(The symphony performs it tonight, Saturday Nov. 10th at 8pm and again tomorrow, Sunday Nov. 11th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Timothy Dixon offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. The program also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 and the winner of this year’s Rising Star Concerto Competition, Julia Rosenbaum, a 16-year-old cellist playing Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.” You can read my preview post at the symphony blog, here.)
Of course, Shostakovich was an especially private composer who rarely dropped hints about what was going on in his mind when he composed, no matter what enticements we might hear in the music. And what we might hear today might be very different from what a Soviet listener heard in 1939 – or what a Soviet bureaucrat might have heard, compared to a concert-going music lover (a.k.a. “intellectual”).
The 6th is very much wrapped up in the aftermath of the political hot water Shostakovich found himself in in 1936 after Stalin walked out of a performance of his already popular opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and an attack on the composer and his style appeared in Pravda, the Soviet Union’s principal Communist Party newspaper: “Muddle instead of Music,” it was called, and the upshot was that Shostakovich found his music suddenly being pulled off concert programs and commissions for new works were being canceled or started drying up.
He had already begun work on his 4th Symphony, a vast hour-long complex of three very dissonant movements, at turns bleak or violent. He completed it a few months after the article appeared in Pravda. It was in rehearsal later that year but as the process unfolded, the management of the orchestra prevailed on Shostakovich to withdraw the work and cancel the performance. No explanation was given and the decision was made to look entirely the composer’s own. He put the symphony aside and premiered it only in 1961, some 25 years later, but never adjusted the symphony’s number or revised it.
You can read more about the political and artist aspects of this period in Shostakovich’s life in an earlier post about his 5th (and also 10th) Symphonies.
Politics being what it was, as Stalin tried to control the opposition (if not eliminate it), it seemed even artists were not immune from what became known as Stalin’s Terror – resulting in a series of purges which began the following year. During that time, many of Shostakovich’s artist friends and colleagues were rounded up and arrested. His brother-in-law, a physicist, was arrested in the middle of the night and sent off to exile with his wife without warning. Shostakovich’s mother-in-law was also arrested and exiled, also with no explanation.
That was how Dmitri Shostakovich avoided arrest. Not that it couldn’t come at some other time, but he came that close to it, already.
We in the United States tend not to be aware of such issues when it comes to our artists, if we are even conscious of them, so I mention this only as background to understanding something about the 5th Symphony he composed next and the 6th Symphony which followed it a year later.
Most concert-goers might be aware of the nature of the 5th Symphony and its subtitle, “A Soviet Artists Reply to Just Criticism” which, incidentally, did not originate with the composer but with a critic somewhere and Shostakovich, perhaps a little too shell-shocked still, could not figure out a way of gracefully declining the nickname.
|Mravinsky & Shostakovich, 1930s|
The 5th premiered in December of 1937. He had begun work on it in mid-April, earlier that year. Now, look back a few paragraphs and read about that interrogation again: that took place in the spring of 1937.
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Following the success of the 5th Symphony and his rehabilitation as a Soviet Artist, Shostakovich announced he would soon be working on a “grandiose symphony dedicated to Lenin.” Reports indicated it would be a four-movement symphony with chorus (and soloists, in some mentions) setting poems by Mayakovsky and two non-Russian Soviet poets, one from Kazakstan and another from Dagestan.
In her substantial collection of first-hand reminiscences, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Elizabeth Wilson includes this statement from Isaak Glikman, a close personal friend of Shostakovich’s and a well-known Leningrad theater critic and historian. [My comments are italicized in brackets.]
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|Shostakovich & Sollertinsky, 1930s|
The premiere of the Sixth Symphony took place on November 5th, 1939, under Mravinsky’s baton and it enjoyed an enormous success. The finale was encored – a rare occurrence at a premiere of a symphonic work – but the enthralling atmosphere that pervaded the hall at the premiere of the Fifth Symphony was lacking. That particular concertr had been a unique event, even unrepeatable, you might say, had not Shostakovich gone on to write the Seventh, Eighth and Fourteenth Symphonies which all had a similar force of inspired revelation.
For very grave reasons, Dmitri Dmitriyevich was unable to attend the Moscow premiere of the Sixth Symphony. He asked me to go in his stead to attend the rehearsals and the concert and to write to him with my impressions. I did so, remaining in Moscow for quite a protracted tsay. I would write the letters in the evening and send them to Leningrad with somebody travelling by the night train, so that Dmitri Dmitriyevich already had them in his hands next morning.
Naturally, I hid from the composer the inevitable musicians’ talk. With rare exceptions, it drove me to despair. Some musicians held that the conceited young composer, having dared to break with the tradition of the symphonic cycle, had produced a formless piece in three movements. Others maliciously implied that Shostakovich had locked himself away in an ivory tower and no longer knew what was going on around him; the result was that the opening Largo was so dull and inert as to bring on a stupefied torpor. And a third group just laughed goodheartedly, saying that the finale was nothing than a depiction of a football match with its successes and reversals of fortune. This vulgar and trivialized opinion has unfortunately persisted and gained widespread credence.
[Reading this, I’m reminded of my own initial reactions to hearing the piece: perhaps the recordings I heard were “dull and inert” and, in the finale, vulgar enough to suggest a football match’s frenzy?]
|Glikman in later years|
After the Sixth Symphony, which aroused so much censure, Shostakovich wrote his Piano Quintet in the summer of 1940 [only seven months later]; it was received with great acclaim by public and critics alike, and opinion was unanimous. Each performance by the wonderful Glazunov and Beethoven String Quartets with the composer at the piano were hailed as a great event in the musical life of Leningrad and Moscow.
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|At Premiere of Piano Quintet, 1940|
Incidentally, if anyone wondered what happened to the Grand Symphony dedicated to Lenin, similar reports were made again pertaining to the up-coming Seventh Symphony, which, however, written during World War II and the horrific siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, turned out to be quite a different work. Then, once the Eighth Symphony, another of his War Symphonies, was premiered, there was talk of a grand symphony in honor of Stalin which, without explanation, turned out not to be the heroic celebration that would culminate the War Years in Music, but to be a rather slight, in fact a rather Haydn-esque work that left people (at least the bureaucrats) scratching their heads.
In my post about the 5th & 10th Symphonies, I refer to the view of Shostakovich serving as the national "Holy Fool" (in Russian, yurodivy) not the simple-minded "village idiot" we in America think of but in the classic Slavic sense of the Fool who is touched by and therefore nearer to God, often respected and, in a sense, feared by others. The most famous example of this would be the Simpleton in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov where the fool confronts the tsar and asks him to murder the children who stole his penny like Boris had murdered the Little Tsaryevich Dmitri, something that would have earned any courtier immediate execution. But in this dramatic scene (beginning at 4:00), instead Boris asks the Simpleton to pray for him. Unfortunately, the Fool replies, he cannot: the Virgin does not allow it. In the great Forest Scene which ought to be the opera's final scene, the Simpleton has the final word, lamenting the fate of the Russian people (in this clip, beginning around 5:40). In Western literature what wiser fool is there than King Lear's?
Perhaps Shostakovich thought the world had become completely unbalanced and that the "whacky" finale to this intense opening movement of his new symphony was like the dancing of the Holy Fool? There is more to think about this in his 10th Symphony, the first new symphony he composed after Stalin's death: his use of the D.SCH motive (Shostakovich's monogram translated into musical pitches) at the very end seems to celebrate Shostakovich's survival as much as the wild dance of a finale might celebrate Stalin's death.
But all this, as I mentioned, is really conjecture. We might say "since Shostakovich never admitted it in print," but then there were many examples of articles or letters signed by Shostakovich which had been written by party officials and which he signed merely to avoid political confrontation. Was he more cynic than simpleton? Semyon Volkov's largely discredited Testimony, claiming to be interviews with the composer shortly before he died and rather confessional in nature, might even be more fiction than anything resembling fact despite Volkov saying the composer signed the transcripts he had handed him, authenticating the material.
That, however, is another topic entirely and one that apparently will never be resolved.
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One more excerpt from Elizabeth Wilson’s collection, this one pertaining to that 5th Symphony premiere. It appears not all government bureaucrats were convinced it was a masterpiece as it had been acclaimed by the audience. These are from reminiscences by another director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Mikhail Chulaki who, in 1948, would join in with the government in condemning Shostakovich for his “formalist” aesthetic in writing symphonic works after the German model.
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In other words [the Fifth Symphony] was accessible to professional listeners without making concessions to the pretensions of the general public – that same general public which so bombastically referred to itself as ‘the People’ (or took upon itself to speak in the name of ‘the People’)…
But there was another category of persons who had a particular allegiance to art – the bureaucratic stratum. They formulated the judgements of the authorities through writing official reports in which they tried to divine what the bosses’ opinions of the matter might be. And for God’s sake [interesting choice of expression, given the godless Communist society, here], should you get it wrong, it could cost you your position. Their anxiety to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ was motivated by the wish to ensure their own safety. They therefore assessed composition by the quantity of dissonances and their deviations from the standard ‘norms’ of folk and classical music…
[Given reports of the Fifth Symphony’s premiere,] this… provoked extreme displeasure in official circles, since it was seen as an explicit comment in regard to the criticism expressed on the pages of the Party press [regarding the dangers of “excessive success”]. Surely, the composer could not have ‘restructured’ his outlook and created a 100% Soviet symphony in such a short period of time? And what is more, no official opinion on the symphony had yet been formulated. So what did this mean – a demonstration?
Immediately, two high-up officials from the committee responsible for the arts, V. N. Surin and B.M. Yarustovsky, were sent to Leningrad. They were present at one of the next performances of the symphony. Their brief was to find out how it was that the concert organizers had managed to inspire such a loud and demonstrative success. Yarustovsky… having just personally witnessed Shostakovich’s unheard-of triumph, made a constant stream of snide remarks, shouting to make himself heard over the noise in the hall. “Just look, all the concert-goers have been hand-picked one by one. These are not normal concert-goers. The symphony’s success has been most scandalously fabricated,” and so on. In vain did I, as director of the Philharmonic, try to convince the rabid official that the public attending the concert had bought tickets at the box office in the normal manner. Yarustovsky, supported by the silent Surin, remained implacable….
[Eventually] the Leningrad District Party Committee… [arranged] a special performance of the symphony for the [bureaucrats]. In my capacity of director of the Philharmonic, I was called up by the local committee responsible for the arts to see a certain Rabinovich, a very decisive, butch lady [that’s an exact quote, by the way]. I can reproduce the following dialogue exactly, as it is imprinted on my memory word for word.
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However, in the interest of what passes for space, I must summarize: Chulaki’s suggested program included the overture and some arias from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla, Tchaikovsky’s Overture, “Francesca da Rimini” and then, after intermission, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Rabinovich, unfortunately, didn’t like it and suggested there too many “symphonies,” saying ‘We need something for the People – and besides, what’s this “Franchyoska”?’ When he explained it was a not-too-long fantasy overture, Comrade Rabinovich told him they could do “both symphonies” on the first half and then conclude with a performance by the Red Army Ensemble. Unfortunately, the latter were on tour and unavailable so she suggested the Moisseyev Dancers and their orchestra of folk instruments, first suggesting that, since they already had an orchestra on stage, why not use the Philharmonic instead of the folk orchestra of balalaikas and shepherd’s flutes? The question of room on stage for the dancers with an orchestra of 105 made no sense to her: “well, put your orchestra in the pit!”
Eventually, the concert was given: Tchaikovsky’s overture and the new 5th Symphony of Shostakovich were given on the very long first half and the Moisseyev Dancers filled the second half, dancing to their own orchestra after all.
To resume Chulaki’s reminiscence:
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Many years later, as fate would have it, Shostakovich and I were being treated at the same [medical] clinic. We recalled that mammoth concert put together for ‘the People’ by the official lady, Rabinovich. Shostakovich told me how he had been walking up and down in a state of agitation in the so-called ‘blue’ foyer outside the hall. There you could hear everything perfectly. Francesca da Rimini was coming to an end and his hour of agony was approaching. [He obviously had reason to be nervous: what if the bureaucrats decided his symphony was not an adequate response to their criticism?] Just as the clapping started, after the end of the so-called ‘Franchyoska,’ the writer X [so identified in Chulaki’s letter], the nicest and kindest of men, and one of the country’s most well-loved and -read writers, came running into the foyer. Throwing himself on Shostakovich’s neck with tears of gratitude in his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘Mitya [the nickname for Dmitri], I always knew that you were able to write beautiful and melodic music!” Shostakovich was so touched by this show of friendship and loyalty that, as he told me laughingly, “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was [by] Tchaikovsky.”
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And these are the people who determined that Shostakovich was a bad composer who needed to be disciplined and nearly drove him to suicide…
- Dick Strawser
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Glikman's and Chulaki's reminiscences, quoted from letters, essays and interviews, are found in Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered, Faber & Faber (London 1994), 2nd Edition, paperback, released in the United States by Princeton University Press in 2006 in time for the Shostakovich Centennial Year.