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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9
"...as close to a totally truthful musical realisation of this astoundingly original score as we are ever likely to get."
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.5 in D Minor, Op. 47
Symphony No.9 in E Flat Major, Op. 70
Dmitry Shostakovich belonged to the first generation of Russian composers to reach maturity after the Revolution of 1917. Born in what was then St. Petersburg in 1906, he studied the piano with his mother, a professional pianist, and entered the Conservatory in his native city in 1919. There his teachers included Maximilian Steinberg, the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, while his father's ability to supply the Conservatory director Glazunov with vodka endeared him to the latter. Like Prokofiev, his senior by fifteen years, he studied as a pianist and as a composer, winning acclaim in 1926 for his graduation composition, the First Symphony, which was warmly welcomed at home and abroad.
The first real difficulties that Shostakovich met in his career came with the initially very successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, otherwise known under its subsequent title, Katerina Ismailova. Based on a novella by Nikolay Leskov, a tense drama of domestic crime and punishment, the work was at first hailed as a model of socialist art, expressive of the ideas implicit in the Revolution. In January 1936, however, two years after the first performance in Leningrad, Pravda launched an unexpected attack on the opera and its composer, apparently on the direct instructions of Stalin. This condemnation marked the victory of a populist element in Russian musical circles. Composers were to avoid modernism - chaos instead of music, as the official condemnation put it - in favour of a form of music directly intelligible to the people and expressing the optimism of the regime. The Fifth Symphony followed eighteen months later, by way of apology, but from this time onwards Shostakovich was aware of the precariousness of his position. In 1948 Zhdanov, the commissar in charge of the Union of Soviet Composers, once again brought charges of formalism and modernism against Shostakovich and Prokofiev, criticism that the former once again accepted. The immediate result was a dichotomy in his work between the private and personal and music for public consumption. The death of Stalin in 1953, on the same day as the unfortunate Prokofiev, brought some relaxation, politically and culturally, at least until the fall of Khruschev in 1964. Shostakovich died in 1975.
Shostakovich wrote the fifth of his fifteen symphonies in 1937 and it was given its first performance in Leningrad in November that year, presented as for the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It originally carried the sub-title “The practical answer of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” This, coming after the events of 1936, led to a certain initial coolness towards the symphony outside Russia. Abroad it was at first seen as an act of submission to an arbitrary cultural dictatorship. Nevertheless there is no reason to suppose that Shostakovich was, at the time, insincere in his recantation and apology, or that his own musical development might not have led him to abjure the evils of Western serialism that had at one time begun to attract him. The condemnation of 1948 was, of course, quite another matter.
The Fifth Symphony is in four closely related movements, opening with a movement in broadly classical form, offensive, one might have supposed, to official opponents of formalism, but well received in Russia. Shostakovich had withdrawn his lavishly scored Fourth Symphony of 1936, and now used an orchestra of more usual size, including, however, two harps and a piano, in a structure and texture of great clarity. Cellos and double basses open the second movement, with its jaunty rhythms, followed by a tranquil slow movement of mounting tension, introduced by divided strings. The symphony ends with obligatory triumphalism, ironic in intention, if we accept the words attributed to the composer in his ghosted autobiography.
At the end of the Second World War some act of celebration was demanded of Russian musicians. According to Solomon Volkov's version of the composer's memoirs, Shostakovich was in no mood to celebrate the achievements of Stalin, who expected a conventional work of triumph, bolstered by quadruple wind in a large orchestra, with solo singers and choir, joining in a hymn of praise to the leader. This, too, was the composer's Ninth Symphony, that might have been expected to follow the model of Beethoven's last symphony.
The Ninth Symphony of Shostakovich proved offensive to the Establishment in the circumstances of 1945. It opens with a first movement of cheerful irony, in traditional form, its first subject announced by the strings and its second entrusted at first to the piccolo. The second movement starts with a clarinet solo, accompanied by pizzicato cellos and double basses, the spare texture of the movement emphasized as flute and bassoon join together in the melody. An ominous muted string rhythm then at first accompanies the French horns in music that grows more menacing, until the flute takes up again the first strain. The third movement is launched by a rapid clarinet melody, soon handed over to the piccolo and flutes. A jaunty trumpet takes the stage, echoed by the trombone, and the music fades into a fourth movement Largo, announced by trombones and tuba, followed by a solo bassoon, in sinister prominence, the very antithesis of triumphalism. It is this instrument that leads the way into the fifth and final movement, now in less tragic guise, although the movement has about it an air of hushed menace, until the trumpet leads to an apparently happier mood, on which a final coda sets the seat.
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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9