Irritated clarinets play a demonic, fleet-footed main theme, full of restless chromaticism.  It is uncompromising music, and it is no wonder that Shostakovich’s teachers didn’t like it.  Bitter, jagged textures lead to the introduction of a new theme, played full-throated by the whole ensemble.  After the orchestra calms down it becomes clear, as the melody is repeated in the solo violin, that this is the second theme of the sonata form movement.  A development section begins as the string passionately recall a fragment from the introduction, leading to paraphrases of the movement’s main theme.  Descending scales signal a recapitulation, but the interruption of the bass drum arrests the movement’s forward progress.  The tempo slows dramatically, the orchestra hammering out the main theme while the trombones play yet another underneath.  As in the scherzo, though, the assembled mass of sound serves to highlight a single individual – in this case, the timpanist, who portentously thunders out the trumpet motif from the slow movement, now inverted to accord with the melodic contour of the Finale’s main theme.  The second theme – post-apocalyptic, devastated, shattered – is sung by a solo cello.

The innovation here seems to be the following, strangely: the form of the movement is completely undisturbed. The recapitulation proceeds as it should, the themes appearing in the correct order. This normativity feels inconsequential, though, and it goes by unnoticed; the superimposed drama on the surface of the music is so violent and striking that it co-opts any possible attempts to experience the form as the driving force of the work.

Rising from the cello’s ashes, the apotheosis of the second theme arrives with the reunification of the entire orchestra. Finished with Finale’s material, the music subsequently reveals that the trumpet motif from the slow movement, originally a curmudgeonly and spiteful interjection, is now the savior of the work.  F minor is transformed, almost unremarkably, into F major, and the 19 year-old composer’s first symphony could not end with more optimism.  It is music with no premonition that what lays ahead (say, in the Fourth Symphony) is defeat, heart-break, and a pessimism so complete that a four-minute C minor triad is the only possible reaction. Nevertheless, let us celebrate, while we can, the best of youth in this, Shostakovich's brightest symphony.