Monday, September 25, 2006

The Shostakovich Symphonies

Dmitri Shostakovich
09/25/1906 - 08/09/1975

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the 20th Century's greatest composers and the last great symphonist.

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on this day in 1906. Despite showing no initial interest in music, when his mother started him on piano lessons at the age of nine his talent was quickly apparent and he became a child prodigy at both piano performance and musical composition. Nearly 70 years later, Shostakovich left behind a mind-bogglingly enormous oeuvre of music for all arenas.

He's most well known for his fifteen symphonies, many of which are standard repetoire for orchestras around the world, but he also wrote fifteen string quartets (very highly regarded), a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano (also very highly regarded), seven operas, five ballets, multiple concertos, and almost 50 film scores and incidental music for plays.

Throughout his life he worked under the spectre of Stalin, with the threat of persecution and even execution never far away. Shostakovich's relationship with the Soviet regime he lived under defines both his life and his music. As a result, his music veers wildly from the openly "socialist" to the subversively revolutionary.

I won't go into a large biography of Shostakovich here (there's always wikipedia for that), but instead will try to convey why I like his music so much. Primarily, it's emotion. Shostakovich packs more emotion into music than any composer I've ever heard. Several of his contemporaries may have been more technically gifted at composition (Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev), but they rarely reached the level of passion that Shostakovich achieved on such a regular basis. Stravinsky's pieces might have the craftmanship of a swiss watch-maker, but with the exception of his three major ballets (The Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring) his music often comes across as coldly analytical and impersonal. Stravinsky's intellectual music is perfect for the musicologist, Shostakovich's empathic music is better for the audiophile.

In honor of Shostakovich's 100th anniversary, I am going on a brief detour for this page. Instead of reviewing books, I will review all fifteen of his symphonies.

Symphony #1 in f minor, Op. 10 (1925) - Three Stars
Written as a graduation piece (from the Petrograd Conservatory where he was a student), Shostakovich's First Symphony was an instant success. A year after it's first performance in 1926, Shostakovich met conductor Bruno Walter at the Warsaw International Piano Competition. Walter was so impressed with the work that he premiered in in Berlin later in 1927. By 1930, Shostakovich's name was known from New York to London as famous conductors like Walter, Leopold Stokowski, Artur Rodzinski, and Arturo Toscanini performed the First Symphony with the world's best orchestras. The work is still today considered one of Shostakovich's best symphonies by most conductors and critics, and was a personal favorite of Shostakovich.

It is an accomplished work for a nineteen year old, but I'm not as enamored with it as many other Shostakovich fans. The orchestration is very thin, especially in contrast with his later symphonies. But the second movement is a lively scherzo with some virtuoso piano work and the finale is strong.

The piece was dedicated to Shostakovich's friend Misha Kvadri. Setting the tone for much of Shostakovich's life, in 1929 Kvadri was arrested and executed by the NKVD.

Symphony #2 in B-flat Major "To October," Op. 14 (1927)
Symphony #3 in E-flat Major "The First of May," Op. 20 (1929)
- One Star
These two symphonies will always and should be grouped together. They are both experimental works, some of Shostakovich's first major attempts at writing for full orchestra with chorus. They are both short symphonies (20 and 30 minutes, respectively), almost tone poems, played in one movement (Symphony #3 is technically in four movements with no breaks in between, but I have yet to find a recording that breaks the work down into multiple tracks). They are also quite unsuccessful, and Shostakovich himself expressed dissatisfaction with them. These "proletariat" symphonies dealing with the Russian Revolution are not abominable, merely completely forgettable.

Symphony #4 in c minor, Op. 43 (1936) - Four Stars
In the early 1930s, close friend Ivan Sollertinsky introduced Shostakovich to the symphonies of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Mahler's works would go on to have tremendous influence on Shostakovich, and with Symphony #4 the "old" Shostakovich disappears for good.

Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony is only three movements, but the first and third movements are both nearly a half-hour in length and the entire piece runs close to 70 minutes (second only to Symphony #7 in terms of length). The work is a juggernaut in every way, shape and form. Shostakovich requires an immense orchestra of over 100 musicians for this work, and the technical and emotional demands of the music are extreme. Partially because of this, the work is among his least-performed scores, but there are other reasons, too.

1936 was the beginning of Stalin's "Great Terror," and over the course of the next decade and a half millions of Russians would be imprisoned, enslaved, tortured and/or killed by the government (including several of Shostakovich's close friends and relatives). Shostakovich, as an artist, was one of the first targets: Pravda issued a scathing condemnation of his heretofore successful opera "Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District," and, rightfully fearing for his life, Shostakovich pulled "Lady MacBeth" off the stage. As a result of this "First Denunciation," commissions began to dry up and Shostakovich's income dropped 75%. Realizing the Germanic-influenced Symphony #4 would be catastrophic in the present political climate, Shostakovich withdrew that, too, from rehearsals, and the symphony would not be premiered for another 25 years.

From the severe, almost march-like opening, to the whirlwind string figures in the middle of the first movement, to the solemn processional at the start of the third movement, Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony has a bunch of his greatest musical highlights.

Symphony #5 in d minor, Op. 47 (1937) - Five Stars
Shostakovich's magnum opus, and very possibly the greatest symphony of the 20th Century, was his Fifth Symphony. Accused of being "too formalist" but Stalin's regime, and quite literally facing exile or execution, Shostakovich presented this multi-layered masterwork, traditional and conformist on the surface, heartbroken and subversive underneath.

The approximately 45-minute work was composed quickly, in only four months in the middle of 1937, and is structure in the most traditional symphonic format there is: four movements, with an introduction of themes, a slow movement, a lively scherzo, and a grand finale. That Shostakovich switched the placements of the scherzo and the slow movement, so that the lively, happy scherzo came second and the dark, sad, slow movement came third, is only one of his tricks.

Throughout the whole symphony one gets an atmosphere of almost crushing despair. Despite supposedly being a redeeming, traditionalist, optimistic work, the piece is largely dark and sombre, even while being active and loud. The first movement foreshadows numerous horror movie film scores from the 70s and 80s. The second movement, the "lively" scherzo, is still rendered somewhat grim by way of the melody centering on the bassoon and lower strings. The third movement, what close friend and famed conductor Mstislav Rostropovich calls "the central movement to the entire symphony," is a soft, anguished piece of writing that barely utilizes half the orchestra. The finale, possibly the most famous section, starts of with a blaze of brass and strings, but the supposedly "triumphant" finale contains a lot of hidden messages. Sometimes criticized as being "shrill," the finale is in fact intentionally, mockingly shrill: a send-up of the so-called "triumphant" finale that sits on the surface of the music. The upper voices repeat an ostinato eighth-note pattern to the point of absurdity, and while the brass blazes away in the key of D Major, the other winds (very UN-triumphantly) modulate away to the keys of g and b-flat minor.

The finale also includes a musical quotation from the composer's song "Rebirth," accompanying the words "a barbarian painter" who "blackens the genius's painting". In the song, the barbarian's paint falls away and the original painting is reborn. It has been suggested that the barbarian and the genius are Stalin and Shostakovich respectively.

The premiere of Symphony #5 (11/21/37) was a colossal success. (The standing ovation lasted nearly an hour—longer than the symphony itself!) The establishment subtitled the work "the creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism" and hailed the finale as a celebration of Socialist Realism (and thus missing the point entirely: Shostakovich himself would go on to state that the Fifth's finale was "as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing...'"). With the regime's approval, Shostakovich was once again hailed as one of the foremost Soviet artists.

The piece is nearly flawless, with nary a misplaced note. Every minute of every movement is eminently listenable, with too many "highlights" to note here. Any and every fan of classical music should have a recording of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in their CD library (look for one conducted by Rostropovich).

Symphony #6 in b minor, Op. 54 (1939) - Two Stars
This symphony provides a perfect example of what Shostakovich did his entire life: he toed the party line when he could, buying political capital with works like Symphony #5, then would immediately turn around and spend that capital by writing unpopular works (unpopular with the regime, if not the populace) often critical of the Soviet government. Symphony #5 bought the capital spent on #6, the success of #7 allowed him to ignore government expectations for symphonies #8 and #9, the very Soviet #12 was followed by the hugely condemned #13, etc.

The Sixth Symphony premiered on 11/21/39, exactly two years after the première of the Symphony No. 5. The premiere was a success, and the finale was encored (Shostakovich: "It's the first time I ever wrote such a successful finale. I think even the most fastidious critic won't have anything to pick at."), but it received little notice from Stalin's campaign and would later be roundly criticized.

The Sixth Symphony, like the Fourth, is set in three movements. Shostakovich takes the unusual step of leading off the symphony with a long and extended slow movement. This is followed by an unimaginative scherzo. The only real success in the work is the finale, described by the composer as a "full-blooded and debauched music-hall galop." This movement is the highlight of the work; Shostakovich would later state that it was a parody of Socialist bureaucracy.

Symphony #7 in C Major "Leningrad," Op. 60 (1941) - Four Stars
Where exactly is Shostakovich's Symphony #7's place in history? Contrary to American composer Virgil Thomson's criticism that "It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted," I feel the symphony is wonderfully musical and contains some of Shostakovich's best themes. Indeed, Thomson's criticism makes little sense: at over 70 minutes long, far from being for "the distracted," the symphony is fairly demanding of the listener (the first movement, at nearly a half-hour in length, is nearly as long as Shostakovich's Third Symphony in its entirety).

While having a very complicated relationship with Stalin's regime, Shostakovich *was* a through and through Russian patriot. When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941 Shostakovich rushed out to enlist. Due to poor eyesight and a history of health problems he was rejected; undaunted, he signed up with the Leningrad Fire Brigade (a rendering of Shostakovich in his fire brigade uniform was the cover of the July 20th, 1942 issue of Time magazine. Shostakovich had started work on the Symphony the year before (contrary to the initial proclamation by the Soviet government), but revised and completed the first two movements while trapped in the Siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. He then completed the third movement only two days before he and his family were evacuated from the city to Moscow. Less than a month later Shostakovich fled even further, to Samara, where the symphony was completed two days after Christmas in 1941. Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to the city still under siege.

After the Seventh's premiere in March of 1942, Soviet agents copied the score to microfilm, flew it to Teheran and turned it over to British agents, and from there the score made its way to London and New York. The symphony received its broadcast premiere in Europe by Henry Wood and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on June 22, 1942 in London, and an American premiere on July 19, 1942, by New York's NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini in a studio concert that was broadcast nationwide. The symphony was a tremendous success around the world, and was seen as a shining example of the Russian spirit holding off the Nazi horde.

The Leningrad premiere was given on August 9, 1942 by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra (the only symphony orchestra remaining in Leningrad) under Karl Eliasberg. The city was still blockaded at that time, so the score was flown in secretly one night in early July for rehearsal, and a team of copyists worked around the clock to prepare the instrumental parts despite shortages of ink and paper. Members of the orchestra were given special rations to help them through the concert and extra players were drafted in to replace those fighting, evacuated or dead. At the concert, loudspeakers broadcast the performance throughout the city and, in psychological warfare, to the besieging German forces, who had been bombarded in advance by artillery to ensure their silence during the performance of the symphony.

The symphony is most famous for the Invasion Theme of the first movement: a lyrical, 18-bar march that is repeated twelve times, and lasts over ten minutes. The melody never changes; in a manner similar to Ravel's Bolero the music slowly grows louder and progresses from serenity to aggressiveness based solely on changing instrumentation. The theme was widely thought to represent the Nazi invaders, and it did... but in another one of Shostakovich's multiple-meanings, the melody is a variation of a Russian folk-song, and also represents the increasing aggression against the Russian people by Stalin's regime.

In the years immediately following WWII the symphony fell out of favor in the West, as it was soon interpreted as an overt piece of Soviet propaganda. But the symphony has regained popularity in the past 15-20 years (it's not coincidental, I feel, that as soon as the Cold War ended it became an "acceptable" work again), as the wonderful thematic material and the grandiose ending have appealed to symphony orchestras around the world. Highly recommended, but avoid recordings under 70 minutes (too rushed) or over 80 (too drawn out).

Symphony #8 in c minor, Op. 65 (1943) - Four Stars
By 1943, the tide had started to turn. The Soviets had just scored a decisive victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, and that bloodiest battle in human history would be the first big wound in the downfall of the Third Reich. The Allies were starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Not Shostakovich. He takes the patriotic optimism of the Seventh Symphony and drops it a half-step, and the resulting Eighth Symphony in c minor is an overwhelmingly bleak outlook on the nature of war and the Soviet state. Shostakovich was aware that the regime would be expecting another patriotic, uplifting juggernaut, and anticipated their criticism with heavy sarcasm: "The freedom-loving Peoples will at long last throw off the yoke of Hitlerism, and peace will reign throughout the world under the sunny rays of Stalin's Constitution." The government initially gave no response to the work, being too busy with the war, one can assume, but the Symphony was later banned after the second denunciation of Shostakovich in 1948.

The Eighth Symphony is very much the darkness to the Seventh's light. The Eighth is also a tremendously long symphony (over an hour), and it too begins with an extended opening movement of nearly a half-hour in length. The Eighth has five movements instead of four (though the last two movements are basically one movement that has been split-up), and what interesting movements they are. After the extended, tragic opener that seems to memorialize the war's dead, the second movement is a grim, heavy-handed scherzo: a dance that seems to be intentionally dark and trying to put forth an "act" of happiness. The third movement is a strange toccata: set in cut-time, the movement begins with three minutes of non-stop quarter notes, a kind of perpetual motion rhythm-melody combo that gets passed from the strings to the low brass. This perpetual motion figure ends in another up-tempo dance section, and while in a lighter mood than the second movement there's still something phony or hollow to the joy.

The last two movements slide back down to the pessimistic outlook, and the finale of the symphony (a soft, detached flute melody over subdued strings) clearly communicates Shostakovich's verdict on the war: everybody loses.

Symphony #9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70 (1945) - Two Stars
World War II was over, and the world was in celebration. Based on the vast, dramatic scale of his previous symphonies, the public (and, it should be noted, Stalin's government) expected a grand ode to victory, a celebratory work like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (even the numbering was perfect!). Indeed, in late 1944 when victory was becoming obvious, Shostakovich declared, "Undoubtedly like every Soviet artist, I harbor the tremulous dream of a large-scale work in which the overpowering feelings ruling us today would find expression. I think the epigraph to all our work in the coming years will be the single word 'Victory'." As late as April 1945, Shostakovich was working on a large-scale symphony for full orchestra and chorus. But then Shostakovich pulled a bait and switch. Without telling anybody, he scrapped his large scale idea and started over, and by the end of the summer he had finished a Ninth Symphony that no one saw coming.

The Ninth is in five short movements (not even totalling 30 minutes all together) for a very subdued orchestra (and no chorus). All of the symphony's music is light, playful, and classical period in nature (earning comparisons to Mozart and Haydn in nature and inspiration), very unlike much of Shostakovich's other music. His peers generally approved of the work and admired the composer's ingenuity, but critics lambasted the work both in the Soviet Union (Soviet critics censured the symphony for its "ideological weakness" and its failure to "reflect the true spirit of the people of the Soviet Union") and in the West ("The Russian composer should not have expressed his feelings about the defeat of Nazism in such a childish manner" -- New York World-Telegram, 27 July 1946). After the second denunciation of 1948, the Ninth Symphony was banned and Shostakovich was forced to submit a retraction and apologize for its creation.

I respect the genius of the work (ironically, what could possibly more fitting for celebrating the end of WWII than a light-hearted, jovial dose of pure musical relief?), but at the same time the symphony holds little to interest me. I'm not a fan of the 18th Century classical style that Shostakovich emulates here, and the lack of dramatic contrast in the work leads my mind to wandering.

Symphony #10 in e minor, Op. 93 (1953) - Five Stars
Symphony #5 might be Shostakovich's *best* work, but the Tenth is by far my favorite.

After the second denunciation of 1948, Shostakovich kept a low profile to avoid drawing the ire of Stalin. In March of 1953 Stalin died, and Shostakovich immediately assembled some previously composed sketches and began working on his first major symphonic work in five years. Composition progressed quickly, and the symphony was premiered shortly before Christmas and was a huge success (in this, the Tenth somewhat parallels the Fifth's huge success after the first denunciation of 1936).

The symphony is intensely personal: the long, solemn first movement is Shostakovich's interpretation of life under Stalin. What follows is one of Shostakovich's most unique creations: a high-speed, violent scherzo movement that has the orchestra practically bursting at the seams, supposedly a portrait of Stalin himself.

The third movement is a waltzy nocturne that contains coded notation to Elmira Nazirova, a student of his that Shostakovich developed a crush on (while he was married three times, Shostakovich was prone to infatuations and crushes). The Elmira motif is called out twelve times on the horn, and always seems distant and unattainable.

The fourth movement is for Shostakovich himself: his DSCH theme [his initials, corresponding to notes in Germanic notation: D, Ess (E flat), C and H (B)] keeps prominently appearing the finale. The Stalin theme returns from the second movement and is overcome by the DSCH theme, which is repeated with increasing excitement towards the end of the symphony, one of the liveliest and most exciting finishes I've ever heard. Not a lot of hidden messages here: Stalin's dead, Shostakovich lives. He has survived.

Symphony #11 in g minor "The Year 1905," Op. 93 (1957) - Four Stars
More multi-layed ambiguity from Shostakovich: supposedly a historical portrait of the first Russian Revolution of 1905, the work was composed immediately after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 that had been ruthlessly crushed by Soviet forces, and most close acquaintances of Shostakovich have stated that current events had more than a little importance in interpreting the work.

Another massive symphony of nearly 70 minutes, the work was blasted in the West as "overblown film music without a film," but was praised by the Soviet government (once again, missing the message beneath the music) and was awarded a Lenin prize.

I like the work, and while "film music" it may be, film music can still be very engaging. From the cold Russian winter of the first movement to the march of the Palace Square and the troops firing on the crowd in the second; from the funeral lament of the third to the decalamatory aggression of the revolution in the finale, the Eleventh is extremely listenable. While it never really approaches greatness, it is solidly above average throughout, a tremendously difficult achievement when you're putting forth over an hour's worth of music.

Symphony #12 in d minor "The Year 1917," Op. 112 (1961) - Three Stars
In 1960, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party. Shostakovich's relationship with the Soviet government has always been difficult to figure out, and this act only deepens the puzzle. Was it commitment? Cowardice? Or even political extortion? On one hand, the government was far less strict than it had been under Stalin, and Shostakovich was riding one of his "popular" waves with the powers that be after Symphony #11. Then again, son Maxim recalled that the event reduced Shostakovich to tears, close friend Lev Lebedinsky was concerned that he was suicidal after the event, and Shostakovich himself later confided to third wife Irina Supinskaya that he had been blackmailed. (All of this is consistent with Shostakovich's personality: one friend remarked that he was "completely incapable of saying 'No' to anybody.")

Symphony #12 was more political capital, written to celebrate the second Russian revolution. It is widely considered to be a pandering work below Shostakovich's usual standards (which it is), but it is not wholly without redemption: a terrifically original third movement is the highlight of the piece, and there's some wonderful music in the finale (though it goes on and on and on; Shostakovich uses about six "false" codas and seems unsure of how exactly to end the piece). I like listening to the last two movements quite regularly, and as a result don't find the piece to be as repugnant as many critics, but it's a "low" three star rating, and by no means one of Shostakovich's best works.

Symphony #13 in b-flat minor "Babi Yar," Op. 113 (1962) - Three Stars
The close proximity of Symphonies #12 and #13 (composed back to back) make me wonder if the pandering Twelfth wasn't wholly intentional, because Symphony #13 was possibly the most controversial thing Shostakovich ever composed.

Based of off five poems by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that are highly critical of the Soviet government and deal with anti-semitism, oppressive regimes, and xenophobia, the symphony is dark and severe (written for full orchestra, bass chorus and bass soloist). The subtitle of the work, "Babi Yar," is also the name of the first poem/movement, and refers to a ravine outside of Kiev where Nazi's mass executed 34,000 Jews during their invasion of Russia in WWII.

Even during the relatively calm censorship phase in post-Stalinist Soviet Union, this work provoked a strong antagonistic response from the government. Khrushchev himself criticized the work and threatened to stop the premiere. The work also led to a permanent rift between Shostakovich and conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky (who had premiered Shostakovich's Symphonies #5, #6, #8, #9, #10 and #12) who flatly refused to conduct the controversial piece.

The piece has retained popularity today as it is one of the finest works for bass soloist in the classical repertoire. The first movement has a gripping beginning and some of Shostakovich's best writing, and the conclusion of the work (a jewish folk-song on strings fading off to solemn notes on the bells) is heart-breaking, but the middle three movements are merely average.

Symphony #14, Op. 135 (1969) - Two Stars
Never exceptionally hale, Shostakovich had numerous health problems towards the end of his life. In 1958 he began having pains in his right hand that eventually forced him to quit playing piano (eventually diagnosed as polio), suffered several falls in which he broke both legs, and had heart attacks in 1966 and 1971 (this was complicated by his very Russian vices, cigarettes and vodka, of which he partook liberally all his life). As a result, many of his later works are exceptionally preoccupied with death and human mortality [though he did maintain his dry sense of humor, writing in a letter: "Target achieved so far: 75% (right leg broken, left leg broken, right hand defective. All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.)"].

Symphony #14 was one of his most death-centric works: based off of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Kuchelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke that deal with death (specifically unjust or premature death). The composer himself was initially unsure what to call the work, eventually designating it a symphony rather than a song cycle to emphasise the unity of the work musically and philosophically (he rejected the title oratorio because the work lacks a chorus). The symphony is scored for an awkward Frankenstein's monster sort of chamber orchestra: soprano and bass soloists, ten violins, four violas, three cellos, two double basses, no brass or woodwinds, and a large percussion section that includes parts for wood block, castanets, whip, tri-toms, xylophone, campane, vibraphone and celesta (but, oddly, not common percussion instruments like bass drum, timpani, or cymbals).

Reviews were mixed: some criticized the work as overly pessimistic, another argued that "through careful ordering of the texts [he] conveys a specific message of protest at the arbitrary power exercised by dictators in sending the innocent to their deaths." I find the work unique in structure, but only two or three of the eleven poems are set to music that really thrills me (Mvt. II, "Malaguena" by Federico Garcia Lorca, is the best).

Symphony #15 in A Major, Op. 141 (1971) - Four Stars
What to make of Shostakovich's last symphony? It's a large work (45 minutes) but was composed in only one month. It's scored for a large orchestra which is then used sparingly, with each section only playing bits and pieces. Shostakovich listed it as being in A Major (a "happy" key signature), but the work doesn't sniff A Major until the fourth movement (the first three are in minor key signatures) and seems overwhelmingly resigned and has several immensely tragic passages.

Shostakovich was very fond of parody and musical quotation, and Symphony #15 is rife with them. Rossini ("William Tell Overture"), Wagner (fate motif from The Ring Cylce), Glinka, Mahler, and Shostakovich's own earlier works are all quoted, twisted and sent-up in the symphony (Shostakovich: "I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them"). In a way, this is the summation of Shostakovich's musical life: all he wrote and was inspired by. But it also seems to be a last frustrated cry against the Soviet regime that gave him so much grief his whole life long.

The symphony ends with one of the most unusual finishes of any work I've heard: a ghostly coda on a sustained pedal point in the strings beneath a bizarre storm of percussion: snare drum, castanets, triangle, wood block, xylophone and timpani. The symphony ends with the bells and celesta playing a single sustained mediant (C#, the middle note of the A-major chord).

How to interpret the ending? Peaceful? Resigned? Defeated?

Another multi-layered enigma from a composer who had a life full of creating them.

Symphony #5 (1937)
Symphony #10 (1953)

Symphony #4 (1936)
Symphony #7 (1941)
Symphony #8 (1943)
Symphony #11 (1957)
Symphony #15 (1971)

Symphony #1 (1925)
Symphony #12 (1961)
Symphony #13 (1962)

Symphony #6 (1939)
Symphony #9 (1945)
Symphony #14 (1969)

Symphony #2 (1927)
Symphony #3 (1929)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How could you be so deaf to the scherzo of the sixth symphony? I think it is one of the best things that he, or anyone else, ever wrote.

Jan 28, 2009, 4:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, I enjoyed your comments, especially after listening to the ne Guriev CD of the 15th symphony. Yes, I do not quite understand it. I have listened to it for over 20 years and all I can think is dying in a society that has supported you but you hate must leave you wondering of what importance your creations have.

Sep 25, 2009, 8:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike C said...

Thanks for the comments about the 5th Symphony. It's hard to get one's head around the fact that his survival hung on the reception of this work - and that (as a lot of people understand it) the work combines a successful (that is, acceptable to the Stalinists) approach with a cry of grief that expresses the sorrow of the people at the purges and executions. Imagine any instrumental work being received with an hour-long standing ovation today.

Apr 27, 2010, 2:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reviews. For the darker souls like me, the finale of Symphony No. 4 and the Symphony No. 15 are the holy grail. Melodies in #15/4 just remind me of the melodies in #1 Lento. Which needs a special mentioning IMO. Sad samewhat, but is has this warbling uncomfortability represented by the strings. This IS Shostakovich.

From my experience many highly praise #8 as well. As I do. The Largo! What a lament!

Shostakovich is the man.

Nov 12, 2010, 6:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be very wrong to agree with your low assessment of #9. This is a great work. Also, #11 is definitely 5 star material. #10 is generally overrated. #11 is definitely S's best work.

Mar 1, 2011, 10:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...






Mar 22, 2011, 7:28:00 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Compared with the author, I would rank the 5th, 11th and 12th lower, and the 4th, 8th, 1st, and 9th higher. The author overrates the 5th. A great work, yes, but also an artistic compromise and a capitulation to the banal musical tastes of the communist music critics. The first stands apart. It is the most original "first" symphony ever written, with the possible exception of the Mahler first. The 4th is striking, explores new territory, artistically daring, fascinating. The 8th brings tears to my eyes and brings to mind the horrors suffered by the people of the "bloodlands", the territories occupied by the Nazis. The 8th speaks for these people like no other music, a work of deep humanity, like the 10th. The 13th and 14th, also works of deep humanity. The 9th is a flawless "anti-ninth"; Shostakovich in the role of the holy fool. The 7th, 11th, 12th border on empty bombast in places for my taste. So my ranking: ***** 1,4,8,10; **** 6,13,9; *** 5,14,15;** 7,11,12;* 2,3.

Sep 22, 2011, 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Mahler said...

Hey man - thanks for the reviews. But S4 and S6 definitely should be 5 stars, no questions asked! Also S1, S2, and S3 are way too low - maybe not 5 stars but at least 3 or 4. I would also easily give the Babi Yar a solid 5.

Oct 16, 2011, 6:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two stars for no.14? Shostakovich himself said that everything he had written before was preparation for this work. It's a highly emotional composition; words and music must be taken together. Four stars at least.

Nov 16, 2011, 5:53:00 AM  
Blogger Mingy Jongo said...

Great blog post! IMO, the 15th is Shostakovich's best, followed by the 5th and 10th. The 1st, 6th, and 8th are masterpieces in my book as well.

Dec 2, 2011, 8:31:00 PM  
Anonymous BloodyGus said...

Shostakovich went through the whole gamut of emotions - sorrow, rage, mourning, bitterness, triumph, pity, irony, nose-thumbing, scorn, resignation - scattered throughout his symphonies, all shifting from one to another abruptly and quirkily, which makes his works so fascinating and compelling. No doubt they attract different listeners in different ways: it's striking to see the different reactions and preferences expressed on this absorbing blog. But star ratings for symphonies? Would you do the same for Beethoven? Perhaps DM's very diversity warrants it. I myself would upstar the 9th and 14th, and downstar the 10th, which to me is a rewritten 5th. Incidentally I would like to plug the recent cycle recorded by Vasily Petrenko with the Liverpool Phil: and the Kurt Sanderling 15th is a wow, a snip of a download from Amazon for $4.

Nov 4, 2012, 2:42:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

Shostakovich's last symphony has been generally regarded as enigmatic and too mystifying to understand by most reviewers, they wonder what on earth he is on about, with all those quotes of William Tell etc. They needn't be so mystified. This is a symphony looking back on life. You can imagine grand-dad cracking walnuts at Christmas, reminiscing on all that has passed in a harrowing lifetime. He has got over his grim realisation of death in his 14th symphony, and he is now moving into a period of relative peace and reflection, with a calm acknowledgement of the approaching end of life. There are few agonising outcries of grief and pain, as are manifest in many of his war symphonies: just one huge pedal point in C major in the last movement. But it calms down to gentle string harmony. The third movement is most affecting - it reminds me of a music shop I went to in Budapest, where in the basement there are so many instruments which customers can try out for themselves - guiaras, woodblocks, Chinese bells, xylophones, jews' harps, ukeleles and many more. Shostakovich wrote this movement for his grandchildren: and it is with such that he leaves us at the end of the last movement of his otherwise enigmatic last symphony, with bells, and woodblocks, and chimes. A most beautiful end to an essentially compassionate man's life. I must say this is all brought out to me by Kurt Sanderling's sympathetic interpretation and accomplished performance of this evocative symphony.

Dec 10, 2012, 9:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank God that there is something, indeed PLENTY for every varied taste among those so indebted to this great master whose heart's blood is made audible in most of these works. And how perceptions do differ! Some listeners and performers hear the great fourth symphony as tragic but to me it sounds like a convoluted, fantastical winter's tale, told to wide eyed children seated around hearth or campfire. And the fifteenth? Well, it does it no harm to suppose that it IS Shostakovich's own reaction to what Mahler brooded over during his final symphonies. I prefer D.M.'s apparent quizzical, dispassionate view of Life ending.

I'd like to put in a plug for his ninth, if only for that great adagio (I dont really know what D.S. labeled it as)which is so unlike any symphony slow movement that I ever heard. It can be imagined to be an unconscious paraphrase of the eerie final sea interlude** from his friend Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes but I dont actually suspect any connection: kindly indulge me as I say that this richly atmospheric 'night music' is stranglely dear to me, bringing to mind a childhood memory (opening our back door, well before first light during a late winter thaw to the melancholy sight of disappearing snow cover and no sound but the drip, drip, drip from the eves. I could go on but it's just another man's reminiscence. ). And for me, the tenth (first movement)is almost matchlessly affecting and beautiful, giving voice to an anger that verges on tears. I particularly give ear to that 19 note utterance that is intoned twice at the end of the 1st movement's first climax and twice after the final climax. And there seems nothing wrong with the sixth but it DOES greatly benifit when rendered by dedicated and brilliant performers (See if you can find the Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Stokowsky reading somewhere. What a spellbinder that one is thanks in part to the great flutist, Donald Peck's rendering of those trancelike cadenzas in the first movement. There is nothing short of full commitment and deeply meaningful passage work from all who took part [including Still, Elliot, Schiltz, Kujala, Herseth, Clevenger, the low brass, the entire orchestra! Clarinet players, take note: is the opening of the scherzo the sound of an unusually rounded and warm e flat clarinet {the great Jerry Stowell, as the score has it} or is it a Stokowsky switcheroo featuring unusually felicitous high range rendering on B flat or A {the great Clark Brody}?]).
Well, I could go on about my love for the eighth and (even) the seventh and my satieated fatigue with the fifth but it's only one man's opinion.
**(YOU know the one: deep night, fog rolling in from the sea front, sullen drone of a fog horn, distant shouts of enraged borough inhabitants scouring the countryside, determined to make an end of Grimes - THAT one!)

Jan 31, 2013, 5:19:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was interested in your commented re the relative delights of the 5th and 10th symphonies. In the 60s when I first got into Shostakovich it was always the 10th symphony that musicologists praised but the public always preferred the fifth. I must admit I am with the public here. The fifth symphony has everything: pathos, humour, tension... To my mind the 10th symphony is just a drag and one big disappointment from beginning to end. This shows the subjectivity of this topic. I am delighted that we differ and I enjoyed reading your comments on the other symphonies - but I must admit that I did not by any means always agree with you - like as well with the sixth symphony which I think is fantastic - schizophrenic, perhaps, but that's Shostakovich's beauty for you. All the best to you.

Mar 22, 2013, 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Jean Schmid said...

Je suis choqué de votre mauvaise appréciation du largo introductif de la sixième symphonie, un des plus beaux mouvements symphoniques que je connaisse.

Jean Schmid

Nov 7, 2013, 11:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vous dites en effet que "The only real success" de cette symphonie serait le finale (en effet extraordinaire) suggérant que le largo introductif ne serait donc pas "a success"...

Nov 7, 2013, 11:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

The Twelfth assessed higher than the Sixth and Ninth? Beyond belief. The conventional wisdom is that the Twelfth is Shostakovich's worst, and although the conventional wisdom can't always be trusted, here it's on target. I love the Sixth and Ninth-they are unconventional, intriguing and good-natured, and find this rating most unfortunate.

Sep 22, 2014, 6:17:00 PM  
Blogger paulsp2 said...

Thanks for your interesting assessment of the symphonies. Of course we can all differ on our preferences but I'm puzzled by your downgrading of No.6. This was one of the first symphonies of Shostakovich that I got to know and it lead me to investigate the others. I still think it is one of his best, without question a 5 star rating from me. Also 5 stars for No. 15, has there ever been a more extraordinary ending to any composition? I doubt it.

Jan 3, 2016, 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shostakovich... My favourite composer. My favourite symphonies would have to be 5, 10 and especially 7. I had to laugh at guy that wrote it was for the dim-witted, the not very musical and the easily distracted, because to be perfectly honest that is a pretty damn accurate description of me. Oh well!

Feb 16, 2016, 3:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jon Schneider
It might never have occurred to me had I not read something on-line to the following effect, but the finale of the 15th seems to be about the prospect of death itself. There is what I would call a "not unpleasant" and "in no way threatening" air of mystery in that very long high pedal which accompanies the sotto voce chatter within the percussion choir(The sparkle of the bell stroke at the very end is a rather comforting and optimistic touch.). Whereas Mahler's 9th seems to end as to a surrender to oblivion, DS seems to stand at the veiled frontier, trying to penetrate the mystery,even as he seems to keep an anxious grip on significant artifacts of his life's work (the "invasion theme" from Symphony no 7 sounded by tympani, the tick tock set of quavers that ends the middle movement of his Mahlerian 4th Symphony.). At the hour of my own death, I think I would rather hear the closing strains of this work than of those of Mahlers final 3.

Apr 14, 2016, 1:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Don said...

Thank you SO much for your symphony introductions. I just bought the heavenly blu-Ray set by Gergiev on Arthaus of the complete symphonies and I'm totally excited over the performances, audio, camera angles, and conducting but overwhelmed by the quantity. Your introductions have helped me organize and get my head around this Shostakovich Nirvana Blu-Ray set.

Sep 26, 2016, 1:08:00 PM  

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