The Shostakovich Symphonies

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The Shostakovich Symphonies are a maddeningly mixed bag, ranging from experimental to conservative, sublime to bombastic, and, most oddly, magnificent to awful. A quick run-down: the mercurial, Petrushka-haunted First, written in 1925, is one of the great works of any teenage composer, but the Second and Third are just weird, for the most part eschewing melody or any sense of movement and exploring what he called “geometric” composition.

Then, with the Fourth he finds his voice in a garish but mighty juggernaut of malevolence, beauty and dark humor, which finally gives way to something that sounds like death itself. This was 1936. As the fourth was being written, Pravda published an editorial entitled “Chaos Instead of Music” which condemned Shostakovich for writing “formalist” music, a term which combined all the things Stalin didn’t like, such as intellectualism, abstraction, complexity, Western influence, lack of obvious tunes and downer endings. As the premiere approached, the symphony was withdrawn and was not performed until 1961.

The Fifth is the famous “Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism,” surely an ironic title but a defining moment for the composer. He managed to write a work that pleased the Kremlin with swagger, big tunes and a thundering conclusion, but which somehow communicated something different to his real audience. They heard an act of defiance, a manifesto of individual resolve rather than a paean to the state. This ability to write between the lines may have kept the composer alive, and it has kept listeners on the alert for carefully mixed messages ever since.

The Sixth opens with a big dark and scary slow movement, but follows with a bright little scherzo and closes with a wacky gallop. The Seventh could be considered a haunting reflection of loss and stillness in wartime, save for the fact that the first movement is hijacked by the notorious “Nazi invasion” episode in which a thematic mashup of Lehar, Shostakovich and Deutschland Uber Alles is flogged to death with increasing volume and constant snare drum accompaniment for about fifteen minutes. 

Thank God for the Eighth, unequivocally great, thrilling, dark and seemingly tragic, but with an unexpected, breathtaking reprieve at the end. The Ninth is all mirth, an almost Haydnesque little number, so high in spirits that it once again aroused Stalin’s suspicions. The Tenth is the first post-Stalin symphony, and it’s a great one, big and brooding, with an insanely violent scherzo that the composer quipped was “Stalin in music.” Ah, but now it gets tricky again.

The Eleventh’s ghostly atmosphere drifts around for most of an hour before it erupts into a stirringly bombastic depiction of an uprising crushed by Czarist troops in 1905. But while that is a guilty pleasure, it’s impossible for me to enjoy the Twelfth at all. Shostakovich was fully able to turn in hack work, as he did in countless scores for forgotten Soviet films, but this is the only case of him doing it in a symphony.

The Thirteenth is another thematic work, but with a radical difference. Rather than extol the Soviet Union, it criticizes it through settings of the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. His “Babi Yar,” a rumination on the murder of a hundred thousand Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis, is the centerpiece for this grim song cycle of Russian life. Stalin would have at least jailed Shostakovich for writing it, but Khrushchev only demanded new lyrics mentioning that non-Jewish Soviets suffered, too. The Fourteenth is also a dark song cycle, with eleven texts by Lorca, Rilke, Apollinaire and Kuchelbecker (no, I haven’t heard of him, either) set for bass and soprano with a string ensemble, perhaps the most unusual and austere of the symphonies.

And that brings us to the Fifteenth and last. It comes and goes lightly, has much of an antic air about it, but it’s mixed with ominous foreboding, allusions to Wagner and Rossini, self quotes and sudden catharsis. The tick-tock ending is right in line with the unwindings of the Fourth and Eighth Symphonies, as well as the great Second Cello Concerto. A lot of commentators over the years have been baffled by this, but it seems clear to me that Shostakovich laid out a little diorama of himself, his wit and bombast, his suffering and imminent death, and left it for us like a calling card. As a Russian friend of mine said “it’s as if he’s melting in front of us.”

Phil Kline's survey of the Shostakovich Symphonies can be heard all this week during his show – weekdays from 11 am to 1 pm on Q2 Music.