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ClassicsOnline Home » SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975)
Symphony No.1 in F Minor, Op. 10
Symphony No.3 in E Flat Major, Op. 20 (The First of May)
Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist he was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.
Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Golden Age was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism. The first of these, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Third Symphony, completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the regime and was subtitled The First of May.
In 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, first performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the title, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time.
In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev, its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on moral in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad.
Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, and branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His first Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961.
In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable.
The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9th August.
The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg had been fired on by troops, Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet regime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism.
The testimony of others and a recent scholarly survey of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity.
The First Symphony of Shostakovich is a remarkable achievement as the work of a nineteen-year-old student. The work, as many have pointed out, shows the influence of Stravinsky's Petrushka, of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and of the Russian theatre of the time, as well as that of Tchaikovsky, notably in the second half of the symphony. Elements of Petrushka are apparent in the opening, with its bassoon solo, leading to a march theme for the clarinet, followed by a waltz introduced by the flute. Ironic march and waltz continue to provide, in juxtaposition, the substance of the movement. The second movement scherzo continues the mood of irony, the piano now making its appearance with all the verve of Prokofiev. A central passage of contrasting mood, entrusted principally to the woodwind is followed by the return of the scherzo theme and the movement ends as the pianist, using the right hand, plays a loud bottom A, the sound of which dies away to the diminishing sound of violin and viola harmonics. The symphony now changes in mood, as the plangent melody of the oboe opens the slow movement, echoed by the solo cello, the texture pierced from time to time by a rhythmic figure in the brass, the second theme transformed finally by a muted trumpet into an elegiac slow march. The last movement persists in tragedy in its introductory Lento, clarinets and piano serving to reintroduce something of the irony of the first movement, now tempered by tragedy and death, and finding a place for the questioning figure of the timpani that goes on to accompany a. gently poignant cello solo. A gradual increase in speed and volume leads to the final Presto, leaving in its ambiguity of final mode, a possibility of the triumph of death rather than life.
Shostakovich wrote his Third Symphony in 1929 in the space of a few weeks. It came after an attack by the champions of Proletarian music on his opera The Nose. His Second Symphony two years earlier had celebrated the October Revolution and now it must have seemed appropriate to celebrate May Day, a festival sacred to workers. The symphony is in one movement, but falls into four or possibly five sections without evident thematic connection. Critics have argued about the sincerity of the composer. Some have found the Third Symphony trivial and banal, some have detected overt irony, an element clearly present from time to time, while others have seen an honest or artistically dishonest attempt to conform to the requirements of the time. The symphony clearly lacks the unity and symphonic character of the First Symphony and is, more happily, without the modernism of the Second. The final section is a choral setting of words by the Russian poet Semyon Kirsanov, a friend and associate of the poet Mayakovsky. His poem The First of May is more than mere state propaganda, a sincere enough celebration of the success of the Revolution, the grief of war, the capture of the Tsar's palace, the destruction of the old and the glorious future now open to workers, marching together in the May Day parade.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929 at the instance of Milos Ruppeldt and Oskar Nedbal, prominent personalities in the sphere of music. Ondrej Lenárd was appointed its conductor in 1970 and in 1977 its conductor-in-chief. The orchestra has given successful concerts both at home and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Hong Kong and Japan. For Marco Polo the orchestra has recorded works by Glazunov, Glière, Miaskovsky and other late romantic composers and film music of Honegger, Bliss, Ibert and Khachaturian as well as several volumes of the label's Johann Strauss Edition. Naxos recordings include symphonies and ballets by Tchaikovsky, and symphonies by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.
Ladislav Slovák was born in 1919 in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, where, in spite of straitened circumstances, he completed his earlier musical training at the City Music School and subsequently at the Bratislava Conservatory. As a conductor he was greatly influenced by Vaclav Talich in Bratislava and from 1954 by Yevgeni Mravinsky, to whom he served as assistant in Leningrad. For some two years Slovák attended Mravinsky's rehearsals with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra of the symphonies of Shostakovich, including first performances of Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12. In these rehearsals Shostakovich was present, hearing his music in performance for the first time and rarely interfering, except for occasional adjustments of tempi. He had great confidence in Mravinsky, with whom there was collaboration at the profoundest musical level. Slovák was privileged often to take part in discussions on problems of performance between Mravinsky and Shostakovich, and also learned much from other conductors, including the second conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Kurt Sanderling. On his return to Czecho-Slovakia Slovák was appointed Conductor-in-Chief of the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava, with guest engagements with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, which he conducted on an extended world tour to the Far East, Australasia and Russia in 1959. In 1961 he was appointed Conductor-in-Chief of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and has continued with similar appointments as far afield as Australia and with a busy career as a guest conductor. His early working collaboration with Mravinsky and Shostakovich has led to performances of particular authority, in particular of the latter's fifteen symphonies.
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SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3